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Informix back in the game

After surviving last year's financial and management turmoil, Informix launches Dynamic Server 7.3 and an aggressive plan to lure customers from its rivals.

After surviving last year's constant financial and management turmoil, Informix Software (IFMX) is out to prove that it's back in the technology hunt with a new version of its database and an aggressive plan to lure customers from rival software companies.

The company is this week shipping new versions of its Dynamic Server database and its Advanced Decision Support Option, two key pieces of its software lineup. A highlight of the announcement is new features added to Dynamic Server that make it much easier for potential customers to switch from competitors' database software to Informix, said Stephen Lambright, senior manager for server product marketing at Informix.

More important, the products are the first major releases from the company since a series of setbacks last year, ranging from financial turmoil, management shakeups, and lawsuits to a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation.

Executives portray the product releases as key to the company's bid to prove that it can still deliver top-notch technology and survive in a more competitive database market.

So far, the strategy seems to be working. Analysts believe that the company has resolved many of its business problems and is back on track. In a report issued last month, Melissa Eisenstat, an analyst with CIBC Oppenheimer upgraded Informix's stock to a "buy" recommendation and said that "the most acute problems facing the company in 1997 have been resolved, and the business has stabilized."

Much of the credit for the turnaround goes to new CEO Robert Finocchio, according to analysts, who claim that the former 3Com president has made great strides in revamping the company's sales organization and in luring new customers.

"Finocchio has impressed a lot of people. The next quarter will be the sign if there is a true turnaround trend," said Mitch Kramer, an analyst with the Patricia Seybold Group. "But he's done a wonderful job. He inherited a situation that couldn't get worse."

In the past few months, Informix has simplified its product lineup and has focused on new products that fill specific market niches. The new releases are intended to further that goal and to move Informix further up the food chain to supply software for "mission-critical" applications.

While sales in the database industry as a whole have slowed, demand is still high at the top end of the market for supplying database software for large online transaction processing and data warehousing applications, some market watchers believe.

Informix sees its best chance for strong sales at the high end of the market, away from competitors including Microsoft, at the low-end of the database market, and Oracle, which virtually owns the market for database software used in mid-sized workgroup applications.

"We're focused on mission-critical applications," Lambright said. "We listened to customers in the OLTP area and enhanced the core database."

The new release of Dynamic Server, version 7.3, includes new internal technology to deliver better performance, for both OLTP and data warehouse applications, Lambright said. The database is expected to deliver an average of a 20 percent speed boost, he claims. Informix tightened internal code and streamlined the database engine to squeeze out additional performance.

The new migration tools make it easier for companies to switch from competitors' databases to Informix. "We've heard from resellers that the barrier to moving to Informix is the cost of switching," Lambright said. "We have added syntax extensions to support other makers' SQL extensions. Not all extensions, but many things that are outside of standard SQL," he said.

Dynamic Server 7.3 also includes better query handling, Lambright said. A new feature called in-memory resident tables caches frequently accessed tables in memory for better response. And Informix also added a feature called smart directives, which uses an intelligent optimizer to find information stored in the database more quickly.

The company also fine-tuned its management console, the Enterprise Command Center, to make it easier to use.

The Advanced Decision Support Option is an add-on to Dynamic Server that lets users build decision support applications ranging from small data marts to large data warehouses, according to the company.

Kramer said the option is a key piece of technology that could give Informix an edge over competitors. "It looks wonderful. All this technology does is make big databases appear to be small, so you can access them faster. That's a very interesting approach to things," he said.

Both products are shipping on both Unix and Windows NT, Lambright said.