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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


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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