Db2, where are you? Big Blue is oddly reluctant to discuss recent enhancements to its flagship database

Cloud-native RDBMS is coming, on AWS and Azure. Yet IBM's only preaching to the choir


It's the time of year when one might wonder what happened to that avuncular family figure whose existence was so reliably dull they passed into history almost forgotten - a little like Db2, IBM's flagship relational database that has faded from users' collective memory.

Big Blue's system of choice for its mainframes and big Unix/Linux boxes is still very much alive and kicking and has even delivered a smattering of news in recent weeks, with a high profile attendee at the early December International Db2 Users Group European Conference telling us that select users were told of the new "Db2u", a set of containers for Db2 aimed at users exploring or working with the database in the cloud.

Conference speaker, Db2 DBA, and commentator Ember Crooks had posted earlier this year that "db2u sounds amazing to me" and that "db2u, conceptually, is a nearly cloud-native way of doing a relational database management system." But she also pointed out that "the problem I run into is that db2u is only available on RedHat OpenShift."

Now, according to Crooks, IBM seems to be porting Db2u to container services Amazon EKS and Azure AKS.

Enthusing about the apparent move last week, Crooks wrote: "There is no printed statement yet that I can refer to, nor is there a more solid date … but when I talked to the platform team at work, we're looking for workloads to try on Amazon EKS, so the moment it becomes available, I'm ready to do a POC on it and hope that in 2022, I can get my production databases running on it!"

The Register has asked IBM for confirmation of these plans.

Db2 was modelled on the ideas of IBM researcher Edgar Frank "Ted" Codd, who first described the theory of relational databases in 1970. The first products became available on IBM mainframes in 1983 and on later on Unix, Linux, and Windows. The product has been styled as "DB/2", then "DB2" before settling on the current "Db2" in 2017.

While there has been a flurry of innovation and startups in the database market in recent years, Db2 remains ranked the seventh-most-popular database by DB-Engines, which uses a combination of downloads, sales, and citations to rank databases.

It is well behind leader Oracle in its score, but well above, say, Snowflake, which, despite being 17th, has seen an investment frenzy that at once valued the company at $120bn, more than the whole of IBM which includes hardware, mainframes, cloud, and a substantial services operation.

It is frustrating to users, then, that in an era with a seemingly insatiable interest in databases and related data engineering products – Databricks' nominal value of $28bn is just one more example – IBM seems to lack the appetite to promote its own flagship product.

Sebastian Zok, Db2 user and IDUG EMEA conference chair, welcomed the idea of IBM supporting alternative container platforms. "It's a good thing because any restriction you have on a system lowers the number of people who want to use it. Now with the possibility of using two containers within native Kubernetes without OpenShift ... you open the field for a lot of companies that just thought 'well yeah, we're using containers, but we're not using OpenShift.' I think they'll do great with that because they're expanding their possible customers."

But Zok said the user community was concerned over the lack of attention IBM is paying Db2 in public.

"IBM isn't doing the best job of marketing Db2, in general, both on Linux-Unix-Windows and System Z. If you're asking some tech people that are not so deeply into databases, which databases they know the first thing they say is Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server as well. But people only know Db2 if they have it in their shop already, or if they’re involved in the mainframe. It's a concern. IBM do better marketing with Db2, just to show the world its capabilities. It's no worse than Oracle or MS SQL Server. I wouldn't say it's way better but it's a competitor and a really good one."

Given the status of some Db2 users, it seems a surprising approach from IBM. The technology is relied on by a string of the world's largest banks and retailers including JP Morgan Chase, HSBC, Bank of America, and Tesco.

However, the community was still encouraged by the technical investments IBM is making in its core database, and requests for technical upgrades were well attended by IBM engineers.

"I don't think IBM wants to let Db2 die. It's not like Cobol or anything like that. IBM is near to its customers but only those that have already invested in Db2. We would like to see them try to do a better job [outside that group]," Zok said.

Zok added that the Community License for Db2 on Linux-Unix-Windows, which offered a full-featured database albeit with limited resources, appears promising. It could be an alternative to PostgreSQL, the open-source relational database, for small, start-up projects, he said. "Postgres is good because the community is very responsive. But on the other hand, having a company like IBM behind the product, you know there are the people that develop that stuff and could find problems if you have any."

IBM is not the only vendor with an interest in Db2 - third parties such as BMC aim to help Db2 users manage, optimise, and safeguard the platform on the mainframe.

April Hickel, VP of Intelligent Z optimization and transformation at BMC, said: "BMC sees continued growth and use of Db2 in customers in line with the positive growth trend of the mainframe."

In BMC's latest mainframe survey, 68 per cent of respondents expect MIPS to grow – the highest outlook in the 15-year history of our annual report. "BMC continues to invest in Db2 with quarterly releases of our Db2 solutions with a focus on delivering automation with CI/CD pipeline integrations, using AI/ML to proactively detect issues, automate root cause isolation, and optimise database performance," Hickel said.

The Register has been encouraging IBM to talk to us about its plans for Db2 for more than a year now with little success.

Noel Yuhanna, Forrester veep and principal analyst, said interest in Db2 from the wider tech community is also dropping off. "We don't get as many inquiries on Db2 these days compared to five or seven years ago. However, we find many loyal IBM customers like Db2's scale, reliability, security, performance, and tools to support various workloads."

IBM seems to have suffered in shifting Db2 to the cloud, he said. But Big Blue has innovated with in-database machine learning, supporting distributed queries through data virtualization, and support for hybrid-cloud environments. "The future of DB2 will depend on whether IBM can attract non-IBM customers, continue to deliver advanced automation and intelligence, and expand on more modern use cases," Yuhanna said.

While IBM is investing in the platform, its track record in promoting its flagship database outside the core customer base continues to worry users.

IBM: The Register is here if you want to talk. ®

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