IBM has unveiled Version 9 of its DB2 9 database, previously code-named "Viper," and will deliver the software on July 28.

IBM is positioning the hybrid relational/XML database as one of its most important database releases in recent years, given its capacity to store and manage not only structured relational data but also unstructured XML data such as audio, video and Web pages natively.

That additional ability contrasts with rival products from Microsoft and Oracle, which rely on the older, slower approach of reformatting XML data or placing it in a large object before storing it as relational data.

When earlier versions of DB2 tried to deal with XML data, "it was like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole," Bob Picciano, vice president of information management at IBM, said. "Whatever the question from customers, our answer was 'relational.'"

The update temporarily gives IBM something of an edge over its rivals, according to analyst Wayne Kernochan, president of Infostructure Associates. "DB2 9 does look promising," he said. However, it's too early to say what kind of performance advantage all the new features in the IBM database will end up providing for users.

While some organisations may find the native XML handling in DB2 9 useful, that kind of capability isn't likely to persuade existing customers of other databases to jump ship to IBM.

"Enterprises find it very difficult with existing applications to switch databases," Kernochan said. "People just tend not to do it." However, for customers with new applications, DB2 9 is likely to prove attractive, he added.

IBM has been working on DB2 9 for over five years, drawing upon the efforts of more than 750 of its development staff in eight separate labs around the world, according to Picciano. A steering committee made up of 350 participants from IBM's partners, customers large and small, and local and national governments, has also been providing input on the direction of the database for the past three years.

Picciano declined to put a dollar figure on IBM's investment in the new database. The company has filed over 68 patents just in relation to the DB2 9 technology, he said.

When DB2 9 ships, it will be the first time that IBM has simultaneously released three editions of the database - enterprise, workgroup and developer - based on a single code base.

Other key features include a new storage compression technology known as Venom, and improvements in data management and security capabilities. DB2 9 can now support three types of database partitioning at the same time - range partitioning, multidimensional clustering and hashing. The new database also includes autonomic capabilities that IBM acquired when it purchased rival database player Informix in 2001, Picciano said.

DB2 9 will initially ship on Microsoft's Windows operating system, IBM's AIX flavour of Unix and a number of Linux distributions including Red Hat, Suse, Ubuntu and Mandriva, Picciano said. IBM does plan to support other operating systems such as Hewlett-Packard's HP-UX since DB2 has typically run on 34 different operating systems.

IBM also intends to bring out a version of DB2 9 for its System z mainframe before year-end, he added.

DB2 9 Enterprise Edition, a full-blown version of the database, costs from US$36,400 per processor or $938 per user. The other two versions don't include all the features of the Enterprise release. Aimed at small to midsize businesses, DB2 9 Workgroup Edition starts at $10,000 per processor or $350 per user, while DB2 9 Express Edition for developers costs from $4,874 per processor or $165 per user. All the versions include one year's maintenance and the pricing assumes at least a minimum of five users.