Emerging Technology

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WHEN ERIC KENT built a laptop-based sales-force automation system in December 1996 for Simon & Schuster, he needed to fit the software -- applications, presentation tools, databases, files -- on a machine with a 1.2GB hard disk and 32MB of RAM. Kent, now director of IS for English book publisher Pearson PLC's technology division in Orangeburg, N.Y., wanted to give the salespeople enough information to take on the road and make a presentation about an upcoming title to bookstore buyers in their territory. (Pearson acquired most all of Simon & Schuster in 1998; both companies still use the SFA system.) Kent knew he couldn't put all the data in the company's database on the laptops, but salespeople needed information about the bookstore's account (order status, historical sales, and special handling and discounts for which it was eligible) as well as marketing information about new books, such as sales forecasts, cover art and promotion plans.

The key piece of technology that made the laptop project possible? A small- footprint database, one whose selective replication features allowed Kent to put just the data relevant to each salesperson onto their laptops and to collect the orders once the sales call was over.

More and more enterprises like Pearson are interested in small-footprint databases, says Brian Kalita, a senior analyst with Boston-based technology advisers Aberdeen Group, because they need to put certain types of data in the field where the workers are. What's appealing about small-footprint databases, according to Kalita, is that they offer "more information, more readily available, in a form that's accessible." And where once laptops were the only portable machines capable of running a database, technical advancements in the guise of more powerful CPUs and smaller, cheaper memory chips are enabling handheld devices and smart phones to run some form of a SQL database and synchronize that mobile database with a central database server back at headquarters.

The most common way to define a small-footprint database is by the minimum memory necessary to hold the kernel, a fuzzy line that rests at around 2MB for laptop versions and at 50KB for a handheld database. In many cases, the vendors have broken their databases into pieces, so users can add additional database functionality by loading another module onto their machine. What they have to weigh is footprint versus power: The smaller the footprint, the fewer the features that will work efficiently.

From Laptop to Palmtop

As Kent found when he researched Pearson's sales application, major database vendors offer some versions of their enterprise products that will run on a laptop. He chose Emeryville, Calif.-based Sybase's Adaptive Server Anywhere. Competing products include Oracle's 8i Personal Edition, Microsoft's SQL Server 7.0 Desktop and IBM's DB/2 Universal Database for Windows NT.

Some of the same players in the enterprise market have already extended their product line to handheld and specialty devices; witness Sybase UltraLite, Oracle 8i Lite and IBM DB/2 Everywhere. Microsoft is also working on a version of SQL Server that will run on its Windows CE operating system. Informix recently purchased Oakland, Calif.-based Cloudscape, a pioneer in Java-based databases, while Redwood City, Calif.- based Centura Software Corp. bought Raima Corp. of Seattle, the maker of the RDM real- time, embedded database. Other vendors in the small-footprint database market include PointBase in San Mateo, Calif., which sells mobile and server editions of its Java- based mobile database, and Austin, Texas-based Pervasive Software, the developer of Pervasive.SQL 2000, which claims to scale from smart cards to enterprise servers.

What distinguishes laptop versions of databases from their networked or standalone desktop cousins back at headquarters, Kalita says, is that a laptop database needs a replication mechanism that takes into account the occasionally connected nature of laptops, that is programmed to resolve replication conflicts among the mobile users and that ensures data synchronization will survive a low-quality wireless or modem connection. But overall, laptop and desktop databases are virtually the same, he says. "Laptops are getting so powerful that it almost doesn't matter what kind of database you put on it," Kalita says. The cutting edge of small-footprint database technology, he says, runs on personal digital assistants like those from Palm or Psion, and embedded specialty devices and appliances, like a bar-code scanner or medical tool.

Flat Versus Flexible

But users who are interested in putting a database on a handheld device can forget about complex SQL transactions, Kalita says. "[Choosing a] small-footprint database says, by definition, that I don't want a lot," he explains. At the most basic level, these databases are capable of displaying local data and doing inserts, updates and deletes; expect to run any cycle-chewing queries on the central database back at headquarters and download the results.

If these small-footprint databases have such a restricted feature set, then why bother? "It's hard to convince someone that they need a database for a handheld when they have a perfectly good file system," admits Anne Thomas Manes, a senior analyst at the Boston-based consultancy Patricia Seybold Group. "The biggest competition that these small-footprint databases have is a spreadsheet."

