After 20 years, Rdb Still Going Strong

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Minnesota State Colleges and Universities do more than 100,000 Web transactions per day and run 24/7. Dozens of databases handle all aspects of college administration. This amounts to 1.5 TB of disk space, more than a billion records and a growth rate of 30 percent per year.

What modern marvel of database technology accomplishes this with effortless ease? It's a 20-year-old, little-marketed database management system (DBMS) owned by Oracle, known as Rdb.

''Rdb is scalable, performs well, is highly secure and easy to administer,'' says Miles Oustad, database administrator for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. ''Oracle takes more resources than Rdb and I'm not convinced I would be better off.''

The university system was formed in 1995 as a merger of three existing educational organizations. It comprises eight state universities and 29 technical/community colleges statewide. Its more than 20,000 faculty and staff members serve more than 200,000 students each year.

The central IT environment for the colleges consists of four HP Alpha GS160 servers running VMS 7.3-2 and Rdb 7.1.3. One application called Integrated Statewide Records System (ISRS) is common to all 37 institutions. It is written and maintained in-house in COBOL, Uniface (4GL), C and Java. More than 2.9 million lines of COBOL code currently exist. Each server supports between 700 and 1,000 ISRS users each day. The organization has Web-enabled its systems using XML, JDBC and Apache, and is beginning to utilize J2EE portal development.

''We have had most of our student and faculty functions Web-enabled for several years now,'' says Oustad. ''Class registration, open sections inquiry, grade lists, and other transactions are running 24/7 over the Web. That's over 100,000 Web transactions per day to our Rdb database.''

The educational body runs 37 institutional Rdb databases, each with more than 1,200 tables and 1,500 indexes. Their one billion records consume about 900 Gb of disk space. In addition, it has Rdb reporting databases for each institution, and many developmental, QC, regional and centralized databases. Oustad estimates about 120 databases in total taking up about 1.5 TB.

The school system is not alone in its use of this unfashionable system.

One of the big reasons this database continues to see heavy use in financial markets, wireless/satellite providers, big government and education is that it can stay online for extended periods. It evolved in the 1908's in a tight coupling with the VMS operating system, which has earned a reputation for dependability.

''I have never found another DB/OS combination so robust, feature rich, and reliable,'' says Oustad. ''I've worked with Oracle since version 8 and have found it to be much more labor intensive than Rdb.''

IT consultant Jeffrey Jalbert agrees. He is a principal at JCC Consulting Inc. of Granville, Ohio, a firm specializing in database consulting. His customers are typically large companies with extremely critical systems, he notes.

''It is difficult to replace something that works, doesn't break is low in cost to own and is fast,'' says Jalbert. ''Rdb is also the DBA's friend -- one command to back it up, one command to restore, and it's easy to figure out what is going on.''

He tells of one customer with a very modest Alpha achieving a peak of 3,500 transactions a second on Rdb. He also explains that far from being an aging product, a new version comes out about every quarter, fueled by a responsive development team. Oustad validates this with tales of rapid responses to questions sent to technical support -- faster than Oracle customer support, according to his experience.

Warehousing Woes

It's not all smooth sailing for Rdb, however. While Oustad believes it has as good a feature set as any modern equivalent, he confesses that it's not necessarily the easiest tool to learn.

''It takes knowledge of the product and its various bits and bytes in order to administer it well,'' he explains. ''Some might not consider it modern because it doesn't have the fancy GUI interfaces that other DBMS have.''

Jalbert points out that there are certain functions that Oracle does better, such as building a data warehouse with materialized views. So in some environments, it may be necessary to supplement Rdb with the latest Oracle DBMS.

''There is no doubt that Oracle offers some interesting and useful tools,'' he adds.

Even here, though, he still recommends staying on Rdb under most circumstances. His company has developed a tool called JCC LogMiner Loader that enables migration to Oracle, while keeping an Rdb database running and synched. That way, companies can run Rdb as a transaction manager and store historical data in their Oracle-based data warehouses.

The Minnesota university system, for example, has implemented this arrangement. It mines transactions from Rdb to Oracle for warehousing and reporting purposes. While this provides greater reporting capabilities, it also causes a different kind of headache.

''I run into constant issues and bugs in our Oracle warehouse and enterprise reporting environments,'' says Oustad.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

There is no doubt that Oracle has grown market share at the expense of Rdb and other older databases over the past decade. But a surprising number have remained on Rdb and show no signs of migrating.

The Minnesota univeristy system is happy with its current architecture.

''I won't come off Rdb just to keep Oracle performing at the same level. We would need at least three or four more DBAs,'' says Oustad.

Jalbert, too, sees little point in migration. He stresses that ROI rather than going with what's fashionable, should drive decisions about platforms and databases. In his experience, he's seen little ROI in moving off Rdb. But not always.

''If your application is obsolete and you want to replace it with something new, then you are going to consider alternatives,'' he says.

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