Embedded Databases Reveal Gems - InformationWeek

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Embedded Databases Reveal Gems

Built-in databases are easy to use, cost-effective, and require little or no administration

Boating supplies retailer West Marine Inc. deployed a new point-of-sale system throughout its 250 stores in July. Buried in the software running on each store's server, and invisible to employees, is an embedded database handling a variety of pricing and inventory-management chores. Why an embedded database? "Total cost of ownership. And we don't have a database administrator in every store," says Wayne Freeman, retail systems applications manager.

The term "embedded database" covers a broad range of implementations. Some are built into devices ranging from industrial controllers and cable-television set-top boxes to medical-imaging systems and the flight controls of the Boeing 777. Others are used in the rapidly growing number of mobile phones, PDAs, and other portable consumer devices that rely on built-in databases as small as 50 Kbytes. Still others are used by corporate developers and independent software vendors, who build them into applications, making the databases invisible to users.

Embedded databases are particularly prevalent in accounting software, retail applications such as West Marine's, and applications for the health-care industry.

PixelPoint Technologies Inc., for example, develops point-of-sale applications for restaurants that have Sybase Inc.'s SQL Anywhere database built into them.

Wayne Freeman

West Marine chose an embedded system to meet performance, Freeman says.
The database has to be reliable and easy to use, because PixelPoint's resellers sell cash registers, not complex applications, CEO Lino D'Angicco says. "If we had to tell our resellers that they have to have a database administrator on-site, well, that's cost-prohibitive," he says. PixelPoint's software is designed to be self-configuring.

The automated, self-configuring capabilities in Pervasive Software Inc.'s database software is a key reason West Marine used it to replace the database that came with the Win/DSS point-of-sale system from JDA Software Group Inc. that runs the retailer's 1,400 cash registers and workstations. Also key was scalability: The system tracks the stores' 160,000 inventory items and 500,000 price records. "We desperately needed performance," Freeman says.

Despite their obvious benefit and almost ubiquitous nature, sales of database software for embedded applications have slumped badly during the recession--people aren't buying as many refrigerators, vending machines, industrial controllers, networking devices, airplanes, and medical-imaging systems, and so they're not buying as many embedded databases.

Sales of the software dropped from $416.9 million in 2000 to $349.7 million last year and are expected to sink further to $314.1 million this year, according to market researcher Gartner Dataquest. Sales are expected to stay flat next year before starting to grow again in 2004.

What's more, large packaged applications with embedded databases seem to be losing some of their popularity, while vertical-market and workgroup applications with embedded databases are becoming more prevalent, Aberdeen Group analyst Wayne Kernochan says.

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