posted by Paul N Richter on Tue 3rd May 2005 21:31 UTC
IconThe mid-market is hot. It is forecasted to be the main growth segment in the IT market for the next few years. As such, it is fiercely contested by the major software makers. The BBC recently even called it a 60 billion dollar software battle. What exactly constitutes the mid-market is a bit vague, but some define it as businesses ranging from 50 to 1,000 employees.

"These businesses no longer look to IT only for basic business operation, but for managing customer, partner, and supplier relationships; for improving business execution in the office and in the field; and for better understanding their businesses. These activities generally involve the use of databases, and the ability to set up, maintain, and use those databases is becoming key to making the most of one's IT investment", says market researcher IDC. Mid-market businesses have different requirements from the large Fortune-500 businesses. IDC identified the following mid-market specific requirements:

  • Ease of use. Database administrators (DBA's) are in short supply, and getting more expensive all the time. Mid-market businesses generally can't afford to keep a staff of DBA's and expect the database to be easy to configure and fairly self-managing, requiring little or no in-house database administration expertise.
  • Efficiency. Mid-market businesses are cost-sensitive and seek to avoid unnecessary expense in either systems or storage. For this reason, the favored database is the one that requires the least CPU and storage resources to do the job.>
  • Full functionality. As mid-market businesses integrate with the larger world and as they become more dependent on IT for their operations, they have many of the same needs as other businesses for full SQL support, stored procedures and triggers, transaction support, security, and so on.
  • Support from leading applications. Most, if not all, software used in mid-market IT environments will be packaged software. The database chosen must be supported by that software.

Many databases are available for the mid-market, but only five have an installed base of 1 million or more and have made a commitment to the mid-market user: Oracle's Standard Edition 1 ("SE1"), IBM's DB2 Express , Microsoft's SQL Server and two open-source products, MySQL-5 and Firebird. Installed base is of course not relevant as a feature of the software product itself, but it is important as a measure of how real people have made real-world choices, based on features and cost. Systems that have a large installed base must have a cost/feature proposition that works really well for many people. As far as I can fathom, only 5 database systems have such a proposition.

So how do the "Big 5" stack up to IDC's set of requirements? One way to find out is to delve your way through a big stack of whitepapers and doing a feature by feature comparison. I have chosen a different approach. Of those 5, four are very well-known and one is a lot lesser known. It must have succeeded on other attributes than marketing hoopla. What better way to find out more about the the trade-offs involved and the 'must have' features then asking the people who chose that particular system, Firebird?

FrontRange Solutions is a leading provider of CRM and Service Management solutions for small and mid-market businesses. It also is one of Microsoft's largest resellers: their highly successful GoldMine CRM solution is used at over 30,000 businesses, serving over 1.3 million users every day. Last month, FrontRange announced that the next GoldMine release would use the Firebird database. The technical product manager for GoldMine, Angel Alexander Magana, says: "We considered other popular open source options such as MySQL, PostgreSQL and more recently, Ingres. Firebird came out on top based on a combination of factors including licensing, install process, performance, administration, feature set, and cross-platform capabilities. We also feel that MySQL, PostgreSQL and Ingres would need to be handled differently due to technical reasons, licensing and other variables."

Magana continues: "Something that was equally important to us, and many would likely consider irrelevant, is the Firebird footprint. Many people would argue against that being a factor given that we live in a world where 1 GB of disk space can be had for less than a dollar. However, many of our customers rely on being able to upgrade or purchase their copy of GoldMine via the Internet. When you look at it through their eyes, increasing the size of our installer by any significant factor means longer download times, which equates to an increased amount of time away from one's primary work responsibilities. That is a real issue for us, as we do not wish to impact our users in that manner. Other possible database alternatives would have significantly increased the size of our installer, in some cases, by a magnitude of almost 200%. One of the main principles of GoldMine is to provide tools that help one be more productive. Asking someone to wait online while a 130 MB installer downloads would start you off on the wrong foot and is contradictory to the productivity philosophy."

As is common with open source projects, there have been fierce debates in internet newsgroups about which open source database is "the best". Magana has a different view: "In my opinion, I feel the discussion of Firebird vs. MSDE (or other commercial alternatives) is of greater importance than the discussion to differentiate Firebird from other open source database systems like MySQL or PostgreSQL." Paul Ruizendaal, CEO of Firebird distributor Janus Software agrees: "When we win business versus SQL Server, we usually win it on product quality. Recently, the director of SQL Server product management at Microsoft, Tom Rizzo, stated that their product was built like a sausage, and that you did not want to see how it was made. With open source, you do see how it is made and the resulting quality shows through in the user experience."

About one-third of mid-market businesses in Europe already use open source databases, compared to 25% using Linux, according to IDC. An example is Austrian call-center business Clientel Telephone Marketing. “Firebird is at the heart of our Clientel Suite software”, says the company’s CTO Gerhard Knapp, “We started years ago with Interbase 4.0, and use now Firebird 1.5.1 SuperServer. For Web-access via PHP we have installed a Linux web server with Firebird. Nearly 200 users with high concurrent updates are using Firebird on seven servers, with 21 1-2 GB databases. A typical database has more than 1000 tables, 70 stored procedures, and lots of generators, and some tables have more then 1 million records. We also use Firebird for our own database driven registry, internal mail-system, in a workflow integrated mailing server (fax, email, print), in our ticket-system, in our MS Word document storage, and in a PHP driven picture webpage system, which is directly streaming stored blob pictures to the customer browser. Our latest tool is Datamatch, which uses Firebird to provide German optimized homonym and fuzzy logic matching.”

Why did Clientel decide to use Firebird? It turns out that there are many reasons behind the decision. Knapp says: “Firebird is very functional, fast and secure. It is also easy to install and maintain, and is straightforward to understand. Backup and restore are easy and fast.” Knapp agrees with Magana that size matters: “Firebird doesn't need 100 MB and more of files to make it work.” The business friendly license and the availability on many platforms are important too: “Our customers have not to pay for database licenses, which is an advantage for our business and allows for a fast return of investment for our customers. We can use other operating systems, not only Windows, if we need it.” And in the end, quality is what matters most: “We now have a lot of experience (7+ years) with the Firebird code base and we trust this database engine. As software developers we enjoy it.”

Firebird’s oracle-mode opens an interesting angle on application support. Take the example of Compiere. Compiere is an open-source ERP/CRM package for the mid-market. With hundreds of thousands of downloads and hundreds of installations in production use, it is the most popular open source application of its kind. It was designed to run on Oracle, but Firebird supports Compiere through its oracle-mode emulation layer. Compiere user Ivan Biddles says: "I think Firebird is a great piece of work. I downloaded the demo, followed the instructions in the how-to and had Compiere up and running on Firebird in a matter of minutes." Ruizendaal adds: "Oracle SE1 is a direct competitor to Firebird. They currently scale better on the very high end and we scale better on the low end, but for 80% of users the products totally overlap. Firebird however has a clear advantage when it comes to ease of use and cost of use."

And how about MySQL? Ruizendaal grins: " MySQL has a formidable marketing machine behind it, really quite impressive. The market would seriously shake if we could combine their marketing power with Firebird's quality, performance and 20 year track record."


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