Database vendors keep the XML faith

Database archenemies IBM Corp. and Oracle Corp. are at it again, and the battle over how to store and manage XML (Extensible Markup Language) data rages on.

Both companies are set to issue new versions of their relational databases in the near future, with Oracle planning a May release and IBM slating the next iteration of DB2 for the middle of the year, and both companies are eyeing up XML as a means to extend their data management strategies.

Oracle is planning to boost support of XML come May with Oracle9i Release 2, which will be a “fully unified XML and relational database,” said Robert Shimp, vice-president of database product marketing at Oracle, in Redwood Shores, Calif. “Not only can you, in an Oracle database, store all the traditional transactional processing data, but you can also store full XML documents.”

Although Oracle has had basic support for XML since early 1999, support planned for Release 2 will be much more expansive. “What you can do is with a single SQL query access both the XML and relational data,” Shimp said.

For example, a technical support person might field a call about a problem with a specific product, Shimp said. The support person might want to access information about the product as well as credit memos and internal product documents. “You can look up that information simultaneously with a single query, whereas in the past you would have had to search different databases to find this information,” Shimp said.

Oracle’s XML work is based on the W3C XML schema data model, to provide its database customers with a standard way to function with applications, Shimp said.

Currently, Oracle’s database has full XML parsers, an XML schema processor, and a full SQL XML utility for managing XML data. But unified SQL queries are not possible with current iterations of the database, Shimp said.

As a part of its strategy for entering what it calls the next wave of data management, IBM is taking a three-faced approach and working to offer a database system that is capable of managing objects, relational data, and XML documents.

Big Blue, based in Armonk, N.Y., plans to extend the core database engine currently in DB2 to include support for XML, with technologies such as new index structures that relate to XML, according to Nelson Mattos, an IBM distinguished engineer and director of IBM’s information integration group.

Although IBM has supported both objects and relational data in DB2 for some time now, the addition of XML will enhance that support. “XML gives you a very flexible model to manage all the metadata around objects,” Mattos said.

Mattos said that the idea is to make the core DB2 look like a relational database engine with XML capabilities from the perspective of applications looking for relational data, while making it look like an XML database with relational capabilities or an object database with relational capabilities from the perspectives of applications looking for those data types.

By supporting XML, relational, and object data, IBM’s database will be able to interact with XML documents; structured information, such as rows and columns; and data written in object-oriented programming languages, namely Java and C++.

To that end, support for the W3C’s XML Query standard means that an XML application only needs to know XML Query to get at data residing in DB2.

Arming DB2 with these three faces will increase scalability and performance, while making DB2 better equipped as the anchor of IBM’s Web services stack, including the capability to not only deliver data to Web services, but also to consume Web services.

Mattos added that although this technology won’t emerge in the forthcoming version slated for mid-year, later this year IBM will make an early version available.

Brett MacIntyre, vice-president of the content and information integration software group at IBM, said that content management, including the combination of structured and unstructured data, is at the core of the next wave of data management.

“For us, it’s about how we can put more room between us and Oracle and Microsoft,” MacIntyre said. While Oracle is working to store everything in the database, MacIntyre added, IBM is taking a more distributed approach. “Not everything can fit inside the database,” he said.

Oracle’s Shimp scoffed at such criticism.

“IBM doesn’t have the technology so they’re forced to create a separate standalone database for XML,” called Xperanto, he said. IBM, Shimp claims, has multiple database products, including its Unix and mainframe DB2 offerings as well as its Informix products, but lumps them all together under the DB2 moniker and none of them work well with each other, Shimp said.

Any plan by IBM to unify its relational and XML structures would require “some magical integration software that’s going to glue it all together,” Shimp said. “When are we going to see that?”

IBM fired back that the Xperanto technology currently in development is the information integration aspect of a three-layer integration strategy that also includes application integration via its WebSphere application server stack, and business process integration technology that comes from its CrossWorlds acquisition.

Microsoft, for its part, has been adding to its SQL Server 2000 database support for XML standards as they emerge, rather than issuing new versions of the database. The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant’s plans for data management also expands beyond the relational database and includes a whole host of Microsoft products.

“We have a vision of access to information no matter where it lives,” said Tom Rizzo, group product manager for SQL Server at Microsoft. Rizzo added that Microsoft sees this move as more evolutionary than revolutionary, and that it is what customers are asking for.

“People don’t care whether data is structured, unstructured, or semi-structured. People just want to be able to access and manipulate their data,” Rizzo said.

Mike Schiff, an analyst at Current Analysis, a market analysis firm in Sterling, Va., said that with the forthcoming round of databases, he is expecting noteworthy changes.

“The best way to say it is that we expect these new versions of the databases to become more than just databases,” Schiff said. “In a lot of ways they look like both databases and applications.”

Schiff explained that as the database vendors – including not just IBM, Oracle, and Microsoft, but also Sybase and NCR – pack more and more functionality typically associated with applications into the database, the database, in turn, starts to resemble those applications.

The collective of database vendors has been adding functionality such as clustering, caching, data mining, OLAP, and analytics and operations such as stored procedures directly into the databases, Schiff added.

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