Craig S. Mullins
Database Performance Management

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July 1999



By Craig S. Mullins

Personal Digital Assistant devices, better known as PDAs, are fast becoming a necessity for business in the late 1990’s. Whether your PDA of choice is the industry leader (the Palm Pilot from 3Com) or one of a vast array of hand held, palm top devices running Windows CE, your PDA may soon have a database management system running on it. Why is that interesting? Does it change the way you will use your PDA? What will that mean to your IT department?

PDAs offer many benefits. The devices are small and therefore easily transportable. They do not interfere with a mobile worker’s ability to be mobile. But there are challenges to be faced as organizations incorporate PDAs into their infrastructure. The data on the PDAs must be managed professionally to ensure integrity and reliability. Because the device is remote, sharing of data can be difficult. The data on the PDAs must be reliably synchronized with existing enterprise systems and databases.

The Rush to Support the PDA

The major DBMS vendors are racing to provide small footprint versions of their flagship products to run on PDAs. Let’s take a quick look at three of the most popular: IBM’s DB2, Oracle’s Oracle8i Lite, and Sybase’s Adaptive Server Anywhere.

IBM made the most recent announcement for PDA DBMS at the International DB2 User Group in Orlando this May. There they announced DB2 Everywhere for Windows CE and PalmOS (the Palm Pilot's operating system). IBM claims that DB2 Everywhere is designed for mobile workers who need portable handheld devices for database applications such as inventory, shipping, healthcare and other industries. DB2 Everywhere will provide access to enterprise data from multiple types of handheld devices.

One characteristic of all PDA databases is their size; they are small. Instead of a footprint, IBM talks about the “fingerprint” of DB2 Everywhere – the claim being that its size is just too small to be labeled a footprint. IBM describes DB2 Everywhere as a relational database with a 50K "fingerprint" designed for low-cost, low-power, small form-factor devices such as personal digital assistants (PDAs) and handheld personal computers (HPCs). 

The general idea is to store a small amount of critical data on the PDA that is later synchronized to other, more complete and long-term data stores. DB2 Everywhere provides a local data store on the PDA for storing relational data from elsewhere in the enterprise. The relational data can be synchronized to the handheld device from other DB2 data sources such as DB2 running on UNIX, Windows NT, AS/400, or mainframe OS/390 platforms.

IBM provides software called Mobile Connect that provides the synchronization technology to move data back and forth from the PDA to other platforms. IBM Mobile Connect:

        allows organizations to directly transfer information from multiple hand held devices directly to corporate systems, without the need to synchronize via the PC

        enables 2-way database synchronization, 2-way file transfer, and the remote installation of applications, whether they are your own, or from a third party source

        supports direct synchronization with DB2, ODBC data sources, Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange for server based synchronization of e-mail, calendars, address books, as well as DB2 applications

Oracle Corporation also supports PDA devices with its mobile version of Oracle8i Lite. Oracle8i Lite has broad platform support, with both PalmOS and Windows CE versions available since September of 1998. Similar in nature to DB2 Everywhere, Oracle8i Lite enables organizations to run enterprise applications on PDA and handheld devices and to synchronize data reliably and securely with Oracle data servers running on other, scalable  platforms. The footprint of Oracle8i is equivalent to DB2’s at 50K.

Furthermore, Oracle has broadened the scope of Oracle8i Lite in May when it announced plans to port the product to even more devices, including cellular phones. And with Web-To-Go, a recently announced feature of Oracle8i Lite, entire web applications can be made mobile, without having to recode the application.

Finally, Sybase announced in April an extension of their strategic alliance with 3Com for supporting the Palm Computing platform. According to Sybase, the PDA market is hot for database technology. "Our customers in areas such as financial services, field sales and service, healthcare, and insurance are demanding robust, wireless access to their important business data," said Terry Stepien, senior vice president and general manager of Sybase's Mobile and Embedded Computing Division.

Sybase SQL Anywhere Studio provides a development environment for Adaptive Server Anywhere databases. The UltraLite deployment option provides an application-optimized, ultra-small database that resides locally on Palm Computing platform devices. MobiLink provides two-way enterprise server synchronization, enabling the UltraLite database on a handheld device to synchronize with a corporate database.

Impact on DBAs

Though you will not need a DBA to work on the database on each PDA, the job of the Database Administrator will indeed be impacted by this development. A database the size of those stored on PDAs should not require the in-depth tuning and administration that is required of enterprise database implementations.

The big impact will be in planning for and managing the data synchronization from hundreds or thousands of PDAs. When should synchronization be scheduled? How will it impact applications that use large production databases that are involved in the synchronization? How can you ensure that a mobile user will synchronize his data reliably and on schedule?

These are not minor issues. Before implementing a large battalion of PDA database users that must synchronize their data, make sure that your DBA staff is prepared for the impact to their databases. Like most anything, failure to prepare is a recipe for sure disaster.

But prepare we must. The day of the PDA is here, and so then, must the day of the PDA DBA be upon us. Be ready to support the inevitable request for this technology by understanding data synchronization technology and the potential need for remote database users at your organization. Next, apply some reason to which application systems in your organization might be impacted first. Those with remote workers such as sales systems or delivery tracking will most likely be the first impacted. Take some time to review the data requirements of those applications and how a large influx of remote connections might impact the current systems.

Because, mobile workers are here to stay. And we need to be ready to support them with a valid, shared data infrastructure.  

From Database Trends, July 1999.
1999 Craig S. Mullins,  All rights reserved.