September 18, 2005

Multi-core licensing and virtualization promote open source

Author: Jay Lyman

More flexible licensing is one of the biggest draws open source software has for enterprise users, and the current shift toward dual-core and multi-core processors and use of virtualization technologies may give Linux and open source software even more of an advantage, say analysts and open source project leaders.

Some tech research firms, such as Gartner, warn companies against the advent of multi-core chips (led by AMD and Intel) that give enterprise IT shops a wallop of more power, but may also result in a higher price tag for licensing the server. The reluctance of some vendors, notably Oracle, to move away from per-core licensing is likely to give open source challengers such as MySQL and PostgreSQL a leg up. Even though Microsoft has attempted to get in front of the issue by announcing a concise, per-socket pricing plan for Windows on multi-core processors, there will still be client software licenses and the need to upgrade to new software, which will enhance the open source edge.

Per core planning

Gartner research vice president Martin Reynolds (who has written about the increase in power that new dual-core, four-core, and, within five years, 8- to 16-core chips will bring) said that some vendors are still sticking to per-core licensing, and corporate IT shops caught in contracts with them could be turned off. "One of the issues with multi-core is scalability," he said. "When you get up to 16 or 32 cores, the licensing would be so much, you wouldn't use Oracle."

Reynolds stressed that the issue is only prevalent in a quickly-expanding server setting; for most typical setups aimed at reliability and stability, Oracle still has an advantage. However, Reynolds warned that even though the multi-core licensing mess will have its greatest impact in five or more years, it requires planning now. "It's one of those things where you have to make the policy now," he said, adding that Oracle may change its own policy on per-core licensing at some point, but that real change will be driven only by customers.

As for operating system software, Reynolds believes that the multi-core issue will not play much of a role, as Microsoft has explicitly signaled it will charge by the socket. "Windows doesn't carry a big penalty with multi-core."

The analyst also forecast some significant changes in software licensing -- basically a return to the pay-for-performance model -- and thinks open source may see the perks of such pricing. "Open source applications will be [more attractive] where there's a potential advantage because of the scalability," he said.

Middleware meaning

Illuminata senior analyst Gordon Haff said that with Microsoft, Red Hat, and other operating system vendors that license software on a per-chip basis regardless of cores, the multi-core matter has little impact. However, Haff notes that if vendors such as Oracle and IBM seek to exploit per-core pricing, it could backfire. "If Oracle or IBM DB2 tries to use multi-core as an opportunity to effectively increase pricing, that potentially makes open source attractive," he said, referring primarily to middleware applications such as JBoss and MySQL.

While he downplayed the impact of multi-core licensing, calling it a "secondary effect," Haff said the same types of issues may hold more significance with virtualization, where open source would get even more of an edge.

"Virtualization is arguably a much bigger issue. To a degree, traditional, proprietary software vendors are slow to come up with licensing schemes that are acceptable to their customers. Open source could benefit from that." In the end, Haff believes the benefit will depend largely on how "professional open source" companies provide support and sell their service contracts "in the virtualized world."

Easy licensing with open source

MySQL CEO Marten Mickos said that while the most important reasons for enterprise use of open source are performance, reliability, and extensibility, multi-core licensing represents another plus point. "Enterprise customers don't want to count cores, and they don't want to overpay."

While he did not refer to any specific education, outreach, or marketing efforts in regards to multi-core licensing messes with proprietary competition, Mickos did stress his company's focus on ease and economy of its licensing. "One of our internal guidelines is to make it as easy as possible for our customers," he said. "That's why our licensing is per server and you can have as many processors and cores as you like. This, in turn, is one of the reasons that customers come to us, and we grow so fast."

Echoing Reynolds' call for planning on multi-core strategy, Mickos said regardless of whether an organization runs on single-core or multi-core CPUs, the way to scale nowadays is to scale out, rather than up.

"So you look for a very economical server configuration and then you can get more out of them as your business needs grow," he said.

JBoss vice president of product management Shaun Connolly and director of product management Pierre Fricke said that confusion and cost of administering software licenses goes up as traditional vendors devise different schemes.

"In some cases, such as licensing per core, the cost of software will go up significantly," they said. "Free and open source software offers a cleaner, easier to consume model, which will reduce these costs and confusion, since it eliminates the per-CPU, or per-X-cores, or per-machine complexities out of the software license."

Connolly and Fricke explained that enterprise FOSS is compelling both with multi-core processor deployment and virtualization technologies, which evoke similar pricing consternation.

Virtual replacement

IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky said that while multi-core processors may be a new way to increase performance, not all software applications require or take advantage of those capabilities. Kusnetzky, who said the bulk of IT costs boil down to staff anyway, believes this may put companies in a position to resist vendor price increases for multi-core processors, and may have them looking to open source alternatives, particularly as they plan ahead.

"The challenge comes when someone is asked to pay for each core as if it were a processor," Kusnetzky said. "This is seen as unfair. If people don't see a [software] performance increase, they won't be willing to pay more."

Kusnetzky said that while Microsoft may have announced per-chip licensing regardless of cores, the company will still be charging license fees for client systems, so the software giant will not be giving up much revenue with its approach. He pointed out that while it is hard to force enterprise IT organizations to change and existing applications are likely to stay, the multi-core question may impact future applications. "This doesn't necessarily change what people have," he said. "It allows them to think about open source software when they're doing something new."

The analyst did say Oracle's decision to charge per core has caused some industry grumbling, and it may represent an opportunity for open source alternatives. However, Kusnetzky stressed that unless an organization can easily take out Oracle and drop an alternative into its architecture without disruption, companies will not make a change. While he said that not all open source competitors are as enterprise-ready, Kusnetzky noted that PostgreSQL is working toward an identical footprint for easier enterprise deployment.

Kusnetzky also echoed Haff, indicating that the dual-core and multi-core software licensing issues represent "the leading edge of a much bigger trend," which is virtual machine software and virtualization.

"Organizations in that kind of scenario are not going to be happy paying for a full stack of software when they use it for 45 minutes at a time at Christmas, and it's gone the rest of the year," Kusnetzky said. "Open source, for those kind of functions, could be very attractive."

Wave of migrations expected

PostgreSQL core team member Josh Berkus said that his organization will have the licensing edge over competitors, including Oracle, IBM, and Sybase, thanks to multi-core software licensing issues.

"Unless those companies change their licensing policies, multi-core is going to increase the price differential between proprietary and PostgreSQL-based solutions, making PostgreSQL much more attractive," Berkus said. "As a parallel, when Oracle increased licensing fees for the release of Oracle 10, we got a whole wave of Oracle-to-PostgreSQL migrations. I'd expect the same with multi-core.

"The same price differential that helps us helps Linux, BSD, Apache, MySQL, FireBirdDB, and all other OSS competing against proprietary software that is licensed per-processor," he said. "I expect that once the proprietary software companies take enough of a beating, they'll change their licensing policies, but by that point, they'll have lost a bunch of customers who won't come back."

Berkus said that in addition to licensing issues, software upgrades will make open source more attractive as the cores keep coming. "Some of that proprietary software (particularly Windows software) will require new versions to support multi-core systems. OSS, being compilable on the target system, doesn't generally suffer this issue. Completely aside from the license fee, the hassle of upgrading makes a lot of companies evaluate whether they want to change products as well."


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