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Oracle rethinks object support

Vaporware legend Oracle 8 database server is almost here, though you wouldn't recognize it from the 1992 pitch.

The Oracle (ORCL) faithful have been waiting for a new database capable of managing both relational and object-based data, since chairman Larry Ellison disclosed plans for a next-generation database way back in 1992.

They're still waiting.

Now, Oracle says its Oracle 8 database server--which long ago entered the annals of vaporware legends--is entering a second and final beta test round with 170 users and is poised to ship by mid-June, albeit in a substantially different form than originally envisioned.

While the company's marketing machine is hard at work touting the new database's impressive scalability, Oracle product managers won't yet disclose details on how the database will juggle old-fashioned text-and-number relational data with trendy new Web data, such as video and audio clips, Java, and ActiveX components.

However, analysts briefed by the company say that while precise details of Oracle's object plan remain murky, early indications are that Oracle has considerably reworked its object support plan and is now favoring a three-tiered approach that will place much of the object management outside of the database in a middle tier. That stands in stark contrast to the company's long-standing plan to make Oracle 8 a "universal" database server, capable of internally managing almost anything thrown at it.

Instead, Oracle will rely heavily on a middle tier of application servers and object-request brokers acting as middlemen between user applications and the Oracle 8 database server. The company's existing Web Application Server, and a new Web Application Broker, which combines the company's existing object-request broker technology with software licensed earlier this month from Visigenic Software, will form the core of the middle tier.

"Putting the object support in the middle tier is a significant change" in Oracle's direction, said Judith Hurwitz, president of the Hurwitz Group.

But Oracle executives deny there has been any change in object-support strategy. But they acknowledge that the multitier plan is new. "The database support of objects has not changed since we started talking about this thing four or five years ago," said Mark Jarvis, Oracle's vice president of server marketing.

However, "analysts may be thinking that we have changed our object strategy," since in the meantime the company has introduced the Network Computing Architecture, said Jarvis. The NCA is Oracle's scheme for supporting Web application development. "If that's what they are referring to, that is absolutely true," he said.

Jarvis said the company has not yet fully briefed analysts on the whole plan and that there may be a misconception that the company's object-support story has changed. "It hasn't, it's just been extended," he said.

"Since we first started talking about this four or five years ago, a massive amount of stuff has happened. Object technology has matured, and Web technology has emerged," said Jarvis.

Oracle 7, the company's current database iteration, introduced the ability to manage text, video, audio, and other nonrelational data through a set of loosely connected optional servers. Oracle 8 will improve support for all of those data types, and will introduce support for data access through ActiveX and Java component applications. It will also support the Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA), backed by Oracle and Netscape Communications, and the Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM) from Microsoft.

The database will also be able to store and manage new components, called "business objects," which model business processes in software form. Support for object data and component applications has become more important since the advent of Web development, analysts say.

To model, design, and build object applications, Oracle will release this summer new development tools, currently known under the code name Sedona. The tools will allow development of object applications and will include a development repository for team development and component reuse.

Oracle 8's three-tier approach differs sharply from rival Informix Software's existing Universal Server database, which manages all data types internally. Universal Server's support for data types can be customized through software plug-ins called Data Blades.

"Informix's approach is very different than what Oracle is doing," said Don DePalma, an analyst with Forrester Research. "Oracle is favoring a multitiered, data requester-to-data services approach, where an intermediate application server will vector user requests off to where the data and information are stored."

Hurwitz said Oracle's plan may be preferable for IS developers attempting to avoid being locked in to one vendor's product. "From a user perspective, Oracle's plan is a lot safer than Informix's Data Blades. The application code is actually in the database, instead of residing outside of the database, making it very difficult for users to move applications to another vendor's database server."

"Storing application code in the kernel could be a very dangerous scenario," she said.

Oracle has also changed its overall focus for the release. While Oracle 8 and object support have been synonymous since Ellison first discussed the product's existence, Oracle is now pushing object support to the back burner, and is instead focusing on the database's scalability for transaction processing and data warehouse applications.

Oracle 8 will support tens of thousands of users, hundreds of terabytes of data, and better integration with transaction processing systems, says Kelly Herrell, senior director of marketing for server technologies at Oracle. That's a deliberate attempt by the company to appeal to IBM's coveted Fortune 500 user base, analysts said.

"Oracle is trying to establish the aura of IBM" and its huge database support, said DePalma. "Clearly, with a product as robust as Oracle 8, they will have a tough time [appealing] to the low-end of the market. So they are aiming up."

The revamped database will also support partitioning of data across multiple storage systems and servers. Oracle has toughened the database's reliability, said Herrell, by supporting automatic failover to backup servers in the event of a server failure.

Network management has also been simplified through a new release of Oracle's SQL*Net software, now renamed Net 8.

Oracle 8 and the Web Application Broker are expected to ship in late June. No pricing has been announced.