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Sybase covets second place

The company sets a new course to restore its reputation and reclaim the No. 2 spot among database software makers.

ORLANDO, Florida--Sybase (SYBS) laid out a path today designed to restore the company's reputation for technological prowess and vault past rival Informix Software (INFX) for the silver medal spot among database software makers.

As previously reported by CNET's NEWS.COM, Sybase executives here unveiled an entirely new component-based technology architecture that's heavily dependent on the Java programming language. The most critical piece of the plan, a revamped version of the company's core database server, is also entering beta testing.

Sybase executives also took time today to distance themselves from one-time technology partner Microsoft in a clear attempt to emphasize the high-end, large-scale capabilities of Sybase's database technology vs. Microsoft's more limited workgroup capabilities. Sybase's flagship database, SQL Server, will now be called Adaptive Server Enterprise.

The company sees its new architecture as evidence of its renewed commitment to its customer base, to delivering technology that can put it on the cutting edge, and, more importantly, to getting the company back in the black after a string of money-losing quarters.

"We had effectively dug a hole in the ground last year. Today is the beginning of the rebirth of Sybase," CEO Mitchell Kertzman said. (Kertzman is on the board of directors of CNET: The Computer Network.)

Kertzman, emboldened by Informix's disclosure last week that it will announce a loss of nearly $100 million for its first quarter, also predicted that Sybase will retake the No. 2 slot. "By the end of the month, it will be clear that Sybase will return to the No. 2 position in the database market. The timing of the Informix announcement could not have been better," he conceded.

Sybase will announce its earnings on April 17. The company is expected to post a slim profit.

The new architecture, dubbed ImpactNow Adaptive Component Architecture, is a multitiered framework that includes new database technology for storing Java, ActiveX, and CORBA (Common Object Request Broker Architecture) components, along with transaction middleware and new development tools.

Despite the unwieldy name, analysts said the new strategy is just what the beleaguered company needs. "Sybase is trying to emphasize its strengths and put out products fundamentally different that Informix and Oracle," said Frank Gillett, senior analyst with the Hurwitz Group. "Fundamentally, they have the right strategy."

The strategy differs significantly from competitors' plans. Both Informix and Oracle are pushing all-encompassing databases that attempt to store all data types in one database server augmented by customized code. Sybase is linking its existing SQL Server relational database, rechristened Adaptive Server Enterprise; Sybase IQ decision support add-on, renamed Adaptive Server IQ; SQL Anywhere, now called Adaptive Server Anywhere; and third-party specialty data stores through common middleware and client tools.

The goal is to allow developers to build a single application that can run on client systems, application server middleware, or the company's database server, as well as support multiple object and relational data types.

Analysts also praised Sybase's intent to embrace all popular component architectures, instead of favoring one or fighting competitors' plans. For instance, Adaptive Server will support ActiveX, Microsoft's component framework, on equal footing with Java and CORBA.

Oracle has publicly backed Java and CORBA but has criticized ActiveX, forcing customers to make an important strategic decision before the technology ramifications are fully fleshed out.

But while Sybase executives were busy embracing Microsoft's ActiveX, they were also taking great care to distance the two companies' database lineups.

Microsoft's relational database server, also called SQL Server, is in large part based on technology licensed from Sybase. With the unveiling of a new architecture and a new corporate agenda to become a technology leader, Sybase executives said the time was right to make a clean break from Microsoft.

"Microsoft shares the brand equity with Sybase in SQL Server. In fact, they may have more equity," said Kertzman. "Once you no longer own the name, there is a question as to whether it's effective any longer."

The dropping of the SQL Server name is also intended to be a symbolic shift away from the client-server technology of yesterday and toward Internet-based, network-centric computing. "It's absolutely the right idea," said Gillett. "Comparisons with Microsoft are not favorable at this point."

However, both companies do share similarities in their database architectures. Microsoft also favors a distributed model of multiple, specialized database servers linked via middleware. Instead of building a single monolithic database that stores everything, Microsoft intends to link separate databases that store relational, object, and multimedia data. Instead of one single entity like Informix and Oracle offer, Microsoft will this way create a virtual multimedia database.

Microsoft is expected to further this approach when it delivers an update to its SQL Server database, code-named Sphinx, later this year.

Sybase's new Adaptive Server architecture mirrors the virtual database plan but extends it to high-end Unix servers and large-scale online transaction processing and data warehousing applications.

The company said the entire Adaptive Server architecture will roll out over 18 months, with significant pieces of the plan delivered every few months from now until mid-1998. Pricing will be announced when individual components are delivered.