Gates to launch ‘Oracle killer’

Next Monday will see the official launch of Microsoft’s SQL Server version 7 at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas, one of the most eagerly awaited IT events of the year.

Microsoft has selected 50 software partners – including leading accountancy and enterprise resource planning software vendors such as SAP, PeopleSoft, JD Edwards, Great Plains, Solomon and Navision – to show off new capabilities of the database, which has the potential to become yet another industry standard like Excel and Windows.

Microsoft has addressed some of the shortcomings that held SQL Server back from being accepted in large corporate installations, opening the way for the software giant to break into the ERP market.

Simon Dismore, technology marketing manager for SAP in the UK, warned that SQL 7 would not by itself create a standard for the ERP market. ‘We have a database-neutral policy but the hardware suppliers will be pushing it very hard.’

He added, however, that SQL 7 was better prepared than previous models for the demands of the high-end market because, unlike previous models, SQL 7 had a table-locking mechanism that could protect one record in a database from being updated simultaneously by another user.

SQL 7 also extends the product’s reach downwards, with a mobile desktop version. Laptop users can do their work remotely and the software will synchronise itself with the database server when reconnected.

The underlying database comes with a built-in online analytical processing module called OLAP Services (previously codenamed Plato), which will bring business intelligence tools to the ‘common man’, said Holly Henson, group manager of Microsoft’s ERP/accountancy application developers’ customer unit.

Management accountants will be able to use OLAP Services to drill down and analyse business trends in applications run by SQL Server. It will also integrate with Microsoft’s Excel 2000, part of Office 2000, due to be released next year. A companion facility called PivotTable will open the way for users to do multidimensional analyses in Excel.

Software analyst Jyoti Banerjee, managing director of Tate Bramald Consultancy, noted that accountancy software developers had adopted SQL Server more enthusiastically than other sectors.

Henson confirmed this trend, and told Accountancy Age: ‘We had a lot more potential partners for the launch than we had the capability to manage. We looked for those who could use the database to open up new markets.’

Microsoft engineers worked for months with ERP vendors and accounting specialists to ‘stress-test’ the database to ensure it met their requirements, she revealed.

Despite the impressive collection of eager industry partners, however, there are SQL Server sceptics in the accountancy sector.

Dave Errington, chief technology officer for Sage, the market leader for accounting software, welcomed the latest SQL Server’s improved scalability. Sage’s US subsidiary State of the Art had taken its Acuity product to Microsoft headquarters to optimise it for the new version, but Errington revealed Sage had not decided if, or when, it would port its Line 50 and Line 100 products to the new database.

‘There are a lot of issues about licensing which are not very clear,’ Errington added.

The list of ERP partners has another notable exception. Speculation is rife about the degree to which SQL 7 will be an ‘Oracle killer’, but Oracle product manager Andy Bailey was defiant. ‘Will people bet their business on an unproven product?’ he asked. ‘We’ve been in the database market for 20 years. We’re selling more databases on NT than Microsoft.’

The most immediate impact of the launch will be felt in the small, but fast-growing financial analytical applications market. Comshare is in on the event and will unveil a version of its BudgetPlus application for SQL 7. Nigel Youell, UK marketing director for Comshare, said: ‘The big deal about SQL is its price. Business tools vendors like Cognos all say they will run with Plato but there is only going to be one really cheap tool – Excel 2000, which will come with Office 2000.’

‘From the top down’, page 24.

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