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Microsoft ships beta of new database software

Ten months since releasing its SQL Server 7.0 database software, the company creates an upgrade, code-named Shiloh, to compete with rivals Oracle, IBM, Informix, and Sybase.

Ten months since releasing its SQL Server 7.0 database software, Microsoft has designed an upgrade, code-named Shiloh, that the company hopes will better compete with rivals Oracle, IBM, Informix, and Sybase.

Microsoft has shipped the initial beta version of this next-generation database software, featuring more Web support and improved analysis of business information.

Like its competitors, Microsoft is hawking its new SQL Server as the database needed for building e-commerce Web sites. The new SQL Server database is part of Microsoft's recently announced Web-based software development push, which includes new development tools and the forthcoming Windows 2000 operating system for businesses.

Microsoft ranks fourth in the overall database market, behind Oracle, IBM, and Informix, which includes sales of databases that support Windows NT and Unix operating systems. But in the Windows NT-only database market, Microsoft is in second place--behind Oracle but ahead of IBM--according to an International Data Corporation study.

Analysts say Microsoft's future success in the database market hinges on the success of its forthcoming Windows 2000 operating system, due by the end of this year. Microsoft has worked to make the forthcoming business operating system faster and more reliable to better compete against the Unix operating system.

Improved operating system performance may entice more businesses to use Windows as their operating system, and that in turn could drive Microsoft's database sales, said IDC analyst Carl Olofson.

"It's going to be tough. They could possibly overtake Informix and move into third place, but I have a hard time imagining they could overtake IBM, and certainly not Oracle, in the overall market," Olofson said. "But if you look at NT, you could have a horse race between Microsoft and Oracle."

According to IDC, Microsoft earned $496 million, or 5.1 percent of the overall database market, in 1998. Oracle led the pack with 40 percent of the market, or $3.9 billion in revenue; IBM was second with $1.7 billion in revenue, or 18 percent; and Informix was third, with $556 million in revenue, or 5.8 percent of the market.

Barry Goffe, Microsoft's lead product manager for SQL Server, said Windows 2000 and Shiloh, its next-generation database, will be powerful and reliable enough for large businesses and e-commerce Web sites.

"There are customers building [high-performance] Web sites today on SQL Server 7.0 and Windows NT 4, and Shiloh and Windows 2000 will offer major improvements and performance is not going to be an issue anymore," he said.

Microsoft shipped Shiloh to several hundred customers and partners last week. The company plans to ship a public beta of Shiloh early next year and release a final version by mid-2000. It is already working on a newer, faster version of the database, code-named Yukon, Goffe said.

Shiloh will let its users analyze data with a Web browser for the first time. It will also support XML, a Web standard that simplifies the exchange of data over the Internet and corporate networks, Goffe said.

Microsoft said improvements to its online analytical processing (OLAP) technology will allow users to view simple reports over the Web, such as how products are selling by region or how products are selling by date. "You can slice and dice data over the Internet," Goffe said.

The software giant has built "data mining" capabilities into Shiloh--technology that spits out more complex reports by examining the business information and seeking out patterns and trends, Goffe said. Businesses using Shiloh, for example, can build data mining features into their e-commerce or financial applications.

For an e-commerce site, data mining can profile online buyers, predict the kind of products they're interested in, and make purchase suggestions to them, Goffe said.

With Shiloh, Microsoft for the first time will release a lightweight, mobile version of its database for handheld Windows CE devices, a move to compete head-on with rivals such as IBM and Oracle, which already have smaller versions available, Goffe said. The technology will let handheld users connect to their corporate network and download information such as sales data, and upload new data onto the main corporate database.

Olofson, of IDC, said many of the new features Shiloh offers are, or will be, supported by its competitors. The XML support is important, he said, because it allows businesses with different databases to easily exchange data.

"Microsoft is moving in the direction of open standards and Internet-based standards," Olofson said.

Shiloh also features a performance boost. SQL Server currently supports 3 GBytes of memory, but will support up to 64 GBytes of memory in Shiloh. Microsoft's next database will have even better performance, Goffe said.

Unlike Oracle's database, SQL Server 7.0 doesn't allow for load balancing, which is the ability to distribute transactions evenly to prevent the system from overloading, Goffe said. Currently, users of SQL Server can run multiple databases side by side, and if one crashes the other can take over, he said.

One way to offer load balancing, Goffe said, is to allow multiple databases to share and access one hard drive filled with corporate data. Yukon will offer users load balancing by allowing databases to each support its own hard drive, thereby reducing the network bottleneck that occurs in trying to access information, Goffe said.

Olofson said the technology is already available in IBM, Informix, and NCR databases, and that Oracle has created it's own version of the technology. Adding the load balancing feature to a future version of SQL Server could make the Microsoft database fast and reliable enough for large corporations to use for heavy-duty corporate transactions, he said. Right now, most businesses use SQL Server for less-than-critical uses.