IBM to Sell U2 Database Business to Rocket Software
September 21, 2009 Alex Woodie
IBM is selling its U2 database and application development products to Rocket Software, the companies announced last week. The deal includes the UniVerse and UniData suites of “multivalue” database management systems, as well as associated programming tools, which together are referred to as U2. Rocket says it intends to keep the U2 teams and business model intact. Terms of the deal were not announced.
Depending on how you apply the term “legacy” to IT products, U2 is either a dinosaur of technology that should be relegated to maintenance mode or another cutting edge product that’s been underutilized and under appreciated, but still has a bright future in the right hands. (And since you’re reading a newsletter called The Four Hundred that’s dedicated to a misunderstood and underappreciated product of the 1980s, we gather you likely have a more, uh, enlightened view of the loaded term “legacy.”)
The U2 databases trace their roots to the work of TRW researcher Dick Pick in the 1960s. Pick developed an operating system, called the Pick System, that featured an integrated “hash file” management system that organized data around a series of hash tables that associate keys to values.
This associative approach to organizing data proved quite efficient back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when processing power was much more expensive. But it still brings benefits today, as is evidenced by the fact that Pick and its “multivalued” database offshoots are still in use today, despite the widespread adoption of relational database management systems (RDBMSs).
While RDBMSs became popular with the rise of Unix, there remained a market for Pick’s offshoots. This demand owes its existence to the fact that there are some types of applications and data–such as a bill-of-materials structure with embedded hierarchies–where a general-purpose RDBMSs and its flat (two-dimensional) table structure is simply not as efficient as other types of specialized databases, including multivalued or multidimensional databases, like the U2 products. A Pick database, like the U2 duo, can also be sized more effectively for a given application, because it is not limited by database tables, and is easier to maintain.
IDC put it well in a white paper it wrote for IBM. “Some data involves recurring details or other nested structures that, if implemented using a pure relational model, would result in an inefficient collection of many tables and indexes requiring inefficient, multiple nested joins to access and update.” In other words, it’s very difficult to optimize indexes to speed up data retrieval times for data that includes many sub-files and hierarchies. You can read IDC’s whole white paper on U2, in PDF format, here.
UniVerse, which was created by a company called VMark, and UniData, created by a company of the same name, are just two of many Pick database offshoots that are still in use today. The companies did a brisk business in the 1980s and 1990s, offering a high-performance and efficient database that ISVs embedded directly into their applications, delivering higher performance and greater flexibility than could have been achieved using an off-the-shelf RDBMS software. In the early 1990s, UniVerse and VMark debuted the “extended relational” database when they added support for SQL and the tables-and-columns structures that are at the heart of RDBMSs.
VMark and UniData merged in 1997 to create Ardent Software, and the company shifted gears somewhat to target the burgeoning market for ETL tools. In 2000, Ardent was acquired by Informix, which in turn was bought by IBM the following year to boost its market share of the RDBMS market.
Attentive readers of this newsletter will remember that several former Ardent developers were involved in Lazy Software, the company formed by Synon founder Simon Williams that developed an associative database that would run on AS/400. It’s unclear if Lazy Software ever succeeded in bringing the database, called Sentences, to the AS/400 (as the Power Systems server was known back then), but Lazy doesn’t appear to be much of a going concern these days; its Web site hasn’t been updated in six years.
“I can’t live, with or without you”
IBM, however, has continued to develop U2 with things like JDBC connectors, plug-ins for Eclipse, extensions for Microsoft‘s .NET framework, various Web development tools, and support for XML.
However, despite the enhancements IBM has made to U2 over the years, there exists the feeling that the U2 duo are second-class products, behind the general purpose DB2 and Informix relational databases, according to IDC. In fact, it may have come as a surprise to some readers that IBM even owned an embedded database product called U2. Call it another example of IBM’s stealth marketing.
In any event, now that Rocket has agreed to buy them, the U2 products will no longer be overshadowed behind other products on Big Blue’s shelf.
Susie Siegesmund, the head of IBM’s U2 business, says there will be minimal disruptions to U2 customers during the transition to Rocket. That means she will continue to lead her same team of developers at Rocket, and there will be no changes to pricing or maintenance terms. U2 customers’ contacts will remain the same, as will phone numbers and e-mail addresses, for the time being, she says.
“Many of you have been our customers since the days of Unidata and Vmark, and have seen the succession through Ardent, Informix, and IBM,” writes Siegsemund, who holds the formal title of director of IBM U2 data servers and tools in Big Blue’s Information Management Software unit. “We look forward to continuing our strong relationship with you as our new company extends our reputation as the best software infrastructure provider for easily customizable, high transaction, zero administration Web applications,” she continues. You can read her entire letter to customers, in PDF format, here.
Rocket Software, which is based in Newton, Massachusetts, has been quietly amassing an impressive collection of IT products and brands, which the company mostly maintains as individually run subsidiaries. It has an i OS presence with Seagull Software, a developer of Web modernization and integration tools for System i servers and mainframes. Other Rocket properties include storage and archive software developer Arkivio; mainframe business intelligence tool vendor ASTRAC; business performance management and BI developer CorVu; mainframe systems management tools vendor MainStar; backup tools vendor Servergraph; database migration specialist SmartDB; and System i and mainframe emulator vendor BlueZone Software (which had previously been bought by Seagull).
It’s unclear what plans Rocket has for the U2 business. But with a decent mix of BI application software and that SmartDB migration tool, Rocket appears poised to leverage its portfolio of brands to deliver some exciting BI and BPM tools in the near future to compete in the wide open market for easy-to-use and manage BI tools for mid size companies.
For now, Rocket is playing it close to the vest. “Rocket feels privileged to bring the U2 employees, products, partners, and customers onto our platform,” states Andy Youniss, president and CEO of Rocket. “We are excited to help you fulfill your business potential with the U2 product family, and to provide you the ability to get even more out of your U2 investment.”