Go with a spreadsheet if you need data manipulation capabilities, she says, but a database is the right choice when the application involves searching, transactions, data integrity, security or synchronization with a corporate database. "You get a lot more flexibility with a database," she says.

Scott Herring, a principal at the Los Angeles-based custom development house Fresh Ground Software, needed searching and flexibility when he chose Cloudscape as the database engine for the company's MusicSource Desktop (MSD) product, scheduled to debut early this year. MSD is a marketing system for music libraries and music publishers that load a CD with the MSD application and song snippets, then give it to customers who might want to license their music.

First and foremost, Herring needed cross-platform flexibility; PCs and Macintoshes each compose about 50 percent of MSD's target market. That led him to Java. Next, he needed something small -- CD-ROMs have a limit of 640MB, most of which Fresh Ground wanted to devote to music samples. The database, the search system and the sound system have to eat up as little real estate as possible. That meant the database had to have a small footprint. In the end, Herring says, he had a pretty short list of candidates.

Working with Cloudscape was surprisingly easy, Herring says. "The Cloudscape piece was something we expected to be difficult and really was nothing," he says. Porting the database part of the application from its original SQL implementation to Cloudscape's Java-based SQL took only a few days.

But most CIOs will have a significantly different experience. Their application will be even easier to acquire -- they'll probably buy it. Independent software vendors (ISVs) are driving the small-footprint database market today, says Carl Olofson, a research director at IDC, a Framingham, Mass.-based high-tech market research company (and a sister company to CIO). For an IT manager trying to solve a business problem, Olofson says, the likeliest approach is to buy a turnkey solution that bundles the hardware and software in one package. Most end users won't even be aware that there is a database in the device; ISVs usually hide all the functionality, he adds.

The Two R's

But even with the database tucked out of sight, Olofson advises CIOs to check out two things before plunking down a purchase order for a turnkey system: reliability and replication. "In the case of an embedded device, you can't tolerate any failure at all," says Olofson. "The software has to be bulletproof." And as for replication, it's the lifeblood of mobile applications. Data islands are useless, so "no matter what the technology," Olofson says, "the value proposition has to include connectivity to a server."

High reliability and low maintenance are factors cited by Pat Babb, president of Sugar Loaf Software, a Sugar Loaf, N.Y., ISV that develops medical practice management software, when she describes her decision to use Pervasive.SQL 2000 in her product. Sugar Loaf builds an internet-based application, with Pervasive.SQL powering the servers in a secure data center run by Sugar Loaf. Medical office personnel access physician records over the internet using a browser on a desktop computer; Sugar Loaf is testing access via Palm and Windows CE handheld devices loaded with complementary database engines. Each device receives as much data of the most appropriate type as it can handle. For example, a nurse using a handheld to read and update a patient's chart doesn't need to see billing information.

Babb needed a multiplatform database that required little administration but that was reliable at the same time. You don't find a lot of DBA expertise at a doctor's office, notes Babb, but the office requires the same data integrity as any other business. "The data has to get to the physician quickly, but it has to be correct," she says.

Larry Chen, vice president and CTO of San Francisco-based Bidcom, also has a target market with little administration expertise: construction crews. Bidcom's site- inspection application, based on Oracle 8i Lite, places a Palm in the hands of internal construction company supervisors, who come to the job site to count workers, tally materials consumed and note safety issues.

Each day, the inspectors go to a different site; the Palm has to be loaded with that day's project information. At the end of the day, the updates get sent to a central Oracle database, where they are converted into web pages so that company executives can track each job's progress. Replication capabilities, especially two-way synchronization, were a key decision factor, says Chen.

The market for small-footprint databases is still limited, says IDC's Olofson, dominated by ISVs such as Sugar Loaf Software and Bidcom, and early-adopter enterprises. But in the future, he says, they will become more and more important. "Any database strategy that lacks this kind of functionality as part of the picture," says Olofson, "is going to lack a key dimension of data accessibility going forward, particularly if your aim is to support people who aren't sitting in their office."

This story, "Emerging Technology" was originally published by CIO.

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