Grappling With the Gorilla

By Drew Robb

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Oracle unquestionably is the 800-pound gorilla of database companies. For more than a quarter of a century it has specialized in relational database management software (RDBMS), building its revenue up into the $10 billion range. According to IDC, Oracle had 39.4% market share in 2002, compared with 33.6% for IBM/Informix and 11% for Microsoft.

But as any silverback (an older, usually dominant male gorilla with gray or whitish hair on the back) knows, there will always be younger rival ready to challenge for leadership. In this case it's Microsoft SQL Server. Once considered a lightweight database for small business, SQL Server has bulked up and is starting to make forays into Oracle's enterprise market territory.

This makes for exciting times. Neither Bill Gates nor Larry Ellison are known to back down from a fight. Will Microsoft be successful in this arena, or will Oracle slap it around like an upstart pup?

The Entourage

It's pretty easy to find an Oracle customer. Just grab a copy of the Fortune 500 and you could probably find at least one Oracle database in most of them. But last year was not a good one for the company. While Oracle's revenues turned around toward the end of its fiscal year 2003 (May 31), it was down 2% compared to FY02, which was 12% below its 2001 revenue.

Part of this is due to an overall decline in the market. According to Gartner, Inc., the database market overall declined in 2002, with new license revenues dropping from $7.12 billion in 2001 to $6.63 billion last year, a 7% loss.

"Along with many of the other IT markets, the RDBMS markets are feeling the pressures of reduced IT spending," said Colleen Graham, industry analyst for Gartner's Software Industry Research group. "However, despite this slowdown of spending on new licenses, we find many organizations very actively utilizing and furthering development of their major RDBMS-based applications."

But Oracle has also been losing market share. IBM took over the #1 spot from Oracle in 2002 going from a 33.9% to 36.2% share, while Oracle dropped from 39.7% to 33.9%. Half of IBM's database revenue, however, is from the mainframe market, which it dominates. When looking at the Unix/Linux/Windows market, Oracle is the largest vendor. Even so, according to Gartner, Oracle lost both market share and revenue in this smaller platform market.

So, who has been attracting these fans? Microsoft. It increased its share of the Unix/Linux/Windows market from 18.1% in 2001 to 22.8% in 2002. It also boosted its revenue in this area by 17%, despite market shrinkage. And this growth isn't limited to small-scale database projects.

The State of North Carolina, for example, uses SQL Server 2000 Enterprise Edition and Windows 2000 Datacenter Server for its North Carolina Floodplain Mapping Program (NCFMP). Following 1999's Hurricane Floyd's $3.5 billion damage, the state decided it needed to computerize its paper flood insurance rate maps since eighty percent of the damage occurred in areas not identified as flood prone.

The state hired Watershed Concepts (Greensboro, N.C.) as the prime contractor for establishing the mapping system, which uses the ArcGIS geographic information system software from Redlands, Calif.-based Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc. (ESRI). After eliminating IBM's DB2 and Informix databases as possible contenders, Watershed Concepts came up with two possible routes: running a single 16-way Unisys Corporation (Blue Bell, Pa.) ES7000 Orion 200 server with Windows and SQL Server or two 10-way Sun Microsystems, Inc. (Santa Clara, Calif.) E4500 servers with Solaris and Oracle 8i.

"The goal of our due-diligence phase was to minimize any risk in meeting our scalability and availability needs," says Watershed Concepts' president Scott Edelman. "The Microsoft and Unisys solution did just that, with 40 percent lower lifecycle costs than Solaris and Oracle."

For failover, NCFMP split the ES7000 into two eight-way partitions, each with 8GB RAM. External storage is on a 10TB SAN from EMC Corp. (Hopkinton, Mass.). To meet future needs, they can upgrade both the servers and SAN.

"We feel very good about our upgrade path and that we're not building ourselves into a corner," says Tim Johnson, acting director of the North Carolina Center for Geographic Information and Analysis. "When more processing power is needed, we can easily double the capacity of our existing ES7000 by adding another 16 processors to the chassis, moving to two 16-way partitions to retain failover capabilities."

The Weigh-In

For years the consensus has been that Oracle and SQL Server didn't even belong in the same weight class. But this perception is gradually changing as Microsoft continues to develop its database including creating a 64-bit version and boosting the number of processors supported up to 32. So, what do the numbers now show about how the two match up in terms of performance and cost?

First, taking a look at speed, the top two slots on the Transaction Processing Performance Council's (www.tpc.org) list of the non-clustered database servers in early September 2003 were both held by the Hewlett-Packard Integrity Superdome with 64 Itanium processors. The top position was when it was running the Oracle 10G database and HPUX operating system. The number two was the Superdome running Windows and SQL Server. The difference between the two was less than five percent. The TPC report, however, also showed that the price/performance for the Windows machine was about 20% lower than the Oracle one.

Oracle, however, touts that its software is less expensive to use than Microsoft's when used in conjunction with packaged applications from PeopleSoft, SAP and Siebel. Consulting firm INPUT (Reston, VA) surveyed 30 firms on their use of SQL Server and Oracle and found that the annual cost per user for Oracle was $499.07 compared to $936.67 for Microsoft.

The Bout

So, we have a fight. Both are now capable of managing large databases. Which of them should win your business?

Well, the numbers can only tell you so much. As the investment firms say in their disclaimers "past performance is no guarantee of future success." Neither are white papers or benchmarks necessarily an indicator of how well something will meet your own needs. Odds are, you are not going to purchase a Superdome. If you do, then those TPC numbers cited above may figure into your decision making. But they are useless if you are running a 4-way Dell server.

Same thing with the cost figures. The North Carolina Flood Plain Mapping Program and found that Windows was less expensive for its applications. The entities cited in the INPUT study, on the other hand reported that Oracle was half the cost per user of using Windows. It should also be noted, however, that those companies using Oracle had, on average, five times as many end users as those with Windows. Oracle's lower cost, therefore, may be due to economies of scale.

So, you can't really rely on how well the databases performed at other times or in other configurations. That information can give guidance, but the one contest that truly matters is how well they perform on your own equipment and applications. Only then can you tell whether the underdog will upset the champ.