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April 17, 1997updated 05 Sep 2016 12:15pm

SYBASE: WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA OBJECT-RELATIONAL?

By CBR Staff Writer

When is a next-generation object-relational strategy not a next- generation object-relational strategy? Easy – when it’s from battered $1.12bn relational database giant Sybase Inc; then it becomes a ‘component’ next-generation strategy. At last week’s International Sybase User Group conference in Orlando, Florida the occasion described by Sybase’s president and chief executive these past three quarters, Mitchell Kertzman, as the ‘relaunch’ of the corporation, all Sybase’s executive management team seemed to take extreme pains to stress component, component, component, and not the database approach that apparently dare not speak its name, object-relational.

By Gary Flood

Not that one should be that surprised to note Sybase’s squeamishness regarding the ‘o’ word. Indeed, for those of us who have tracked Sybase for most of the past decade, there was even a gloriously nostalgic moment when Sybase’s co-founder, executive vice president and chief information officer, Bob Epstein, found himself unable to resist the temptation to dismiss objects in his keynote as inferior to components because, er, you have to have class libraries with objects. Which is Bad. For Sybase, the company that can probably rightly claim to have started the client-server revolution in the late 1980s, up until very recently has always validated the relational-SQL based approach as superior to either pure-play object or even hybrid object- relational. But time moves on. As does the market, for like it or not in the late 1990s you can’t be a serious database player, Microsoft Corp aside, without some kind of next-generation object-relational message. Informix Corp and Oracle Corp talk of Universal Servers, database engines that can equally support both relational and object/specialized data type structures; IBM Corp has something similar; Computer Associates Inc has even gone so far as to say it has dabbled with object- relational hybrid databases and decided that only pure objects will do. Informix and Oracle and IBM have product out, or nearly out – Sybase, object nay-sayers so far, has not.

Financial meltdown

However, Sybase is a company that has been in some sort of trouble in perception terms since mid 1994 through the final financial melt-down of last year which led to Kertzman’s ascendancy. Nine months in – with its first quarter results due Thursday – Kertzman feels able to say that Sybase is back on track financially, and can now talk of future product directions with some credibility. And despite Epstein’s haughtiness, in those turbulent three years Sybase did flirt with objects. Indeed, by ousted chief executive Mark Hoffman’s account it burnt somewhere between $20m and $30m on the radical stuff – with only crashed and burned project names like Lego, Brahms, Build Momentum and Enterprise Momentum to show for it. Out the other side of all that we have Adaptive Server (CI No 3,135), which is all about, yes, components. The vision derives from the model that ‘components’ – in the sense of the object-like building blocks desktop tools like Microsoft Visual Basic or Powerbuilder provide, supported by Microsoft’s ActiveX proprietary standard and in somewhat of a stretch, the Object Management Group’s Common Object Request Broker Architecture, a standard that surely applies more to non-diet classical objects – have become the paradigm de jour. Then this applecart was somewhat upset by the Java tsunami, with Java now being seen as a Rapid Application Development, RAD, language and JavaBeans as the new component model. So standard components that are based on ActiveX, JavaBeans or Corba will run happily within the new Sybase architecture. Note that Sybase’s hot new Jaguar Component Transaction Server, (CI No 3,130) its recently announced mid-tier execution component, also supports C and C++ native objects. This approach is claimed to be superior to the whole Universal Server trend since it avoids the need for proprietary application programming interfaces for creating special data types and logic, and it is also asserted that Informix Universal Server datablades and upcoming Oracle8 Data Cartridges don’t move to other tiers. Application development using standard components has been widely accepted as the strategy for every other tier. Sybase contends that this is the strategy for the server as well. Thus, we have a next-generation object-relational strategy that has nothing to do with objects and everything to do with seeing the world from the desktop, not the server.

What about Corba?

In this sense, components are right and fitting, if application development is driven from a tool like Sybase’s Powerbuilder or Visual Basic. What about the sop to Corba? Jaguar’s Corba support comes primarily from what we all soon end up calling YAVD, or Yet Another Visigenic Software Inc Deal (CI No 3,129), that is by linking with that company’s Visibroker a vendor can get support for both Java and C++ without breaking into sweat. But Visual Basic and Powerbuilder are not the sole desktop development tools: we must never forget Java. Sybase is seeing its own SQL dialect Transact-SQL as the query language and is treating Java as a data manipulation language for its component data stores. Which brings us to how Sybase is dealing with the question of how to compete with Universal Server and Oracle8 in terms of supporting specialized data types. The point of object-relational is that things which are hard to manipulate in a vanilla-flavored relational database – multimedia, video, sound, image items – are transparent to such a database. In the component version, Sybase offers a single server with optimized data stores, some of which are highly specialized for On-Line Transaction Processing, some for mobile computing, some for decision support, and some for the stuff that’s hard to keep in tables.

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Flexible superdatabase

In other words, unlike an Informix general purpose flexible superdatabase, we have what is at the end of the day a familiar SQL-relational architecture which has some exotic data store options, all from partners. Spatial data needs will be handled by Vision International, image by Network Imaging Corporation, time series by Fame Information Services inc, text by Verity Inc and image search from Virage Inc. Sybase feels that covers 85% of the market’s needs. It seems, then, that the debate on where the SQL- relational database market is going can be divided into a spectrum, at the radical end of which we find the Universal Server – a one-datatype-fits-all engine, if you will – and at the conservative end stands the Adaptive Server component architecture. Is that a problem? No – but it may be. Informix’s woes seem to suggest the leapfrog jump it tried to make by melding the On-line database and Illustra into one has left it sprawling in that no man’s land called ‘customer conservatism.’ Yet very, very soon we shall have Oracle deafening us all about its supposedly more conservative yet still innovative next- generation object-relational Oracle8. Surely there is some danger to Sybase’s recovery in it confusing a market just getting used to thinking that objects and relational tuples make sense together, somehow, with a message based on a whole new keyword, components, a term no other database vendor gives a fig about, and a stance that seems to stress evolution at the expense of any revolution? Plainly, the market alone will decide the answer to that imponderable. It may very well be that this more desktop- centric next-generation post-relational approach is what customers will actually buy. When they can: for not all the elements become available until the first half of next year. So when is a next-generation object-relational strategy not a next- generation object-relational strategy? When it’s from a company that has spent rather less time the past year gazing at blue skies than manning the pumps and fighting the fires.

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