SAN FRANCISCO -- A host of relatively new, yet prevalent, obstacles to effective enterprise information management provided the inspiration for Oracle Database 11g's latest features and enhancements, according to one Oracle database executive who spoke at the OpenWorld 2007 conference here. But is there still room for Oracle to improve on the information management front?
Businesses today have to deal with ever-growing stores of all types of information, including videos, images and XML data, according to Andrew Mendelsohn, Oracle's senior vice president of server technologies. Security and regulatory compliance concerns are running rampant, he said, and there are more consumers of information within the typical organization than ever before.
"It's not just a few people in the finance department now who do all kinds of [business intelligence]-driven analysis. It's all over the corporation," he said. "Customers of companies want to look at information, suppliers and distributors are passing around information, [and] people want real-time access to that information."
Meanwhile, IT folks are feeling the pinch, said Mendelsohn, who used a survey from Stamford, Conn.-based IT research firm Gartner Inc. to illustrate the point. The survey, which went out to 700 attendees at a recent Gartner data center conference, found that the three biggest challenges to running an IT shop are dealing with the quick pace of change, managing costs and ensuring 24/7 availability.
"This is a real dilemma for IT: How can you keep changing things and deliver 24/7 availability?" he said. "It's just really hard to do."
Mendelsohn said the new features and enhancements found in the latest version of his company's flagship database management system -- Oracle Database 11g -- were designed with these sorts of information management issues in mind. But according to one IT industry analyst, there is at least one area of information management that Oracle hasn't addressed yet.
Oracle has done a solid job of creating a secure and highly auditable information management environment, said Gene Phifer, a vice president and distinguished analyst with Gartner, but when it comes to the Semantic Web -- an extension of the World Wide Web where content is expressed in standards-based formats that are easier for search engines to understand -- Oracle, like most other major database vendors, has done very little.
"That's an area they're going to have to touch, because Semantic Web, from the information management perspective, is going to be a very big part of our lives," Phifer said. "Oracle is going to need to get their arms around that and talk about how their strategies will deliver capabilities there and let customers know what they're going to do and when they're going to do it."
Getting business insight from more types of data
Oracle Database 11g contains support for three new data types to help users "get better business insight into all kinds of information," Mendelsohn said -- RFID, 3-D spatial and DICOMM, a data type that is widely used in the medical profession.
"Another big area is extensible markup language (XML)," he said. "XML has become the common lingua franca for exchanging information in the middle tier, and it's now a standard format for Microsoft Office documents. We're expecting a big onslaught of XML data to be stored in Oracle databases over the coming years."
Along those lines, he said, Oracle has introduced support for a new XML Binary format, a compressed format for storing XML documents, as well as support for schema-less XML documents.
Managing data growth
To help users more effectively deal with the non-stop proliferation of data, Oracle Database 11g offers new partitioning capabilities in the form of Oracle's Partition Advisor and Interval Partitioning tools.
The Partition Advisor can examine query workloads and make recommendations about how best to partition data for easier management and better performance, while automatic Interval Partitioning automates the task of building new partitions.
"Today, as you look into the month of December, the DBA actually has to do a menu operation to create a new partition for that month," Mendelsohn said. "With 11g, the first time you enter an order for December, Oracle Database will just automatically create that partition for you."
Database 11g also supports compression for various types of workloads, a capability that potentially helps customers save significantly on storage costs, according to Oracle.
"In 10g, we had some compression, but it was only invoked during the load process and it was mostly used for data warehousing," Mendelsohn explained. "In 11g, we now can invoke compression on every update, insert and lead operation into the database."
Ensuring high availability
In Oracle Database 10g, Oracle introduced a slew of new technologies designed to help organizations deal with both planned and unplanned downtime -- technologies that Oracle explains thoroughly in its Maximum Availability Architecture document, according to Mendelsohn.
The technologies included Oracle Real Application Clusters (RAC), which deal with server failure; flashback technologies to deal with human errors; Oracle Secure Backup, which backs up databases onto tape drives for disaster recovery purposes; and Oracle Data Guard, a tool that maintains and monitors one or more standby databases to protect enterprise data from errors, failures, disasters and corruptions.
In Oracle Database 11g, Mendelsohn said, the company expanded on the Data Guard technology to introduce Oracle Active Data Guard, an option that enables read-only access to a physical standby database for queries, sorting and reporting while continually applying changes received from the production database. Active Data Guard also allows for incremental backups when offloading backups to a standby database.
Oracle's availability technologies have worked out well for Yuval Arnon, a database administrator (DBA) with WebLoyalty.com, a Norwalk, Conn.-based marketing company. Arnon's firm recently migrated from Oracle Database 10g for individual servers to Oracle Database 10g RAC on Linux.
"We are looking forward to all 11g's new features, and we are going to implement Data Guard," he said. "We'll go to 11g probably in the next year or two."
Arnon said that one of the biggest challenges related to building a high-availability cluster was making sure that his firm had the correct skill sets in-house to make it happen.
"When you build a cluster, you need a different level of expertise," he said. "You need a hardware expert, you need a Linux expert and you need a database expert. You can't do it all yourself."
The DBA added that his firm plans to deploy another cluster node within the next two months, primarily for redundancy and scalability purposes.
For increased security, Database 11g adds advanced encryption for Oracle's Secure File LOBs, as well as support for encryption at the table space level, which allows users to "just encrypt all the information as opposed to picking and choosing columns," Mendelsohn said.
In addition, Oracle has introduced Oracle Data Masking, which hides sensitive production information from those working in the test environment.
Dealing with change
Oracle set out to improve testing capabilities and patching processes in Database 11g in order to help users do a better job of dealing with change, Mendelsohn said.
New features in the area of testing include Oracle Snapshot Standby, which makes it easier to provision a test environment, and Oracle Real Application Testing, which he said "automates the process of creating a real production-quality regression for your applications."
On the patching front, the company has introduced Oracle Online Patching, which lets Database 11g users apply patches to running systems without any downtime.
"I think by all means that [dealing with change] is probably the area where we have the best and most extensive set of innovations in the product," Mendelsohn said.