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Best Databases for Small Businesses

By Vincent Ryan
Apr 22, 2003 4:00 AM PT

When it comes to choosing a database, size matters -- not so much the size of the database, but the size of the company. Whereas mid-size to large companies generally select a complex database and then task administrators and developers with building applications around it, small businesses usually take a different tack, focusing on simplicity and ease of use, because they often do not have an administrator on staff.

Best Databases for Small Businesses

Database vendors are working hard to tailor their products to appeal to the low end of the market. So, what are the key selling points for small e-businesses that are database shopping?

The Big Three

Above all, small businesses look for databases that are easy to administer and install. Among database leaders Microsoft, Oracle and IBM, Microsoft appears to have the edge.

"That (easy installation) would be a hallmark of SQL Server," Forrester research director Philip Russom told the E-Commerce Times. IBM's DB2 and Oracle's 9i have a reputation for being more difficult and time-consuming to install, he said.

But Robert Shimp, vice president of database marketing at Oracle, disputed that notion. "There's a very mistaken impression that Oracle is somehow more complicated than competing databases," he told the E-Commerce Times, adding that Oracle 9i Standard Edition takes only about 10 to 15 minutes to install and has a graphical management interface.

Price, of course, is another key consideration for small businesses, according to Russom. As in the administration arena, Microsoft SQL Server enjoys a reputation as the low-price leader, and prices listed online bear that out. Oracle 9i Standard Edition carries a base list price of US$300 per user. SQL Server, by contrast, sells for $2,249 for 10 clients, or about $225 per client. However, Oracle offers special discounts for small and mid-size businesses.

Oracle Push

Indeed, Oracle is trying to make inroads into the small business market with its 9i Standard Edition offering. The product possesses a wide variety of classic database functionality but also provides transaction capability, reliability and security, Shimp said.

Two important features in Oracle 9i that small businesses should look for in any database are scalability and native XML support, he added. In 9i, scalability comes in the form of real application cluster technology, which means companies need not throw away their old server when they move up to the enterprise edition of Oracle. "They can add additional Wintel-based servers and the cluster will act as one large database," Shimp said. "They don't have to pay up-front for that."

Native XML support is also increasingly important as software like Microsoft Office allows users to turn Word documents into XML documents, Shimp said. Businesses want to be able to plug those XML documents into their databases and run queries on them, he explained. With native XML support, XML documents can be viewed as relational data, and relational data can be poured into the database and pulled out as an XML document.

Restricted Choices

Another important factor in the database purchase choice is which platform a business is using. Because most small businesses run Intel servers and the Windows operating system, the database they choose must be available in a Windows version. Microsoft's SQL Server is available only for Windows.

"SQL Server is the king of small databases," Russom said. However, both Oracle and IBM also have Windows versions of their own highly scalable databases. Also, Linux is becoming a popular platform among companies seeking inexpensive setups.

In some instances, small businesses are unable to choose their database in the true sense of the word, Russom said. If they buy an application based on its capabilities without considering which databases it supports, they will have to implement the database required by that application.

Application First

That premise is the whole thrust behind Progress Software's approach to the small business market.

Instead of selling its database as a stand-alone product, the company relies on 2,000 application partners that have built 5,000 applications for specific vertical markets based on the Progress RDBMS database, according to Maggie Alexander, vice president of marketing operations at Progress. About 70 percent of Progress' business comes through those application partners. The company pitches its product as the database customers do not have to think about.

"The applications provider comes in and installs the product as a complete solution," Alexander told the E-Commerce Times. "The database pretty much just runs."

Progress' offering is targeted toward companies that do not have a database administrator -- in some cases, an accountant might be performing data backups, Alexander said. "The smaller the business, the less enamored they are of dealing with technology," she noted. "They have a business problem they want to solve."

Progress also has what it calls "direct" end-users, but in most cases those are IT shops that want to develop an application centrally and deploy it to hundreds of remote installations that do not have a database administrator on-site.

Oracle is taking a similar approach with its embedded system licensing program, which provides the Oracle database to independent software vendors to embed in their applications.

Back to Basics

Moreover, in some small companies -- or in organizations operating independently within a larger company -- it is not uncommon to find desktop databases, such as Microsoft Access.

Then there are the extremely primitive operations that, rather than purchasing a database, tailor other programs for database functionality. "In a lot of small businesses there's no database at all -- they're using spreadsheets," Russom said.

Spreadsheets, however, do not scale well, and companies that intend to grow beyond $10 million to $20 million in sales eventually will have to spend the money to license a real database, he added. When they do, they will have a wealth of options. It would behoove vendors to understand those options and how to target their offerings to small businesses.

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