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Informix is a family of RDBMS products from IBM, acquired in 2001 from a company (also called Informix or Informix Software) which dates its origins back to 1980.

The Informix DBMS was conceived and designed by Roger Sippl in the late 1970s. Informix the company was founded in 1980, went public in 1986, and for a period during the 1990s Informix was the second most popular database system, after Oracle. Success did not last very long, however, and by 2000 a series of management blunders had significantly weakened the company financially.

In 2001 IBM, prompted by a suggestion from Wal-Mart [1] (Informix's largest customer), purchased Informix. IBM has long-term plans for both Informix and DB2, with both databases sharing technology with each other. In early 2005, IBM released version 10 of Informix IDS.


1980: Early history

Roger Sippl and Laura King worked at Cromemco, an early S-100/CP/M company, where they developed a small relational database based on ISAM techniques, as a part of a report-writer software package.

Sippl and King left Cromemco to found Relational Database Systems (RDS) in 1980. Their first product, Marathon, was essentially a 16-bit version of their earlier ISAM work, released on the Onyx operating system, a version of Unix for early ZiLOG microprocessors.

At RDS, they turned their attention to the emerging RDBMS market and released their own product as Informix (INFORMation on unIX) in 1981. It included their own Informer language. It featured the ACE report writer, used to extract data from the database and present it to users for easy reading. It also featured the PERFORM screen form tool, which allowed a user to interactively query and edit the data in the database. The final release of this product was version 3.30 in early 1986.

In 1985, they introduced a new SQL-based query engine as part of INFORMIX-SQL (or ISQL) version 1.10 (version 1.00 was never released). This product also included SQL variants of ACE and PERFORM. The most significant difference between ISQL and the previous Informix product was the separation of the database access code into an engine process (sqlexec), rather than embedding it directly in the client — thus setting the stage for client-server computing with the database running on a separate machine from the user's machine.

Through the early 1980s Informix remained a small player, but as Unix and SQL grew in popularity during the mid-1980s, their fortunes changed. By 1986 they had become large enough to float a successful IPO, and changed the company name to Informix Software. The products included INFORMIX-SQL version 2.00 and INFORMIX-4GL 1.00, both of which included the database engine as well as development tools (I4GL for programmers, ISQL for non-programmers).

A series of releases followed, including a new query engine, initially known as INFORMIX-Turbo. Turbo used the new RSAM, with great multi-user performance benefits over ISAM. With the release of the version 4.00 products in 1989, Turbo was renamed INFORMIX-OnLine (in part because it permitted coherent database backups while the server was online and users were modifying the data), and the original server based on C-ISAM (i.e. ISAM) was separated from the tools (ISQL and I4GL) and named INFORMIX-SE (Standard Engine). Version 5.00 of Informix OnLine was released at the very end of 1990, and included full distributed transaction support with two-phase commit and stored procedures. Version 5.01 was released with support for triggers too.

1988: Innovative Software acquisition

In 1988, Informix purchased Innovative Software, makers of a DOS and Unix-based office system called SmartWare and WingZ, an innovative spreadsheet program for the Apple Macintosh.

WingZ provided a highly graphical user interface, supported very large spreadsheets, and offered programming in a HyperCard-like language known as HyperScript. The original release proved very successful, becoming the #2 spreadsheet, behind Microsoft Excel, although many WingZ users found it to be a superior product. In 1990, WingZ ports started appearing for a number of other platforms, mostly Unix variants. During this period, many financial institutions began investing in Unix workstations as a route to increasing the desktop "grunt" required to run large financial models. For a brief period, Wingz was successfully marketed into this niche. However it suffered from a lack of development and marketing resources, possibly due to a general misunderstanding of the non-server software market. By the early 1990s WingZ had become uncompetitive, and Informix eventually sold it in 1995. Informix also sold a license to Claris, who combined it with a rather updated GUI as Claris Resolve.

1994: Dynamic Scalable Architecture

With its failure in office automation products, Informix refocused on the growing database server market. In 1994, as part of a collaboration with Sequent Computer Systems, Informix released its version 6.00 database server, which featured its new Dynamic Scalable Architecture, DSA.

DSA involved a major rework of the core engine of the product, supporting both horizontal and vertical parallelism, and based on a multi-threaded core well suited towards the symmetric multiprocessing systems that Sequent pioneered and that major vendors like Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard would eventually follow up on. The two forms of parallelism made the product capable of market-leading levels of scalability, both for OLTP and data warehousing.

Now known as Informix Dynamic Server (after briefly entertaining the name Obsidian and then being named Informix OnLine Dynamic Server), Version 7 hit the market in 1994, just when SMP systems were becoming popular and Unix in general had started to become the server operating system of choice. Version 7 was essentially a generation ahead of the competition, and consistently won performance benchmarks. As a result of its success Informix vaulted to the #2 position in the database world by 1997, pushing Sybase out of that spot with surprising ease.

