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Free is suddenly becoming a fashion statement in the database world. As predicted, IBM has decided to join Microsoft in launching a cut-down, free version of a large, mainstream database with the arrival of DB2 Universal Database Express-C, or DB2 Express-C in its snappy, shortened version.

Snide jibes aside, however, this marks the growth of a definite trend from database applications vendors to give developers the latest tools. As Mark Whitehorn recently speculated, IBM has decided to take the plunge and match Microsoft on price, which in the world of Express databases now means free download.

Microsoft made much of the introduction of the Express version of SQLServer 2005. Given the general acknowledgement that this system represented the company’s accession to the top table of high-end database vendors, providing a free, downloadable version aimed at developers and SMB customers has proved to be a widely lauded move.

This matching move by IBM that makes DB2 Express free, not only points to the free download sprat being seen as a good way to catch a long-term, full system customer mackerel, but also sets in train what analysts and other industry observers like best – a competition. The Express version of SQLServer is aimed at the x86 processor architecture, and so is DB2 Express-C. This is where the main cuts of DB2 occur, in that Express is designed to only run on systems with a maximum of two processor cores. In fact, what they mean is two sockets, for it will also work with two, dual-core processors.

SQLServer Express is obviously Windows-based, but DB2 Express-C is aimed at not only Windows but Unix and, most importantly for much of the developer community, Linux. The current list of Linux distributions supported are Novell Open Enterprise Server 9, SuSE Enterprise Server 8 and 9, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3 and 4, Asianux 1.0, Mandriva Corporate Server 3.0, Nitix 4.2.2a, Red Flag Advanced Server 4.1, and Ubuntu 5.04. Most of them can be expected to offer DB2 Express incorporated into their Linux distributions.

Though this is not necessarily a true "eggs with eggs" comparison, it could provide an interesting guide to the relative strengths of Windows and Linux database applications development in the high-end enterprise marketplace. It will be interesting to see figures for downloads for both Expresses after a year or two, and see figures on where those downloads have gone. Developers working in the Windows arena are more used to the notion of downloading software and evaluating it. The same is certainly true of Linux and open source developers, but this will be the first time they have been able to get their hands on a free database for development work that can scale to be among the biggest applications around.

It is also an area where vendors might soon be expected to test drive new technologies and development, using the skills of developers for a beta-plus test environment. For example, the next iteration of DB2 Express-C is expected to incorporate a new hybrid data server, codenamed Viper, for managing both relational and XML data. IBM reckons this will be a hot area as developers move towards service-based infrastructures.

Support for developers will be provided by a no-charge online community, to be found here, with extra support from IBM, such as access to DeveloperWorks and AlphaWorks, available for a fee.

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