December 20, 2004

Database vendors are joining the open source party

Author: Jay Lyman

Whether companies sell or provide their databases with fully available source code, through a new open source project, or with their very own open source license, there is definitely open source fever in the database business these days. Older, established database makers such as IBM, Sybase, and CA are releasing the code for what were previously proprietary products. But these players are coming late to the party thrown by MySQL, PostgreSQL, BerkelyDB maker Sleepycat, and Firebird. How much open source beer are these newcomers bringing to the database bash, or are they simply coming in and asking where the cups are?

The companies that create and sell databases differ on how much of the trend toward opening proprietary products under open source licenses is business and technical versus how much is marketing lip service to the open source bandwagon, which is sometimes viewed as a new opportunity for old products.

Oracle: Open source hucksters and challenge

Oracle Vice President of Technology Marketing Robert Shimp, whose company is among the only database providers not trending toward open source in some way, was critical of some open source moves by database makers in an interview with NewsForge. Shimp did not name names, but he noted that while Oracle welcomes the market growth and competition from open source databases, much of the open source database noise is centered on "orphanware."

Shimp cites companies "using open source because they see it as a marketing mechanism -- a tool for creating hype or awareness of older products. This is 'orphanware' -- software they want to abandon that has no real commercial value, so they put it out and see what happens."

Shimp elaborated by dividing open source database strategies into two categories: "serious" open source databases that provide transparency, allowing developers and users to learn and share; and the "hucksters" putting out abandonware.

In terms of competition from open source, Shimp said Oracle views the other databases as an asset in bringing new database users to the market, calling Oracle's biggest competitor the filing cabinet. Quite often, users are introduced to databases through a free or open source database, then move to Oracle as their needs become greater, according to Shimp, who called innovation Oracle's challenge and advantage.

"I'm confident we'll be able to create cool things that will get people to use Oracle," he said. "But I love the challenge the open source guys are providing."

IBM: Seeding the market

IBM program manager Les King, who touted Big Blue's move to open its Cloudscape database through the Apache incubator project Derby, said he took exception to the idea that Cloudscape was a case of abandonware. "It had a very thriving life on its own before we decided to open source it," King said.

He also indicated that like Oracle, IBM sees open source as a way to gain more market share by catering to developers with open source databases.

"There is an opportunity for vendors offering base code to hopefully seed their own market," King said. "Certainly, if we consider the seeding play, you need something to seed and Derby is perfectly set up to start seeding DB2 Express."

While there is talk of IBM open sourcing parts of its full-featured, enterprise-class DB2, King discounted the idea, referring to the complexity and value of the code.

"If you take the multiple millions of lines of code [in DB2], it naturally doesn't lend itself to dumping all of that code out there," King said. "In addition, today, there is a lot of intellectual property in the software we sell, and we wouldn't want to make it all open source."

King did anticipate more open source moves from more database players, however.

"I think you'll start to see more choice as companies do take pieces of software and make it open source because that's what they're targeting," King said, referring to developers. "It doesn't seem to be slowing."

IBM and Oracle say they are happy to see open source bring new users to the overall database market, but OS database players say that their users prefer to stick with open source, which is now rivaling DB2 and Oracle, even at the higher level.

CA: Commodity competition

Computer Associates Senior Vice President of Development Tony Gaughan referred to a sort of seeding, indicating his company -- which this year released its Ingres database under its own Trusted Open Source License, sees open source as a chance to increase mindshare and foster innovation by collaborating with its community.

Gaughan, who said the Ingres open sourcing is a return to the database's "roots" as an open source project at UC Berkeley, also pointed to the database as another instance of commoditization.

"Customers do not set out to buy a database, they purchase an application that requires a database," Gaughan said.

"We have seen a need and demand for an enterprise-class, open source database solution," Gaughan said. "MySQL is suited to read-only operations and serving up HTML content; PostgreSQL has a much richer feature set but has scalability problems and doesn't have a company behind it providing enterprise-level support; Ingres has a mature, proven, scalable transactional database, and includes clustering, peer-to-peer replication, and distributed query support."

In response to calls that the CA Trusted Open Source License is not OSI-approved and the Ingres moves are half-hearted, Gaughan said the elements not included in the available source were B1 security and the spatial object library for the database, which CA does not own.

"The security component that was removed was B1 security, which is a level of security used exclusively in situations of national security and is only available on B1 secure operating systems such as Sun CMW," Gaughan said. He added CA is working on a new 3-D, OpenGIS-compliant spatial object solution the company plans to develop with its community.

PostgreSQL: Others are too little too late

PostgreSQL core team member Josh Berkus said the open source moves by other companies are both a marketing play and done for technical reasons.

"I think that recent events in databases have vindicated the idea that open source will continue to spread through the software world, annexing one sector at a time," Berkus said in an email. "It's not a question of if software companies will need an open source strategy, but when."

While it might have been a competitive concern if Sybase and CA were making Linux and open source moves three years ago, Berkus indicated it is now the larger, older companies that are at risk from open source progress.

