Oracle makes grand play for data

Building its case for giving database software a new role in desktop and

server computing — at the expense of the traditional operating system — Oracle Corp. took the wraps off its new Internet File System (iFS) last

month.

While Oracle's database is widely used to store "structured" data — rows and columns of numbers — iFS makes it possible to use the same software

to manage such data as word processing documents, spreadsheets and multimedia

files.

Those "unstructured" files are traditionally stored in desktop and server

operating systems, such as Microsoft Corp.'s Windows family. But iFS improves

on the operating system by storing them in a way that is easily searchable

and provides increased security, according to Oracle. IFS will be available

as a free feature on the Oracle8i database for Windows NT and Sun Microsystems

Inc.'s Solaris.

Although the new software's enhanced file management features have already

won over at least one major government solution provider, iFS is unlikely

in the short term to weaken the grip that desktop- and server-based file

systems have on a large share of agency data.

"The iFS allows you to leverage all the capabilities of a relational

database and store information in industry-standard Windows files," said

Barry Leffew, vice president of Oracle's advanced programs group. "For document

management systems, this could be a replacement for the Windows file system.

You would still use all the applications, but not the file system.... You

can store all data in one integrated environment, with better reliability

and security."

But iFS has at least two big hurdles to clear before it poses a serious

threat to companies that already provide file management capabilities via

their operating system software, according to Kevin Plexico, vice president

and chief technology officer at Input, a market research firm.

First, iFS must overcome the tremendous market penetration the OS vendors

already have, particularly Microsoft, in desktop and server computers. To

make the new software more palatable to users accustomed to these systems,

Oracle created a user interface for iFS that closely resembles the Windows

OS.

Second, to deploy iFS, the customer must also run the Oracle database.

"This raises the deployment and maintenance cost of the technology significantly,"

Plexico said.

Even so, at least one player in the federal market is moving quickly

to adopt the new Oracle file system. General Dynamics Corp.'s electronic

systems division — which produces a World Wide Web-based conferencing system

used by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Air Force and other national

intelligence agencies — will use iFS as the new file system for its product.

General Dynamics' InfoWorkSpace lets people who are geographically dispersed

use the Internet to communicate, collaborate on projects and share information

from a knowledge management database. Participants access the system using

a Web browser and meet in virtual buildings and rooms via the Internet.

IFS will provide InfoWorkSpace with enhanced search functionality. "The

search engine does types of linguistic searches with modeling that are used

to manage documents and summarize large amounts of data," Leffew said. "For

example, an analyst dealing with a lot of open-source information would

be able to summarize and keyword it using iFS."

"In general, our government customers have been pleased because of the

increase in capabilities that come with the database," said Jay McConville,

manager of sales and marketing for collaborative technologies and products

at General Dynamics.

The intelligence and law enforcement communities have shown interest

in platforms that enable the kind of remote collaboration tools offered

by InfoWorkSpace, Leffew said.

Plexico thinks that within the government there will be pockets of support

for iFS, particularly in organizations that are already using Oracle, but

general interest will be limited.

"I don't think it is something most would consider a real replacement

for the Windows file system on a macro level," he said. But, "iFS has the

functionality to support a broader range of file and content types, and

it is accessible through a Web front end. It could bring some valuable organization

to fragmented and disparate file systems," he said.

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