Oracle has released the first major upgrade to SQL Developer, its free visual database development tool, with one key theme being the ability to browse non-Oracle databases.

SQL Developer 1.1 incorporates user feedback Oracle received after the vendor launched the tool in its version 1.0 release in March 2006, according to Sue Harper, senior principal product manager for SQL Developer at Oracle.

SQL Developer simplifies the creation and debugging of code written in both SQL (structured query language) and Oracle's PL/SQL (procedural language for SQL).

While a main focus of SQL Developer 1.0 was its support for multiple platforms -- the Windows, Linux and Mac OS X operating systems - the new release of the tool has expanded its links outside of Oracle's own databases to rival offerings, initially Microsoft's SQL Server and Access databases and MySQL's open-source database.

Oracle's Migration Technology Group is working on a further extension to SQL Developer that later this year will make it possible for developers to move some or all of the objects and data contained in third-party databases over to Oracle.

Domain name registrar Network Solutions, has been using SQL Developer since March and has already adopted release 1.1. The vendor's 40-strong database development team all have access to the Oracle tool, with 15 to 20 of them actively using it. The team manages the databases supporting Network Solutions' online Web presence and previously used Toad from Quest Software.

Cost and the developers' specific needs drove the move from Toad to SQL Developer, according to Dominic Delmolino, senior director of database engineering at Network Solutions.

"Toad's per-seat licensing was expensive," he said. "We were looking for an open-source or a cheaper alternative." Toad also took a more "kitchen-sink approach" to database development, Delmolino added, with the tool providing much more functionality than his team required.

SQL Developer 1.1's support for non-Oracle software is particularly important to Network Solutions since the vendor runs both Oracle and MySQL databases. "That was a real plus," Delmolino said, enabling developers to use a single tool to access both databases.

In general, the 1.1 release of SQL Developer looks like a more polished product, he added, with the browsing of code and objects becoming a lot more straightforward.

Prior to the release of SQL Developer 1.0 which was formerly known as Project Raptor, Oracle didn't have its own visual database development tool, only the character-based SQL Plus. There's a sense both within Oracle and externally that the vendor has finally become more serious about its tools business. Delmolino agrees. "They're more in the game," he said.

The tool now merits its own SQL Developer Exchange website where developers can request new features, rate feature requests and share code extensions they've created. The site also features blogs by Oracle's developers and news and updates about SQL Developer.

Oracle definitely plans another release of SQL Developer, either to be called version 1.2 or 2.0, later this year, Harper said. The emphasis will likely be on tuning features and taking advantage of the functionality coming in the next major release of Oracle's enterprise database Oracle 11g. Oracle has yet to commit to a shipping date for 11g.