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Third-party Oracle database tools remain an attractive option

Oracle's new version of SQL Developer promises more features, but experts don't expect third-party vendors to suffer.

Even as Oracle Corp. adds features and functionality to its database tools, conventional wisdom suggests the software giant isn't about to dislodge third-party management vendors within Oracle shops.

In June, Oracle released Oracle SQL Developer 1.5, the latest version of its free database development-and-migration tool. According to Oracle, the update includes tighter integration with systems that control source code, as well as an expanded Migration Workbench -- the latter being an overt attempt by Oracle to wean customers from third-party database management software.

The new version builds on features released in previous iterations of Oracle's Enterprise Manager, especially Grid Control for managing a huge swath of databases, and continues the company's push to expand its services, including server virtualization and support for different guest operating systems.

With the possible exception of all-Oracle shops, though, third-party tools will remain a vital part of enterprise strategy because of their versatility, according to Oracle experts and users.

Enterprises turn to third-party management tools for two main reasons, according to Brian Peasland, an Oracle consultant in Fargo, N.D.

"One reason is that third-party tools provide useful functionality that Oracle tools don't provide," Peasland said.

Second, he said -- given the dearth of open source database platforms -- "it's rarely the case anymore that companies use only one platform" to store operating and business data.

Weigh the benefits

Indeed, the ability to help enterprises manage heterogeneous environments is one of the chief advantages of third-party tools. Noel Yuhanna, a Foster City, Calif.-based analyst with Forrester Research, said 90% of enterprises run more than one DBMS, including most Fortune 1000 companies.

"Most enterprises don't have the luxury of [employing] an Oracle DBA, a Sybase DBA, an SQL Server DBA, and so on … so third-party tools are very attractive," Yuhanna said. They help bridge the gap for developers working across platforms and the DBAs entrusted with managing these heterogeneous environments.

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Good third-party tools do more than monitor the health of databases, according to Yuhanna. They are capable of moving "up the stack" to pinpoint potential problems with other pieces of infrastructure, including applications, networks, operating systems, servers and storage.

"That [scope] is not Oracle's focus," Yuhanna said.

Heterogeneous support is of high value, he said, particularly to the roughly 20% of organizations that require extreme programming support, including applications and services that must be up and running round the clock.

Quest Software Inc. in Aliso Viejo, Calif., and Houston-based BMC Software are dueling for the top spot among third-party vendors, according to Yuhanna, with Embarcadero and other vendors grabbing smaller shares of the enterprise market. He gives a slight edge to Quest, thanks in part to its Toad DBMS freeware product.

"SQL Developer is becoming a much stronger and more feature-oriented product, but it still can't compare to Toad, which is the most widely adopted [third-party] tool," Yuhanna said. "It's easy to use across the platforms and is a very good tool for developers and DBAs."

Against the drawbacks

One downside to third-party tools is their high cost. The CPU-per-server or fee-based licensing models can be expensive, experts say.

"A lot of times, these products are licensed by the [number of] databases you have. So as your company expands, you'll have to fork over more money in licensing fees [to third-party vendors]," Peasland said.

By contrast, licensed Oracle users can take full advantage of Enterprise Manager, SQL Server and other applications that are part of the Oracle stack.

Introducing new applications and hardware also raises issues of integration and compatibility, according to Brian T. Fedorko, a senior database administrator with Viper Technology Services in Orlando, Fla.

"You're going to need personnel with training in the third-party tool, and you're probably going to have to buy some sort of service contract" from the vendor, and perhaps a dedicated application server, Fedorko said.

Making the move

Some organizations, such as Starwood Hotel and Resorts Worldwide, are simplifying their database management by taking the opposite approach: avoiding third-party tools. The White Plains, N.Y.-based hospitality company runs an all-Oracle shop of about 500 machines.

"We aren't using any [third-party DBA] tools, simply because we don't have the time to develop the expertise and manage all the different features," said Arup Nanda, Starwood's senior director of database engineering and architecture.

Instead, Grid Control's browser-based interface is easier and more convenient to use than a graphical user interface, Nanda said.

Smarting over "lackluster" 9i rollouts, Oracle is striving to improve its front-end management console, Fedorko said. Specifically, the introduction of Grid Control in Enterprise Manager 10g enables DBAs to exploit "untapped instrumentation and usability" and thus could sway more enterprises to migrate from third-party tools.

"With Grid Control, you can get your arms around a large group of databases, no matter where they are," Fedorko said.

Peasland advises enterprises to balance costs against potential gains.

"A decision to move to Oracle should be based on how much third-party tools are costing you," he said, "versus how much time and resources they are going to save you in the long run."

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