Despite a growing range of options for integrating mixed database environments, some companies are sidestepping the problem by moving to a single database platform.
As the three major databases -- Oracle, IBM's DB2, and Microsoft's SQL Server 2005 -- add features and functionalities that make them more alike, enterprises have less reason to run heterogeneous shops.
Since many companies are being forced to restructure their data storage systems to comply with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) anyway, moving disparate databases to a single database management system may actually be one of the easier steps.
The Public Company Accounting and Reform Act of 2002, commonly known as Sarbanes-Oxley for the legislators who sponsored it, was enacted after a series of high-profile business failures called into question the accounting practices of major corporations.
Under SOX, companies must meet stringent control and reporting requirements for all financial data, including an audit of all access to the data. Financial data -- and the audit records -- must be kept in most cases for at least seven years.
Avista Corp., an energy company based in Spokane, Wash., is involved in the production, transmission and distribution of electrical power and natural gas. It runs three database management systems -- IBM's DB2 on a mainframe and local and departmental systems on Oracle 9x and SQL Server 2000 and 2005.
But according to Chuck Ballinger, an information analyst at Avista, the company is in the process of migrating the bulk of its databases to Oracle in order to make it easier for the local utilities and the main corporation to share data.
"We just started the integration group in the middle of last year," Ballinger said. "It's in charge of nothing but moving data between systems for Sarbanes-Oxley compliance or Web-based operations."
Because much of its financial and transaction data from a variety of sources must be replicated and archived securely under SOX, having the local utilities on the same database management system as the central data repository makes sense.
And as more data from both local offices and the central mainframe must be available to customers on the Web, it also pays to have that data integrated.
The goal is "having the data interact a little better," Ballinger said. Getting the local data onto a uniform database also makes it far easier to switch operations from one local utility to another in the event of a failure.
InPhonic Inc., an online seller of wireless services, has its headquarters in Washington, D.C. It is also in the process of migrating its 75 applications -- for orders, fulfillment, accounting and financial data -- to a single DBMS, in this case, SQL Server 2005.
"We're not having that many problems," said Delton Blackwell, design process engineer for InPhonic. In part because so many of the applications are homegrown, the issue isn't so much integrating them, according to Blackwell. "We just transform the data," he said.
SOX restricts which employees can see what data, so there's a lot of replication -- another good argument for a single DBMS. "We limit access to what they need to see by replicating that data to another database," Blackwell explained. "We give them a view of the data they need," but they don't get access to the full database.
Other databases may still be in use but, increasingly, only for applications that don't have to interact with many others. "We've got an Oracle system," said Blackwell, "but it doesn't need to talk to the SQL Server data."
Likewise, Avista is moving "more and more" information to SQL Server, so long as it's "not mission critical," according to Ballinger. "It's our system for payroll and for small departmental systems that don't need the Oracle horsepower."
So although the growing similarity among databases means it's getting easier to put everything on one DBMS, there is still one big difference among them: price.
Although SQL Server 2005 is a much stronger contender in the enterprise marketplace than its previous version, it's still priced well below its two competitors. Companies that are already facing a large investment to switch to a single database platform may mitigate the financial burden by choosing the Microsoft product. "The SQL Server environment is a lot more cost-effective," Ballinger said.