"My feeling is that both of these are good examples of proprietary software companies worried about being left behind by open source," Berkus said.

Berkus said databases are a likely part of the software stack to go open source because they are infrastructure software, making it easier to attract developers. However, Berkus questioned whether Sybase or CA could reap the same benefits as would a database that was born open source or free.

"In the case of CA, I'm going to reserve judgment until its license is approved by the Open Source Institute," Berkus said. "Right now, it looks like more PR than substance; unlike IBM, CA has not made Ingres separate from CA product management, which means that they're rather unlikely to attract developers. Compare the failure of both Borland's Interbase and SAP's SAP-DB as open source projects -- no offense to Firebird DB, which became a dynamic project after they forked it away from Borland. CA seems to be repeating the same mistakes."

As for Sybase, Berkus said the likely reason the competitor released the free version for Linux was a Software Development Magazine survey, which suggested PostgreSQL was pushing Sybase out of the market. Sybase did not respond to that contention.

Berkus said regardless of what other vendors are doing, the open source databases are catching up and in some instances surpassing the proprietary competition.

"PostgreSQL and even MySQL have surpassed Sybase in several areas, even if we lag behind in others," Berkus said. "PostgreSQL is particularly a threat to Sybase because our very robust, fully ACID transaction support, high availability, and support for custom statistical functions and complex queries make PostgreSQL perfectly suitable for a variety of financial applications."

MySQL: Everyone wants to be a toy

For MySQL CEO Marten Mickos, the free and open source database cavalcade from the old veterans is welcome news, and a validation that open source databases are now competing at the highest levels.

"We think it is good news for users, and we welcome these products to the open source world, Ingres, and the Linux world, Sybase," Mickos said. "We have predicted for some time that this would happen. It validates the MySQL business model. Two years ago, people said MySQL was a toy. Now, apparently everyone wants to be a toy!"

Mickos said the open source trend among databases is because of a combination of things, and is also, "a typical reaction from a large company that would like an older product to become more popular."

"Some years ago, Borland did the same thing with Interbase, and later they withdrew from the open source world," Mickos said.

However, the MySQL chief did refer to the MaxDB database, formerly known as SAP DB, as an example of older, closed code that was successfully nurtured with open source.

"MaxDB may be the only DBMS that started as closed source and was later successfully open sourced," Mickos said. "SAP AG open sourced it some years ago, and today, our company is the open source and commercial channel for MaxDB. It is a very robust, enterprise-level database and it powers an increasing number of SAP R/3 applications all over the world. It is also being used more and more by cost-conscious enterprises, by government agencies, and in developing economies. So here you have a great example that a DBMS with a long history can indeed enjoy new growth."

Sybase: Sidestepping corporate approval

While it has not released its Adaptive Server Enterprise (ASE) database as open source, Sybase has scored success with the free Linux version of its database. Citing the same database stepping stone theory as others, Sybase Senior Group Marketing Manager Amit Satoor said companies are struggling with the switch from free and open source databases to enterprise-class databases.

"Most of the customers just want low-cost access to software so they can start projects that they can deploy on a scalable platform," Satoor said.

Sybase sought to strengthen its Linux database recently with the announcement that its ASE database would run on IBM's eServer OpenPower server, a prominent Linux deployment based on the Power 5 processor.

Sleepycat: Feeling pressure from open source

Berkeley DB open source database maker Sleepycat Software's Vice President of Marketing Rex Wang said moves by Sybase, CA, and IBM were the older players' reactions to inroads from the open source newcomers.

"There's no doubt that these proprietary database vendors are being pressured to do this by the success of open source vendors," Wang said, referring to a Sybase statement that the free Linux ASE was intended to compete directly with the open source databases, as well as DB2 and Oracle. "The fact that large, incumbent, proprietary players have been motivated to make these moves indicates that the momentum is real."

Wang said Sybase, for example, felt tremendous price pressure and therefore made a restricted version of its product free to the most price-sensitive segment of its market. "Their hope is to get people to try it for free, then sell them the unrestricted version as they scale their use," he said.

But not so fast, Wang indicated, as Berkeley DB's developer focus and relative maturity -- in the market for eight years -- mean it is already appropriate for mission-critical use.

Open source getting good enough

Yankee Group senior analyst Dana Gardner said the use of a free Linux or open source database to introduce customers to a wider range of products that scale up to enterprise is a legitimate strategy. However, Gardner also said the databases that have been open source since the start may benefit from an evolving, total open source solution.

"What will be interesting is if the full stack of open source components becomes some kind of de facto standard," Gardner said. "In a best-of-breed open source approach, what are the databases that are part of that de facto standard?"

Gardner added that while he does not see open source databases such as MySQL and PostgreSQL dethroning the dominant Oracle and DB2 databases, the capabilities of the open source databases are quickly catching up and are also sufficient for many higher-level users.

"MySQL and PostreSQL -- those are quite full-featured," Gardner said. "If they continue that trajectory, good enough is good enough for many people."

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