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Diving deeper into the SQL database features

There are dozens of SQL database features for Oracle, IBM and Microsoft that have advantages and disadvantages that must be sorted through. This guide should help.

In the SQL database market, the strengths and weaknesses of Oracle 11g, IBM's DB2 and Microsoft's SQL Server depend on the size of the shop, server hardware, and pricing and support.

Read the other sections of this guide on SQL databases:

How to determine your SQL database through needs analysis
Breaking down the contenders in the SQL database market
Diving deeper into the SQL database features
The MySQL open source database in the enterprise

There is a lot more to the SQL server selection process than performance or system requirements. IBM, Microsoft and Oracle all offer certain SQL database features that could prove to be advantageous in a particular environment. For example, Oracle 11g offers advanced compression technologies that use a unique compression algorithm specifically designed to work with relational data. The algorithm works by eliminating duplicate values within a database block, even across multiple columns.

IBM also offers compression with DB2 and claims that its compression method outperforms what Oracle has to offer. DB2 uses one compression dictionary for the entire database table, whereas Oracle 11g uses a separate compression dictionary for each block in the database. A block is a unit of storage ranging in size from 4 Kbytes to 32 Kbytes. DB2's larger compression scope helps to boost compression rates beyond what Oracle is able to do. DB2 can compress substrings that span multiple columns,

For more on SQL database features
Read a comparison between Oracle 9i and SQL Server 2000

Read about the features of the new Oracle Database 11g R2

 whereas Oracle 11g can't compress substrings, which again helps DB2 to attain higher compression ratios. Microsoft also offers data compression in SQL Server and claims to have achieved compression rates as high as 81% with ROW and PAGE compression in production environments. Even so, if compression and storage space reduction are critical features, industry indications pretty much put DB2 at the top of the heap here.

Another point of contention among the database vendors is failover capabilities. Here, all the players claim to offer failover options that protect data and maintain uptime. Oracle offers failover support via the company's Data Guard technology which provides the management, monitoring and automation software to create and maintain one or more standby databases. A Data Guard standby database is used to maintain high availability for mission-critical applications.

Microsoft handles failover by including database mirroring and robust backup and restore functionality "out-of-the-box." SQL Server 2008 enables the principal and mirror database servers to transparently recover data page errors by requesting a fresh copy of the suspect page from the mirroring partner.

DB2 takes a different approach to failover when configured for Microsoft environments. DB2 UDB integrates with Microsoft Cluster Server (MSCS) to provide high availability (HA) support when running under Windows operating system environments. For simplicity in implementing failover, especially on Microsoft NOS servers, SQL Server 2008 takes the lead, given that all of the capabilities are included and are not extra cost options. These capabilities also use a simpler concept of leveraging mirroring to keep a database continuously available.

Perhaps one of the easiest ways to get a handle on each of the competitors is to look at the basic advantages and disadvantages of these SQL databases.

Advantages offered by SQL Server:

  • Excellent maintenance and development tools
  • Extensive support options
  • Very stable
  • Complete solution with little need for options and add-ons
  • Offers the lowest TCO in most cases
  • Supported by many third-party applications
  • Tightly integrated into Windows operating systems

Advantages offered by DB2:

  • Runs on multiple platforms
  • Good support options
  • Easy to scale to large environments
  • Very stable
  • Offers excellent compression capabilities

Advantages offered by Oracle:

  • Extensive support options
  • Runs on multiple platforms
  • Scalable for large environments
  • Very stable
  • Arguably fastest for large datasets
  • Supported by many third-party applications

Disadvantages of SQL Server:

  • Runs only on Windows platforms
  • Not as robust as DB2 or Oracle
  • Can be expensive
  • Requires "hands on" administration

Disadvantages of DB2:

  • Can be very expensive
  • Complicated licensing
  • Limited training options
  • Requires "hands on" administration
  • Limited add-on tools

Disadvantages of Oracle:

  • Requires trained and certified administrators
  • Can be very expensive
  • Complicated support options
  • Upgrades can be complicated

There are literally dozens of other factors to consider when choosing a database -- so many, in fact, that thick volumes have been written on that very subject. The key for most system administrators is to pare down their needs to the must-haves and then compare each database's features and how they address each of those must-haves. Other critical elements to consider include TCO, support required, upgrade charges, maintenance contracts, hardware and software compatibility issues, and labor overhead to get a database up and running. While that may be a complex endeavor, it may be the only way to perform due diligence in making a critical business decision.

While the task may be complex, the rules are relatively simple for picking a database:

  • Consider your budgetary constraints
  • Examine your scalability options
  • Calculate availability needs
  • Research training and support requirements
  • Inventory existing software and hardware
  • Consider future needs
  • Calculate implementation costs
  • Examine "hands on advantages" of each database
  • Validate availability of tools and options

By keeping those rules in mind, most system administrators should be able to create an intelligent argument for which database fits their business needs, now and for the future.

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