Institution's Complexity, Resources and Future Needs Influence Database Selection


Selecting the right database requires a careful study of your institution's needs, the complexity of your campus infrastructure, the resources and skill level of your IT staff, as well as the capital you have available to invest today and in the future. It is a multifaceted decision that is much more complex than simply matching the size of your school to a database. Today, the most popular database choices for higher education are the Microsoft SQL Server and the Oracle database. To make an informed choice between the two, institutions should consider four areas: reliability, scalability, security and total cost of ownership.


The first step is to evaluate the features that are available in the database to ensure the integrity of your data, and to ensure that your data is safe in the event of a system failure or disaster. Both the Oracle database and the SQL Server provide similar capabilities for data backup and recovery. The difference is that the SQL Server 2000 only runs on the Windows platform, hence, it is highly optimized and integrated with the operating system. This allows it to take advantage of features inherent in the operating system, such as failover clustering, with minimal effort. In contrast, the Oracle database employs Real Application Cluster (RAC) technology that enables all servers to share and process data from a single database. The applications recognize that there are multiple servers and automatically do load balancing across them. As a result, applications will continue to run even if a server g'es down.


In general, a system's scalability is measured in both its ability to manage increasingly large volumes of data and increasingly large numbers of users/transactions without compromising the system's overall usability and manageability. The two approaches for dealing with scalability are scale-up and scale-out. Scale-up is implemented by increasing the computing power of a single machine. This can be achieved by adding CPUs, memory, or enhancing the networking components and storage systems. Scale-out is achieved by adding more servers to the system so that the workload is spread over a number of machines.

The SQL Server is able to scale-up on systems with up to 32 CPUs and up to 64 GB of memory. It can also automatically take optimum advantage of any available resource on the system without the need for manual configuration. The Oracle database is able to scale-up well beyond 32 CPUs and greater than 64 GB of memory, thus allowing it to achieve a higher net throughput. Scale-up is the preferred approach for most institutions because it offers the simplest implementation. Also, advancements in chipset and server component technologies can enable a single server to exceed the requirements of even the most demanding environments.

The vendors implement scale-out differently. Oracle's RAC technology allows institutions to increase their processing power by adding servers to an existing cluster that the existing database will recognize and utilize. The Oracle9i database scales on all hardware platforms; from single processor and mid-range multiprocessor systems to large-scale SMP, MPP, mainframe and clustered environments. The Microsoft SQL Server implements the "shared-nothing" architecture in its scale-out approach where data from a single database is divided into multiple segments, with each segment residing on its own server and storage unit. These servers and storage units are not related, and the configuration and operation of each unit is independent of the others within the same cluster. Data is presented and accessed in a unified format with the use of Distributed Partitioned Views (DPV) that manage the access, retrieval and insertion of data at the back-end, regardless of which server it physically resides in.

Independent, third-party evaluations of both Oracle's and Microsoft's performance in the areas of online transaction processing, data warehousing and Web transactions are available on the Transaction Processing Performance Council's Web site at


Students entrust institutions with their most vital information, and careful steps must be taken to keep this information secure. With the Oracle database, security is engineered into the data server and cannot be bypassed. This means, for example, that encryption of credit card numbers resides on the database, not on the application. Also, with a single, centralized database, enterprise-level security is implemented just once. With the Microsoft Windows platform, security can be enabled and managed by the Windows operating system or the Microsoft SQL Server. Authentication managed by Windows allows one login for all applications running on Microsoft SQL Server and automatically allows the SQL Server to take advantage of all the security features available in the operating system. In addition, security can be built into the applications, allowing it to control access to forms, Web pages and content within the application.

Cost of Ownership

Overlaying the issues of reliability, scalability and security is total cost of ownership (TCO) - what it costs an institution to acquire, implement and support a database application over a five-year period. Most institutions want to minimize the administrative cost-per-student ratio, and wise investments in information technology are a good way to achieve that goal. TCO increases almost exponentially as availability requirements increase beyond certain thresholds. As such, even if vendors discount the initial purchase cost, the institution might end up spending more due to higher costs in maintaining the system or because additional components for functions not already integrated with the database must be purchased.

Another consideration is the cost of upgrades. For the Oracle database, those costs are included in the initial licensing fees, while Microsoft provides customers with a licensing option for access to the latest upgrades for a fee. In addition, a future cost consideration is whether your institution will need to change its operating environment. Oracle provides support for all industry standards across all the major operating system and hardware architectures available today. Thus, an institution can leverage its existing Oracle database to lower initial deployment costs and remain flexible enough to meet future needs. The Microsoft SQL Server runs under any Windows operating system starting with NT, Windows 2000 and Windows XP. It also runs on Windows CE for mobile applications in a 1-MB footprint on handheld devices.

However, any migration will require considerable cost and effort. A more important factor is choosing a technology partner that will continue to provide new features as technology advances. Carefully considering these four topics will help you begin to evaluate the two databases. In addition, the upcoming purchase of a database and administrative system is a good time to invest in creating a three- to five-year strategic technology plan. By carefully analyzing your needs today and tomorrow, and the human and financial capital you have available to address them, you can begin making an informed choice.

SCT is the only vendor serving the higher education market that offers customers a choice of an Oracle or Microsoft solution. For more information on the Microsoft SQL Server, visit For more information on the Oracle database, visit

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This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.

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