September 30, 2002

Firebird: a famous but 'unknown' Open Source database

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -

Look at almost any IT news site, including this one, and it's easy to get the impression that MySQL and PostgreSQL are the only mature, fully usable Open Source databases out there. This is not true. Firebird is not only mature, fully usable, and Open Source, but claims an estimated one million installations worldwide. If you've never heard of Firebird, it's probably because you know it by its old, proprietary name: InterBase.

Except Firebird isn't exactly InterBase, but an Open Source fork of the InterBase code that dates from Borland's decision to open that code back in 2000, a decision Borland apparently regretted later because the company never released the InterBase trademark even though the code was already in the wild.

From this confusion rose a company called IBPhoenix, dedicated to helping InterBase users maintain and upgrade their installations, and about nine months ago, the Open Source part of the project morphed into Firebird, which is certainly a logical extension of the rise-from-the-ashes Phoenix symbolism. And so there is Firebird, a "new," comparatively unheralded Open Source database descended from one that has been around, growing, and steadily improving since 1984. You want a mature Open Source database? Okay. Firebird is as mature as it gets -- once you get past the name and corporate ownership changes, which are too complicated to go through in this article. (If you want to learn more about InterBase history, all the way back to the beginning, the Firebird project history page will fill you in, complete with stories from people who were there when the original InterBase concept came to life in a blue-tiled walk-in shower in Groton, Massachusetts.)

Ann Harrison of IBPhoenix is not only married to original InterBase creator Jim Starkey but has been involved with InterBase development herself in many ways. In fact, Firebird users we talked to credit Ann with keeping InterBase support alive during the period when Borland didn't seem to know what to do with the program even though it had a huge and loyal user base.

When Borland first decided to open-source InterBase and set up a separate company to handle the Open Source version, Ann says, "I was approached as interim CEO for that independent company. When the market crashed and everything changed, Borland changed their mind about letting InterBase go, about selling copyrights and all that, but the source was already released. Borland has put out one proprietary version [of InterBase] since then."

According to Ann, most of the "will InterBase survive?" confusion came between January and July, 2000. With the newly-opened code, she says, "we'd gotten a number of users and developers excited about the idea of a major Open Source database. When it didn't happen [with Borland's cooperation], we got together and made the fork."

Ann claims Borland was and still is "pretty much indifferent" to the InterBase fork that became Firebird, and notes, "they have a source tree on, but we think they've given up on updating it."

Comparing the InterBase site and Firebird site with each other is like looking at night and day. The InterBase project main page says, "This Project Has Not Released Any Files," and shows little activity, while the Firebase project is obviously a happening place. There, files are released, bug reports and feature requests are being made -- and responded to and closed -- and 70 active developers are listed, as opposed to 10 (apparently inactive) ones for InterBase.

Both projects use the Mozilla Public License, which is generally considered one of the more "business friendly" Open Source licenses. Ann attributes much of Firebird's success so far to its license. "One thing different about Firebird compared to MySQL is that you can use it in a commercial application without paying a license fee," Ann says. "We're sort of the open software rather than the free software crowd."

Not the same as MySQL technically, either

Ann's description of how Firebird differs from MySQL:

"MySQL considers its string mechanism to be different from the database. InterBase was designed to make them integrated, and Firebird was designed from the beginning to be a transaction engine. For example, it's easy to to do things in InterBase or Firebird like adding columns, dropping columns, to have triggers, have subqueries ... while the MySQL implementation of SQL is only as much as they have to do to meet the requirements of their customers.

"Our early customers were database designers; theirs were Web site designers.

"MySQL has very limited subquery capabilities. We have well-integrated subqueries.

"They're using a record locking algorithm. We're using a versioning system for both reads and writes."

She pauses for a second, then says, "but from a developer's point of view the main thing we've got is the license that allows this thing to be used with commercial products."

Will Firebird become more popular?

Ann certainly thinks so, and believes the fact that Firebird is Open Source will not only make it more popular, but will help more people make money using it than under the old name and proprietary license. Back to her words:

"I'm part of a small company that's selling [Firebird] CDs and support. There's a group in Australia setting up a Firebird foundation, and a group in Brazil working on support there in Portugese, and a group in Russia has what they call a "Supercharged Firebird." Most of the people making money from Firebird, though, are building applications, and of course companies that are using it are saving money on license fees.

"I think it will become more popular and better-known. It's available on a lot more platforms certainly than Postgres, and I think as people realize what it has to offer, and as Web stuff goes from being 'show and tell' to actual applications, I think people will find we have a lot of advantages over MySQL."

Beyond licensing fee considerations, Ann believes Open Source offers opportunities for software improvement not available to proprietary developers. "One of the things that is important about Open Source," she says, "is you get to share ideas with people on other projects. For example, MySQL has now picked up a transaction engine -- although I would have done it differently -- after seeing ours.

"Because of this kind of Open Source sharing," she happily points out, "the world of data transactions is, overall, getting better for everyone."


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