Beset by customer defections to Microsoft and open-source vendors such as MySQL, Oracle is striking back with free tools for migrating data and applications to Oracle systems.

The software maker Monday announced the release of SQL Developer 1.1. This latest version of the free database development tool allows users to browse and manage three non-Oracle databases: Microsoft Access, MySQL and SQL Server.

Oracle is also integrating its Migration Workbench software with SQL Developer. When released later this year, that offering will provide a single tool allowing users to both manage non-Oracle databases as well as import data from them, according to Mike Hichwa, vice president of software development at Oracle.

"It makes perfect sense to combine the two. After all, why would you need two PL/SQL editors?" Hichwa said.

Since its initial release last March, SQL Developer has been downloaded 394,000 times, according to Sue Harper, an Oracle product manager, making it the third-most-downloaded application from Oracle.com.

With its graphical user interface and its ability to browse database objects, run SQL statements and scripts, edit and debug PL/SQL statements and run reports, SQL Developer is ostensibly targeted against Quest Software’s popular TOAD database administration and development tool, said Donald Burleson, an Oracle consultant and author in Kittrell, N.C.

In fact, SQL Developer, Migration Workbench and a third application migration tool called Apex all form a key part of Oracle's effort to target smaller organisations by offering ease of use and convenience.

"Oracle knows that it's the application selection that drives the choice of database," Burleson said. "Extending the SQL Developer browser [to non-Oracle databases] is not a huge technical achievement, [but] it lays the foundation for migrating entire applications to Oracle by replacing foreign procedural code with Apex and PL/SQL, and using fusion middleware to allow existing applications to use Oracle as their back-end database."

Though still the dominant database vendor, Oracle has found the strategy of touting its software's best-of-breed features obsolete in the face of cheaper, easier-to-use alternatives such as Microsoft's SQL Server or open-source databases like MySQL and EnterpriseDB.

"Oracle simply cannot ignore heterogeneous DBMS environments that most customers have; therefore, the ability of SQL Developer tool to access other databases is critical," said Noel Yuhanna, an analyst at Forrester Research. "We are already seeing that many customers are migrating or looking to migrate from Oracle to SQL Server, but only a few are looking at the other way."

Indeed, Yuhanna said he sees Microsoft as such a threat that it could "overtake Oracle as the No. 1 DBMS company in four to five years if Oracle does not take stronger measures."

Oracle acknowledged that it still has a ways to go. SQL Developer's ability to manage non-Oracle databases remains rudimentary, said Hichwa. And though Migration Workbench has been around since 1998 and can cleanly import table data from non-Oracle databases, it has a far harder time debugging non-Oracle database code such as stored procedures or triggers, he said.

The integrated version due out later this year will improve upon that, and on its ability to tune SQL statements, Hichwa said. It will ship with the next version of Oracle's flagship database, 11g, which is expected to be unveiled at the company's OpenWorld show in October.