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Windows Database War: It's Microsoft Vs. Oracle

With Windows Server likely to surpass Unix this year as the most prevalent operating system for running database software, the stakes for Microsoft and Oracle and their respective database products for Windows have never been higher.


Microsoft is working on SQL Server 2008, the long-awaited new release of the Redmond, Wash., company's database system. The second community technology preview (CTP) of the software is now available, giving partners and customers a chance to try out the new capabilities. SQL Server 2008 will be formally announced at a big Microsoft event in Los Angeles on Feb. 27, along with Windows Server 2008 and Visual Studio 2008. It is scheduled to ship to resellers and customers by midyear.

Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle, meanwhile, began shipping a version of its Oracle Database 11g for Windows in late October. A Linux version shipped in July.

For database vendors and their channel partners, the Windows market is an increasingly large chunk of their business. Sales of relational database software for Windows Server-based systems reached $5.24 billion in 2006, up nearly $1 billion from the year before and accounting for 40.7 percent of all relational database software revenue, according to market researcher Gartner. While Unix has long been the dominant platform for database systems, sales of Unix-based relational database software are shrinking and accounted for 41.1 percent in 2006--just barely ahead of Windows. Given those trends, Windows-based database sales have likely already surpassed Unix-based sales.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft SQL Server, which runs only on Windows, is king of the market for databases running on that operating system. Microsoft recorded $2.65 billion in SQL Server sales in 2006, accounting for 50.6 percent of the Windows database market. That's a gain from 48.3 percent in 2005 and 45.2 percent in 2004, according to Gartner.

Oracle, in contrast, sold $1.42 billion worth of its database software for Windows in 2006, capturing only 27.1 percent of the market. While that's up from 26.9 percent in 2005, it's down from 29.2 percent in 2004, according to Gartner.

Oracle also sells versions of its database software for Unix and Linux. Because businesses are looking for low-cost server platforms to run their database systems, Windows and Linux are increasingly the operating systems of choice, says Gartner analyst Colleen Graham. But while Linux is a fast-growing database platform, it accounted for only 18.3 percent of the database market in 2006.

So for Microsoft and Oracle, it's a war of database features, functionality, and claims of ease-of-use and cost-effective performance.

A critical enhancement in SQL Server 2008 is its ability to manage unstructured data such as images and audio files in addition to structured relational and XML data. Some of that comes from code developed for the WinFS native file store technology, originally slated to be part of Windows Server 2008 and Vista.

The new release offers policy-based management capabilities to help administrators reduce maintenance time and more easily manage databases by applying rules based on the user's role. The goal is better governance of data sources and lower administration costs. New dynamic development tools based on the Language Integrated Query programming construct and an entity data model let developers work at the logical rather than physical level--focusing development on business entities and objects. And what Microsoft calls the database's pervasive insight business intelligence capabilities get a boost through improved integration with Microsoft Office apps such as Excel and PerformancePoint Server.

All this has some Microsoft channel partners pretty excited. Ronnie Parisella, CTO of Primary Support, a New York-based solution provider, says SQL Server 2008's ability to compress data before it's copied to other systems will vastly cut the time needed to run data backups. "That's big," said Parisella, who's been working with the SQL Server 2008 CTP since early October. Other advances he likes include report designer tools that allow developers to build customized reports by dragging and dropping database fields and SharePoint Server integration that makes it easier to pull data from the database into Office applications.

Oracle is fighting back on Microsoft's own turf. Oracle says Database 11g is optimized for Windows and Microsoft's .Net development framework. IT managers, for example, can use the Windows volume shadow copy service for database backup and recovery chores. The database is also tightly linked to Microsoft Visual Studio for improved developer productivity.

In September Oracle also said its database achieved a new price/performance world record, aiming to compete against what is perceived to be SQL Server's major advantage: its low cost of operation.

But Oracle isn't forgetting the high-performance features. Oracle Database 11g offers advanced data compression techniques for reducing data storage costs, tools that automate many manual data partitioning operations and Real Application Cluster tools for testing the impact of changes in an IT environment.

Like SQL Server 2008, Oracle Database 11g offers improved ability to work with unstructured content such as images and documents. That appeals to Brian Boyd, sales and operations vice president at Cloud Creek Systems, a Pasadena, Calif.-based solution provider. But while Oracle advertises the new database as easy to use, Boyd said "there are still a lot of complications under the covers."

The big question is how quickly customers will migrate to the new releases. Because many Microsoft customers will get SQL Server 2008 for free under the Software Assurance maintenance program, Parisella expects 10 to 15 customers will call right away looking to upgrade from SQL Server 2000 or 2005.

Others aren't so sure. Chad Brinkman, senior network engineer at Solbrekk, Golden Valley, Minn., is a big SQL Server fan. But he doesn't see too much in the new release that gets him excited. He relies heavily on the data integration and transformation services built into the current release and said that hasn't changed much in SQL Server 2008. "But when it's out, I'll probably use it and probably love it," he said.

As for Oracle, a July Gartner report predicted customers would upgrade to 11g at a faster-than-normal pace because of its new functionality. But Boyd isn't seeing much interest yet, despite having quite a few customers using the Oracle database on Windows. "They typically wait six to 18 months before taking the plunge", he said.

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