Although Microsoft's Windows NT 5.0 will offer organizations substantially more scalability than NT 4.0 does, I don't recommend your waiting for that release to "get your feet wet" with NT databases. Indeed, probably the most common question I get these days is "Which NT database should I get--Oracle or SQL Server?" Yes, there are NT versions of IBM's DB2 Universal Database 5.0, Sybase's Adaptive Server 11.5 and Informix's products, but Oracle and Microsoft are seen as having the strongest market dynamics in the NT space.

Oracle, the market leader, has a lot of things going for it. When it launched Oracle8 Universal Server last fall, it beat Microsoft to the punch with an object/relational database. (Most observers, however, rated the latest version of IBM's DB2, Version 5, also known as Universal Database or UDB, as technically superior to Oracle8. UDB 5.0 shipped with four "extenders," while Oracle8 added support for unstructured data via the new BFILE pointer datatype.) The current version of Microsoft SQL Server, Version 6.5, however, lacks the object/relational features of either DB2 UDB or even Oracle8. Microsoft's approach to the "universal" database market relies on OLE DB, the "universal data access" component of Microsoft's Component Object Model (COM) and Distributed COM (DCOM). SQL Server 7.0, expected midyear, will add universal row-level locking (6.5 has very limited row-level locking), better support for large binary objects and some sort of integration with Microsoft's forthcoming OLAP server, code-named Plato.

Oracle's OLAP server, Express, has been part of its product line for over two years, and IBM's new DB2 OLAP Server, based on Arbor Software's Essbase, has been shipping since February. Although it's unclear how important a "tightly integrated" OLAP server will be, the OLAP market is clearly exploding, especially distributed analysis of multidimensional cubes via the Web.

Data warehousing and data marts represent another dimension of distributed data analysis, and Oracle and Microsoft are likely to fan the flames of their ongoing PR wars on this front as well. Although Microsoft will have to play catch-up in the data warehousing/data mart market (Oracle will have been shipping its Oracle Data Marts for NT for almost a year by the time Microsoft adds explicit "data warehousing" support to SQL Server, and IBM's NT-based Visual Warehouse has been available for two years now), it did announce a data warehouse initiative last fall and has also been active lining up industry support for the Microsoft Repository and OLE DB for OLAP extensions.

Oracle has also taken the leadership initiative in its support for Windows NT clusters. When Microsoft Cluster Server (MSCS, formerly Wolfpack) shipped last fall, Oracle was the first to ship an NT database (Oracle7 Fail Safe) with support for MSCS two-node failover. Oracle also ships Oracle8 Parallel Server with support for multi-node clusters, making a compelling argument for NT scalability.

Cluster Basics

MSCS is Microsoft's built-in cluster support which was launched in September as part of Windows NT 4.0 Server Enterprise Edition. Initially, in Phase One, MSCS only supports the connection of two servers into a two-node cluster, giving it the ability to automatically detect and recover from server or application failures. Phase One clusters are limited to SCSI connections, which mean the servers must be collocated. MSCS cluster architecture is referred to as "shared nothing," as opposed to the "shared disk" architecture used by Digital in its VAXes (the original clustered systems) and by Oracle in Oracle Parallel Servers (OPSs).

Oracle is promoting OPS on NT as offering both scalability and high availability that Microsoft's SQL Server 6.5 can only dream about. Parallel cluster databases like Oracle8 Parallel Server can support a single database running across multiple nodes in a cluster. Each node runs an instance of the database, and all of the nodes share access to a common set of data files. A distributed lock manager (DLM) coordinates access to data across each of the instances. If one node is accessing a specific block of data, then the database ensures that any changes to that block from a second node are coordinated with the first. In addition, the database can balance users and transaction loads across the cluster to utilize all of the available resources. A parallel cluster database can also assign the workload from an individual user across the entire cluster.

Does it sound as though I'm recommending Oracle? No, not necessarily. Oracle will make sense for organizations with Oracle expertise or for organizations who simply can't wait for SQL Server 7.0. But I expect Microsoft to pull out all the stops to take back the NT database market.

All the major NT database vendors offer free evaluation copies of their software--either via download or by requesting a CD-ROM. Even IT shops that view NT as an unreliable, bug-ridden OS with a soon-to-be obsolete security design should really bite the bullet and start experimenting with NT databases--before upper management forces them to.

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