Informix users: IBM mostly making the right moves

Nearly a year after it bought Informix Corp.’s database operations, IBM Corp. continues to make moves that are keeping members of the installed base it inherited, happy though not without some concerns about issues such as marketing and technical support.

While some Informix customers initially feared that IBM was just trying to find a new market for its own DB2 databases, a half-dozen users said during the past few weeks that IBM has convinced them that it’s committed to maintaining the Informix product portfolio.

IBM has delivered 20 Informix upgrades since buying the technology for US$1 billion last July, most notably Version 9.3 of the flagship Informix Dynamic Server (IDS) software. And in April, the company put the Informix products under the same software licensing structure used for its other software.

IBM’s approach has left Informix customers largely complaint-free thus far, according to James Governor, an analyst at Nashua, N.H.-based consulting firm Illuminata Inc. “IBM has done sickeningly well,” Governor said with irony.

IBM has shown a surprising level of openness with its new users, said Fred Hubbard, president of the International Informix Users Group (IIUG) in Menlo Park, Calif. In addition, the upgrades released by IBM have been sturdier and less buggy than Informix was able to deliver, Hubbard said. IBM has even outlined development plans two to three releases in advance, something Informix never did, he added.

However, Hubbard and several Informix users cited some issues. For example, the Informix software continued to lose market share last year, and some users said IBM isn’t marketing the databases effectively enough to keep customers from bolting to products from Microsoft Corp. and Oracle Corp.

“IBM is a silent company in many ways,” Hubbard said. “I wish it was not as low-key and demure from a marketing perspective. They’re not telling their story as loudly as I believe they should.”

An IBM spokeswoman said that the company has sponsored newsletters and user focus groups for Informix customers and that executives have been visiting users. “Our No. 1 objective is to show these customers we are committed to them,” she said.

Technical support for Informix databases is still good under IBM, said Mac Horn, an IIUG board member and a database services administrator at a software vendor that uses IDS to support its customers. But now, “you may have to go through one or two more layers to get the right people,” said Horn, who asked that his company not be identified.

Warren Donovan, a senior database administrator at Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) in Oak Ridge, Tenn., said it’s difficult to get Informix performance benchmark data from IBM. Assistance on tests that compare DB2 and Informix is also tough to come by, Donovan said.

Without head-to-head data, it’s hard to recommend one over the other, he said. Donovan manages an Informix database for a client of SAIC, which does IT engineering and systems integration work.

The IBM spokeswoman said the company is combining its separate DB2 and Informix support groups to try to prevent users from getting connected to people who can’t help them. Another company official said that IBM offers Informix benchmark data to individual customers.

More Informix Upgrades in the Works

Looking to demonstrate its commitment to the Informix user base, IBM has made a series of enhancements to the product line that it acquired 11 months ago and said it has more upgrades on the way.

The biggest step taken by IBM thus far has been the release of Version 9.3 of IDS last fall, with new features such as a bundled set of database administration tools. At the same time, it announced a tool that lets IDS 9.3 share data with IBM’s own DB2 databases. That was followed in November by the release of a so-called gold bundle that includes both DB2 and IDS.

Without disclosing details, IBM said that it plans to release later this year enhanced versions of Informix’s Red Brick data warehouse software and XPS parallel database.

But Colleen Graham, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said she views IBM’s current approach as a short-term strategy. “While IBM claims they will continue to support customers on the Informix products, they have also made it clear that DB2 is their flagship product, and they want customers to migrate to DB2,” she said.

An IBM spokeswoman acknowledged that the company “is leading with DB2.” But, she said, it plans to enhance individual Informix products every 18 months to meet the needs of users who don’t want to switch databases. “Customers are not going to be forced to migrate to DB2,” she said.

The message that Informix database development will continue for the foreseeable future was also delivered by Tom Rosamilia, IBM’s vice-president of worldwide data management development, in a speech at the International DB2 Users Group conference last month.