From the dizzying heights of the late 1980s to the sudden slump two years ago, the database industry seems to have finally stabilised. Hype and necessity are converging in the corporate struggle to manage information in an online world.
Promises of interconnectivity, high-speed retrieval and cross-platform management - elements shaping the database industry "pitch" for nearly the last decade - are seemingly coming to fruition, although all the creases are far from ironed out.
The demand for sophistication
According to IDC analyst Carl Olofson, the parameters that define data management software have remained fairly static over the last few years. They have been "products used to store, update, control and manage structured data, including location management, content coordination and form transformation," he says.
However, applying these criteria to today's increasingly dynamic technology environment poses considerable challenges to technology developers and their channel business partners.
Olofson points to a strong trend towards "commoditisation" in the online transaction processing (OLTP) data management area, "fueled by the proliferation of packaged applications and low-cost yet ever more robust server systems". He believes that the key challenge facing vendors and channel partners will be essentially to deliver more sophisticated retrieval and management systems while also balancing what he sees as the "decreasingly technical profile of the user of such sites".
"We are seeing decreasing tolerance for wait times, which means that slow systems and downtime are not options," says Olofson.
The head of technology management and consultancy company Interact Management, Trevor Richards, points to persistent gaps in understanding among vendors, integrators and customers alike when it comes to maximising the potential of corporate data.
Interact started out in Adelaide 17 years ago as a broad focused IT strategy firm but now works almost exclusively in the area Richards sees as the paramount concern for most organisations: customer relationship management (CRM). The organisation has worked with many of Australia's largest blue chip companies to develop CRM systems in line with the drift towards call centre-based management of customers and general automation.
But a worrying trend the company has identified, according to Richards, is that even within the largest organisations there still exists inadequate planning for data management systems. This is not to say that data management systems don't exist in abundance at the top corporate level. The site of one of Interact's more high-profile clients had no less than 62 separate IT repositories for data when Richards and his team were called in.
It's not an uncommon problem.
"There is this perception that data management technology is at a certain level of sophistication, but really we are only in the adolescent stages here," he says, adding that vendors and channel partners face considerable challenges in pulling disparate systems together into a meaningful whole.
"Companies must be able to ensure that all their information is connected so that the single customer view is achievable." He warns further that the amount of money in the CRM market is leading some vendors to take short cuts by overlaying their systems over a complex mix of legacy and open systems platforms "without following the due processes".
This is especially problematic given customers need to be able to plan their data management systems to cope with what are extremely dynamic times.
One of the most important issues at the moment, according to Richards, is time stamping. "The ability of organisations to accurately track the exact date and time of a particular event in a customer's history will become a major competitive factor in the future," he says. "Yet you won't find many companies that are planning for it."
A cyber-smart paradigm shift
The Internet has been widely lauded for its potential to deliver a greater level of personalisation in the area of customer management. IDC's Olofson refers to this "cyber-smart paradigm shift" as driving innovations such as online "inter-enterprise negotiation, ordering, payment and delivery scheduling using system-to-system protocols".
Progress Software's Tony Richardson believes that the Internet has driven higher standards in database uptime as well as the now basic requirement that Web sites be accessible 24x7. He believes, for instance, that the Internet has been pivotal in "driving the need for scalability from 100 to 10,000 concurrent users in a very short space of time".
"Reliability and stability are the name of the game in the Internet," he says.
Jules Void, manager e-business solutions with Novell Australia, agrees. While Novell is traditionally known as a directory - not a database - company, Void believes some of the basic difference between the two go a long way towards explaining some of the key data management challenges facing organisations - particularly within the context of building a strong customer-oriented e-commerce platform.
He says that many organisations fail to realise that while databases are highly scalable and ideal for ensuring things such as transaction integrity, the functions of a directory such as Novell's are equally as crucial. "Directories provide user profiles, access management and security policies in addition to things like resource provisioning," Void says, adding these are the sorts of functions considered crucial to successfully delivering applications such as Internet banking.
To illustrate the phenomenal rate at which the world is amassing information, IBM estimates that the data generated within the next three years will roughly equal the amount of data generated over the last 3,000 years.
"This is a very frightening increase in data volume," says Ursula Paddon, marketing manager for data management, IBM Australia and New Zealand. "But it is not merely the amount of traffic, but the diversity of this data that represents a major challenge".
Far beyond the boundaries of text and images, considerable repositories of audio, video and even personal identification data are being accumulated. And you don't need to be a Napster-head to see that the Internet is largely to blame.
Paddon believes this is driving the development of "strategic information platforms", recognising the fact that data management now means a great deal more than deployment of a standard database repository-type system over the top of existing platforms.
Senior software consultant with BMC Software Phillip Barratt agrees that companies face major difficulties in working out "what to do" with the vast amounts of data being generated across the organisation. But he emphasises that the issue of where to put it may be even more pressing.
Storage area networking is poised to become an intrinsic part of any large-scale data management system, Barrat believes, driven to a large degree by the imminent arrival of e-commerce's "Phase 2". "We are seeing a huge increase in the amount of transactions being conducted online and that is leading to an incredibly complex audit trail for any company interested in tracking this kind of activity," he says.
Seeking wireless partners
Oracle is one company that has based a lot on the promise of the Internet as a viable communications platform for business. And for the last few years it has extolled the virtues of the stripped-down client supported by increasingly powerful central servers. It's a model which the company is hoping to extend to the wireless applications space - the next major platform for not just database systems but all applications, if you take its dynamic leader Larry Ellison seriously.
Over the last year or so Oracle claims to have saved about $US1 billion by consolidating its back-end server infrastructure to three core regions: India, Asia and the Americas. The natural development from this point is the concept of myriad handheld wireless devices - all equipped to potentially access anything sitting on the core central database at the click of a button.
Reflecting this, according to the business development manager for technology with Oracle Australia, Paul Marriott, is the move by both the consumer and independent software vendor (ISV) community to push more recently for a wider choice of operating languages, especially applications supporting extended markup language (XML) and Java.
"Java and XML have been pivotal in pulling wireless/mobile solutions out of a 12-month trough of disillusionment," Marriott says. The development of the much touted general packet radio service by carriers in partnership with handset providers has been another important enabler for the remote operator, he adds.
Channel partners have a role in bringing - or not bringing - some of these new and ambitious services to market. In Oracle's case, few of its traditional channel partners have shown any willingness to get involved with wireless, with most content to stay with the traditional sales model, Marriott says.
Seeking to turn things around Oracle recently ran a week long training program on wireless mainly aimed at its 35 Australian Oracle Certified Solution Providers.
But as Marriott points out, "our desire to embrace and deliver some of these emerging technologies like wireless have forced us to seek newer and more progressively minded organisations. Our traditional partners are not embracing the new technologies - this is despite the overwhelming evidence that organisations can now enable their sales force to operate remotely for substantially less money than they could have some 18 months ago".