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Like an orphan whose glee at being adopted turns to glum after finding himself ignored in favour of the natural-born offspring, Informix found itself unable to escape the shadows cast by IBM's golden boy, DB2.

Informix "was IBM's dirty little secret," said Stuart Litel, president of the International Informix Users Group.

And the road back was bumpy. First, IBM stopped openly talking about merging Informix and DB2 - which most took it to mean that Informix's features would be folded into DB2, and its users forced to migrate - after encountering fierce resistance.

"Sure enough, IBM discovered that Informix's installed base was not for moving," wrote Wayne Kernochan, an analyst at Illuminata, in a recent blog post. "Moreover, IBM discovered that Informix had a lot of attractive features, many of which it has been busy incorporating in DB2."

But what Litel calls the "bad rumours" continued to circulate, especially as IBM's market share, which leapt ahead of Oracle the year of the Informix purchase, continued to slide.

A possible detractor steps aside

The chatter began to subside a little after IBM released a major upgrade, Informix 10, in March 2005. The voices really began to die down after long-time IBM database chief Janet Perna retired later that year.

While IBM bought Informix under Perna's watch, Informix supporters were also convinced that Perna, whom Litel calls "the mother of DB2" for her mid-'90s role bringing DB2 from mainframes over to Unix and Windows servers, secretly had it in for Informix.

Informix supporters say it is no coincidence that Perna's division was renamed from Data Management Services, a name long associated with DB2, to the more generic Information Management Services, around the time of her retirement.

And despite IBM's neglect, supporters said there is proof that Informix continues to thrive. For instance, the IIUG counts 20,000 members today, which is double of what it had five years ago, according to Litel.

Sources say loyal Informix users to this day include Wal-Mart Stores, The Home Depot, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint Nextel, Kroger, Circuit City Stores, AutoZone and others. So don't call this week’s release of Informix Dynamic Server 11 by IBM a comeback to Informix loyalists; they'll say they've been here for years.

And now, Cheetah

The latest version of IDS - code-named Cheetah - includes enhancements to Informix's speedy transaction processing, as well as what IBM calls "mainframe-like" high-availability and clustering features.

More importantly, Informix supporters such as Ron Flannery, president of One Point Solutions, a reseller of Informix and DB2, believe that with Cheetah, IBM will make amends for years of marketing neglect. "I believe that IBM will market Cheetah as much as it did DB2 9 Viper," he said.

Flannery agrees that Cheetah's high availability via its improved data replication is the most important technical advance.

Besides the new ability to do fail-over recovery of data from multiple nodes and servers, Cheetah "gives you a lot of flexibility with disk arrays and other new storage technologies," he said.

A spokeswoman for WorldWinner, a provider of online games that has used Informix since its launch in 2000, said the clustering "is appealing to WorldWinner because of its ability to seamlessly grow our database server capacity in a cost-effective manner and in whatever increments we desire."

According to an IBM spokesperson, IDS 11's Express Edition costs $5,025 per single dual-core server, or $130 per user with a minimum of five users. The Enterprise Edition costs $51,500 per single dual-core server, or $965 per user with a minimum of five users. That is the same price as DB2's enterprise edition.

The current IDS 10 also lacked "some security and Web features," Flannery said. "So IBM has added a lot of Web services components."

And while Informix already enjoys a reputation for "hands-free administration," Flannery said, the addition of a GUI-based administration client should enhance Informix's reputation for "autonomic computing."

The path ahead

Can Informix win new customers, especially those already using other databases? Kernochan believes it can. Informix has long been "among the leaders in certain types of transaction processing [decision support and object-relational complex queries]," he wrote in his blog. "If Informix was near the top of the heap in performance then, it hasn't fallen that much behind in handling its favourite transaction patterns in the meantime."

"Will IDS ever outshine DB2? Not bloody likely. Will it ever regain its ranking as one of the three major databases in the world? That would be a certain 'no,'" wrote Kernochan. "But can it still offer performance for certain transaction patterns, and thereby make the database a little less of a boat anchor? Yes, indeed."