XML dominates database language war

With Oracle Corp.'s annual OpenWorld conference on the horizon, database vendors are preparing for battle once again. This time around, the big three -- IBM Corp., Oracle, and Microsoft Corp. -- are brandishing XML (Extensible Markup Language) as the not-so secret weapon for making their databases faster and using it to anchor Web services.

Microsoft is readying its charge into the enterprise-class arena with the forthcoming version of SQL Server, code-named Yukon. Yukon is being hailed as an XML-savvy, back-end engine for Microsoft's .Net Web services initiative.

The second, and perhaps more important, design goal for Yukon is language independence, said Barry Goffe, group product manager of the .Net enterprise server group. "We've had this vision for a long time: to have a multilanguage database," Goffe said.

To create that multilanguage database, Microsoft is arming Yukon to host XML natively in the database and is making XML a definable column type, which enables XML data to more effectively be searched and retrieved, said Stan Sorenson, director of server marketing at Microsoft.

Although the delivery date for Microsoft's next generation of SQL Server has thus far been a closely guarded secret, a company official said that the Redmond, Wash.-based giant has a specific time frame in mind for the product to be finished.

"We expect [Yukon] to ship in the first half of the calendar year 2003," Sorenson said, adding that Yukon will go into beta in the second quarter of next year.

Microsoft has been adding support for emerging XML standards in a series of Web releases, the latest of which, SQLXML 2.0, came in October. SQLXML 2.0 contains support for XSD (XML Schema Definition), a specification designed to ease data integration from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards body in Cambridge, Mass.

Oracle and IBM, meanwhile, are also sharpening their XML battle-axes. Jeremy Burton, vice president of worldwide marketing at Oracle in Redwood Shores, Calif., said that Oracle will be touting an XML-related technology called XDB (XML database support) at the company's annual Oracle OpenWorld conference the week after next in San Francisco. Burton, however, declined to provide further details about the future of XDB, now part of 9i.

Not to be outdone, IBM officials say they have a rolling head start on Oracle and Microsoft, noting they have already delivered key database-related technology pieces and have employed all the right programming standards and protocols.

Big Blue, in fact, is stressing that the combination of DB2 and its XML Extender provides the functional equivalent of Oracle's XDB technology, said Jeff Jones, director of strategy for IBM data-management solutions at IBM's labs in San Jose, Calif.

"Our XDB is DB2 plus the XML Extender. We have not packaged that and called it something new. We have extended DB2 to manage XML content by creating an XML Extender and an XML data type and by integrating them all very closely with the engine," Jones said.

For the moment, Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle are all in a foot race to implant XQuery -- an XML-based querying standard in their core databases -- for accessing very different data sources, most notably those based in either XML or SQL.

"We are driving XQuery support into DB2 so we will be able to think of DB2 as bilingual," Jones said. "It would allow for receiving XML-or SQL-based requests and give you back data results in either one." IBM has a prototype product with XQuery support integrated and working in its labs.

The big three are not the only ones supporting XML. Relational database vendor Sybase is riding the XML train, as are pure-play XML database providers such as Software AG and Ixiasoft.

Some users are already starting to reap the rewards of XML. New York-based Rolling Stone magazine, for instance, has been using SQL Server 2000's XML capabilities to stream data from its database out to its Web site and to more than 60 business partners. "We use XML generation across the site and that has definitely improved performance," said Andy Rice, director of technology at Rolling Stone.

Prior to using XML, Rice and his team used a VB (Visual Basic) DLL to convert result sets coming from SQL into XML, and back. "Now, we don't have to do that. The information comes right out of the database, goes across the Web to the user, and comes back into the database," Rice said. "This also reduces our workload."

Rolling Stone based its search technology on XML as well, which Rice said enables them to use the Web site as a kind of platform from which internal users can pull XML data straight out of the database rather than having to go to a separate store for the XML data.

Analysts said that in addition to improving performance, supporting XML in the database gives software the capability of integrating with other applications and systems.

"The X in XML stands for extensible, but it might as well stand for exchange, because that's how people use it," said Philip Russom, an independent industry analyst based in Waltham, Mass. Russom said that XML is the technology in the middle of otherwise disparate systems that helps them communicate.

But XML is not an easy fit with relational data. "One hitch is that XML data is hierarchical, which makes it akin to a round peg in the square holes of relational databases," Russom said.

In a push toward a language-independent database, Microsoft's Yukon will work with the Common Language Runtime, the company's technology for multilanguage support across more than 20 non-Microsoft programming languages. The database will be tightly integrated with Microsoft's Visual Studio.Net toolbox for developers.

Oracle and IBM, not surprisingly, have also been working to equip their databases for unstructured data -- Oracle with its iFS (Internet File System) and IBM through its extenders, content management software, and federated approach.

The ultimate goal of combining structured and unstructured data sets is to provide a view of all the information that a company has on any given topic. This includes aggregating all the discussions, notes, meetings, and information that resides in office applications, data warehouses, and enterprise applications such as CRM (customer relationship management) and ERP (enterprise resource planning), said Microsoft's Goffe.

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