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Should organizations consolidate on a single database standard?

Enterprises that consolidate on a single database standard can reduce IT complexity and improve data quality, but there are some potential drawbacks, experts say.

The prospect of consolidating IT processes onto a single database standard is attractive to many organizations because of its promise of reducing complexity, simplifying operations and lowering costs, according to experts.

But while database standardization projects offer benefits like better visibility into enterprise data, experts say there are also drawbacks and alternative options to consider. Standardizing on as few database platforms as possible can be easy when building an enterprise from the ground up. But for more established organizations, standardizing becomes significantly more difficult.

Moving to just one database platform is probably only a good idea in theory, said David Menninger, a vice president and research director with Belmont, Calif.-based Ventana Research Inc. Using at least one other database platform can give users an advantage when negotiating with their primary database vendor.

“If you are buying more from one vendor, you’ve got an opportunity to get a bigger discount,” he explained. “It’s always good to have a two-horse race. Now, you may be betting on one of the horses primarily, but it’s good to have that other horse in the race because it motivates the second horse to run faster.”

Database standardization versus data federation

Enterprises today are dealing with an increased pace of business and an influx of data from what can amount to hundreds of disparate IT systems and applications. Choosing a single database standard for as many processes as possible is one way to reduce costs and gain a consistent, accurate and centralized view of that information. But it’s not the only way, according to experts.

Data federation and data virtualization technologies -- which use metadata and abstraction layers to pull information from disparate sources into a centralized view -- can also help users get a better handle on what’s happening in their business.

The decision between database standardization for consolidation purposes and data federation technologies is largely dependent on available skill sets and specific application, system and business requirements -- and experts say some combination of both approaches is usually the best practice.

Database standardization fans boast that increased consolidation will result in more reliable information, and that fewer database systems are easier to manage when business processes change. However, most enterprises today have multiple databases supporting various systems and processes for various reasons. For example, a much-needed application may be closely tied to a specific database platform or business unit. As a result, consolidating to fewer database standards can be a costly, time-consuming and disruptive process, experts say.

Enterprises that want to consolidate on one database platform may run into technical problems and need to ask themselves many questions before getting started, warned Andrew Kerber, a senior database administrator at a U.S.-based e-commerce company.

“Are you bringing data in across the Internet? If so, you’re going to need to move your Internet pipe and where that feeds the information. Do you have storage to store all of it? And if you’ve got a new server coming in, [you’ve got to make] sure that it will handle your loads,” Kerber said. “A salesman will tell you anything. The only way to be sure is to actually try it.”

Data federation software, meanwhile, can be less costly and less disruptive than database standardization efforts. But it requires dealing with yet another vendor, experts say, and it can also be difficult to maintain and keep updated with ever-changing business requirements.

“It’s a good goal to strive toward standardization, but the way I try to describe it is that people should strive for excellence, not perfection,” Menninger said. “That means that the majority of your activity should be standardized around a single database, but it is appropriate to consider the best technology for [any] particular application.”

Keep stakeholders involved

Regardless of whether an organization chooses database consolidation, data federation or some combination of both, it’s important to keep various stakeholders in the project involved throughout the entire process, advises Joshua Greenbaum, the founder and principal of Berkeley, Calif.-based Enterprise Applications Consulting.

A cross-section of stakeholders from business and IT involved can help shape the project to ensure that all everyone's needs are met -- and the business continues to run properly -- throughout any technological transition, Greenbaum added.

“Bring the stakeholders in the room and make sure that you really understand the result you want [and] target your processes around achieving those results first,” Greenbaum said. “A lot of [enterprises just move forward and] worry about what they’re doing later, and there is a lot of pain and anguish that can be avoided with a much more rational process.”

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