Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Alpha Five wins CRN Database of the Year

I missed this the first time around, but in perusing Dave's blog -- and then Pete's -- found out that our illicit love-child -- Alpha Five -- recently won a major award. Alpha Five is a popular end-user database and its most recent incarnation, version 7, beat out FileMaker and Microsoft Access to take Computer Reseller News' Database of the Year for 2005.

This is truly an amazing accomplishment for Alpha, and a testament to the design abilities of Selwyn Rabins and the develpment talents of Cian Chambliss. It's astounding to think that such a small company could meet Microsoft -- head to head -- and beat it hands down in this type of competition. It truly is a David-against-Goliath story.

Back in, oh I don't know, 1989, I worked for Alpha. It was a small, but growing company, selling a very popular database for DOS called Alpha Four. Jim Gerow had helped create the original version of the product ("Database Manager 2 - The Integrator"). Pete and Jim then collaborated on subsequent products: Alpha Three and Alpha Four. The latter, an immensely popular product, was written in C and had -- by that time -- grown to a point where it was well nigh unmaintainable. Pete and I used to go on long walks to discuss the nature of the beast, which was getting close to driving us both insane.

We knew that Windows was coming out shortly (actually, May 1990) and I used to walk into the co-President's (Selwyn's) office on a regular basis to bitch and moan complain that the code was not going to take us into the Windows 3.X world. He probably just got sick of hearing me say it, but he did give me permission to begin work on the design of a new, Windows-based database.

I began sketching out a layered architecture for the product and Pete soon finished up his A4 tasks and joined me. Dave also was a key hire who -- I think -- was the third member of our team. Soon others, including the inimitable Gerry Polucci, joined us -- Gerry straight out of school as a CS grad -- and contributed greatly to the product.

This team, with the invaluable counsel of product manager Peter Mesnik, delivered the first two versions of Alpha Five back in the mid-nineties. Of course, the product now probably bears scant resemblance to what we created, but I'm sure each of us is proud of our involvement in the product line even if little of our code remains.

Two things I wanted to mention:

1) Selwyn is a design genius. Not graphical design, but user-interface design for databases. What Adam Bosworth might have been to Borland and Microsoft, Selwyn has been to Alpha -- with far fewer weapons to bring to bear. His understanding of the fundamental problems related to small business databases, his empathy for users, and his willingness to think outside the box are truly without peer.

This sort of design effort is art, not science. Selwyn -- with the equally incredible business acumen contributed by his brother, Richard -- has been able to translate that into an outstanding suite of products.

2) Cian is a development genius. His original work on the award-winning AlphaWorks product (which competed with Microsoft Works -- and actually beat it in some reviews -- was subsequently sold to Lotus and then ruined later discontinued). His most recent work on the astonishingly complex Alpha Five database (even version 1 was over 600,000 lines of C code... I shudder to think how big it is today) demonstrates that he is truly a master of complex software design.

Go visit the Alpha site. And if you need a database product, buy yourself a copy. You'll be amazed. I promise.

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