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Pointbase Goes Micro: Small is Big
Pointbase Goes Micro: Small is Big

In our last issue, WBT Editorial Advisory Board member Anita Osterhaug gave readers a heads-up about mobile Java ("It's user-centric...and it's coming," [v. 1 n. 3]). In this issue it's only natural that we take a closer look at some mobile Java that's actually arrived: this month PointBase, Inc., releases PointBase Micro, a complete Java SQL database in under 50KB.

In the world of wireless, where all vendors have an ax to grind - whether they're sellers of hardware or software or applications or services - it pays to cultivate a well-developed sense of skepticism.

The triumph of hype over experience is evidenced everywhere. What the space needs now is something really special, something really big - a fully functional database, for example, one that can be embedded into cell phones and mobile devices.

The only problem is, as far as handsets are concerned, the "something really big" has to be something really small. The footprint of even the most advanced mobile phones, PDAs, and handheld devices is closer to 250KB than what's comfortable for most companies and their teams of developers.

Not so with PointBase. From their headquarters in Mountain View, CA, came word that they'd developed a complete Java SQL database in under 50KB. Given that mobile phone usage worldwide already exceeds PC ownership worldwide, such a breakthrough would give a huge competitive advantage to PointBase, whose president and CEO, Bruce Scott, was also a cofounder of Oracle. In fact his entire working lifetime in the software industry has been single-mindedly devoted to leveraging the potential of databases to unlock value for end users in an enterprise context.

PointBase Micro is about to prove that "small is big." Once this kind of functionality is squeezed onto so small a footprint, enterprises will thirst for more (or should that be, less) from other vendors too. They'll also want full synchronization, which PointBase Micro delivers, from every application that they're offered in the mobile space.

In other words, PointBase is raising the bar. "The market for mobile data products and services is consistently listed among the top five growth markets of the coming decade," Scott told WBT. "At PointBase, we believe, as do most industry observers, that the Java development platform will play a dominant role in that space."

Scott seeks to usher in a world in which enterprise data can be taken beyond the corporate firewall, out to mobile devices and PDAs, without compromising functionality or security.

Since PointBase Micro was in stealth mode as this article was being written, the proof of the pudding, we decided, was in the coding. So we invited our resident expert, Alan Williamson, to go where no one else in the world has been allowed...into the heads of the core developers behind PointBase Micro. (See "A Coder's Perspective".)

As for PointBase, it remains to be seen just how big small can get, but the early indications are that with J2ME (Java 2 Platform, Micro Edition) the sky may well be the limit. The effectiveness of any mobile workforce is going to be greatly enhanced by this kind of access that previously resided only on an enterprise's back-end system.

By embedding the SQL database at the client end, PointBase is rendering a huge service to the enterprise. That's why small, in this context, is so big.-J.G.

A Coder's Perspective
In today's world of computing you'd be forgiven for believing that software somehow requires a full suite of CDs...and that's just for the basic installation.

People just don't ship on floppy disks anymore. Maybe the perception is that if it's not a CD-ROM, then it somehow has only half the functionality that the user requires. Is this the mindset that software vendors have managed to engender in their users? I hope not, because if it is, then PointBase has got a bit of a marketing problem: if they were to ship their latest offering on CD-ROM, they could get at least 13,000 copies on it!

When I heard that PointBase had developed a complete Java SQL database in under 50KB, I think you can safely say my interest was truly piqued. If this were true, it would be a great example of how the computing industry still has individuals that, instead of upping the minimum requirements, look first at their own code.

Such an example would be grist to the mill of my campaign, as editor-in-chief of one of WBT's sister publications Java Developer's Journal, to help bring the quality back into coding. I had to find out more.

After navigating through a labyrinth of PR people giving their customary spin, I requested access to the core developer or developers. Happily PointBase gave WBT full access to them, though in true cloak-and-dagger style, we've agreed not to reveal their true identities. For the sake of this report I've therefore bestowed the names of Susan and Veronica on the two gentlemen that I interviewed.

Susan was the lead on this project and took me through what they'd accomplished. It's fair to note at this point that, while the current build is under 50KB, they're still working to take it down further, aiming for the 40KB bracket.

What have they managed to squeeze into such a small footprint? Essentially what we have in PointBase Micro is a full SQL-compliant database, complete with support for the wide range of data types including binary types. The usual SQL suspects are all available - SELECT, DELETE, INSERT, and UPDATE, including the ability to create and drop tables.

So if that's all present, what's not? The biggest omission is multiuser functionality, so row and table locking aren't available. But that's not a major omission when you consider that the primary application space will be for the mobile market. I asked if this database was restricted to just the J2ME space, and Veronica told me that the whole database was pure Java and therefore could be easily run within an applet or any other Java environment that required database functionality of this level.

Digging deeper I instinctively wanted to know "How?" I wanted to know if they hit any problems. What techniques did they use to get so much out of so little?

At this point, there were long periods of silence after each question as the developers got their answers green-lighted by PB's public relations folks. It wouldn't do to be giving away state secrets, not even to WBT.

One of the more interesting problems that Susan detailed was the lack of support for floating point numbers within the J2ME space. This caused some issues when dealing with basic data types such as currencies, for example. No other major hurdles were cited.

I quizzed both of the developers on the usage of the Java API, since I was keen to learn whether they had stuck to the major classes, for example, or had decided to implement their own. Susan said that many of the core classes used up too much memory and, in most cases, they resorted to using their own custom-built classes. For example, they used native arrays instead of relying on vectors.

And that was that. PointBase Micro is a very compact SQL database with a footprint of just under 50KB. Access would be through the normal JDBC interface, which incidentally also supports full metadata on the underlying data.

PointBase has set the standard to which others must now be measured. It's an exciting time to be in this arena, when the computer world decided to go small as opposed to big. This is just the start of what's to come.-A.W.

About Alan Williamson
Alan Williamson is widely recognized as an early expert on Cloud Computing, he is Co-Founder of aw2.0 Ltd, a software company specializing in deploying software solutions within Cloud networks. Alan is a Sun Java Champion and creator of OpenBlueDragon (an open source Java CFML runtime engine). With many books, articles and speaking engagements under his belt, Alan likes to talk passionately about what can be done TODAY and not get caught up in the marketing hype of TOMORROW. Follow his blog, http://alan.blog-city.com/ or e-mail him at cloud(at)alanwilliamson.org.

About Jeremy Geelan
Jeremy Geelan is Chairman & CEO of the 21st Century Internet Group, Inc. and an Executive Academy Member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Formerly he was President & COO at Cloud Expo, Inc. and Conference Chair of the worldwide Cloud Expo series. He appears regularly at conferences and trade shows, speaking to technology audiences across six continents. You can follow him on twitter: @jg21.

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