Building on the success of Version 7, Informix split its core database development investment into two efforts. One effort, first known as XMP (for eXtended Multi-Processing), became the Version 8 product line, also known as XPS (for eXtended Parallel Server). This effort focused on enhancements in data warehousing and parallelism in high-end platforms, including shared-nothing platforms such as IBM's RS-6000/SP.

1995: Illustra acquisition

The second focus, which followed the 1995 purchase of Illustra, concentrated on object-relational database (O-R) technology. Illustra, written by ex-Postgres team members and led by database pioneer Michael Stonebraker, included various features that allowed it to return fully-formed objects directly from the database, a feature that can significantly reduce programming time in many projects. Illustra also included a feature known as DataBlades that allowed new data types and features to be included in the basic server as options. These included solutions to a number of thorny SQL problems, namely time series, spatial and multimedia data. Informix integrated Illustra's O-R mapping and DataBlades into the 7.x OnLine product, resulting in Informix Universal Server (IUS), or more generally, Version 9.

Both new versions, V8 (XPS) and V9 (IUS), appeared on the market in 1996, making Informix the first of the "big three" database companies (the others being Oracle and Sybase) to offer built-in O-R support. Commentators paid particular attention to the DataBlades, which soon became very popular: dozens appeared within a year, ported to the new architecture after partnerships with Illustra. This left other vendors scrambling, with Oracle introducing a "grafted on" package for time-series support in 1997, and Sybase turning to a third party for an external package which remains an unconvincing solution.

1997: Misgovernance

Failures in marketing and an unfortunate leadership in corporate misgovernance overshadowed Informix's technical successes. On April 1, 1997, Informix had to announce that revenues fell short of expectations by $100 million. In retrospect, the day before this incident may have marked the peak of Informix's success as a company. While it continued to advance its technology, the churn in management that followed the ouster of the CEO in 1997 meant the company never recovered the momentum that its success with Version 7.x established.

2001: Other acquisitions

Starting in the year 2000, the major events in Informix's history no longer centered on its technical innovations. That year, in March, Informix acquired Ardent Software, a company that had a history of mergers and acquisitions of its own. That acquisition added multi-dimensional engines UniVerse and UniData (known collectively as U2) to its already-numerous list of database engines at the time, which included not only the Informix heritage products, but a datawarehouse-oriented SQL engine from Red Brick and the 100% Java version of SQL, Cloudscape (which was later bundled with the reference implementation of J2EE).

By July the former CEO of Ardent, James D. Foy, became the CEO of Informix, and soon re-organized Informix to make it more attractive as an acquisition target. The major step taken was to separate out all of the database engine technologies from the applications and tools.

In 2001 IBM took advantage of this reorganization, and bought from Informix the database technology, the brand, the plans for future development (an internal project codenamed "Arrowhead"), and the over 100,000-customer base associated with these. The application and tool leftovers remained under the name Ascential Software.

In May 2005, IBM completed the acquisition of Ascential Software.

2002: Repercussions from misgovernance

In November 2002, Phillip White, the former CEO of Informix ousted in 1997, was indicted by a federal grand jury and charged with eight counts of securities, wire, and mail fraud. In a plea bargain thirteen months later, he pleaded guilty to a single count of filing a false registration statement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

In May 2004, the Department of Justice announced White was sentenced to two months in federal prison for securities fraud, a fine of $10,000, along with a two-year period of supervised release and 300 hours of community service. The announcement noted that the amount of loss to shareholders from the violation, could not reasonably be estimated under the facts of the case [2]. White's earlier plea agreement had limited prison time to no more than 12 months.

Another Informix officer, the company's Vice-President in charge of European operations Walter Königseder, was indicted by a federal grand jury earlier but, as he was a citizen and resident of Munich, Germany, the United States has been unable to secure his extradition.

In November of 2005, a book detailing the rise and fall of Informix Software and CEO Phil White was published. Written by a long time Informix Employee, The Real Story of Informix Software and Phil White: Lessons in Business and Leadership for the Executive team provides an insider's account of the company showing a detailed chronology of the company's initial success, ultimate failure, and how CEO Phil White ended up in jail.

Product summary

Prior to its purchase, Informix had several interesting products that it developed or acquired, including:

  • Informix C-ISAM - the latest version of the original Marathon database
  • Informix SE - offered as a low-end system for embedding into applications
  • Informix OnLine - a competent system for managing medium size databases
  • Informix Extended Parallel Server (XPS, V8) - a high-end version of the V7 code base for use on huge distributed machines
  • Informix Universal Server (V9) - a combination of the V7 OnLine engine with the O-R mapping and DataBlade support from Illustra
  • Informix-4GL - A fourth generation language for application programming
  • Red Brick Warehouse - a data warehouse product
  • Cloudscape - a RDBMS written entirely in Java that fits into mobile devices on the low-end and J2EE-based architectures on the high end. In 2004 Cloudscape was released by IBM as an Open Source database to be managed by the Apache Software Foundation under the name Derby.
  • U2 suite, UniVerse and UniData - multidimensional databases that offer networks, hierarchies, arrays and other data formats difficult to model in SQL