April 15, 2004

MySQL's annual conference: They came to learn

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Approximately 650 MySQL users and supporters are spending April 14 - 16 in the conference center of the Peabody Hotel, with so much of their time occupied by MySQL training sessions that hardly any of them seem to be taking advantage of Orlando-area tourist attractions like Walt Disney World. These people came here to learn -- and possibly to swim with dolphins Thursday evening. The dolphin outing is totally appropriate; there's a dolphin in the MySQL logo. But long discussions about how to make MySQL run better and faster are this group's main course. The dolphin swim is just dessert.There are banners all over the place reminding us that MySQL is "The world's most popular open source database" and telling us that it's "ready for the enterprise." This last boast is not an empty one, given the nature of the crowd. Here's a database admin from Google, over there is one from a well-known airline reservation service, and next to him are two from the U.S. Geological Survey, not far from a Yahoo! person. And other badges have the names of hundreds of other well-known companies below the attendees' own names.

These are not amateurs getting together to discuss their hobby. These are professionals who live and breathe databases. Their jobs depend on the databases and data warehouses for which they are responsible working correctly, securely, and all the time.

A computer skills instructor from a nearby junior college is here, taking notes like mad. "I'm teaching my students more about MySQL and other open source software every year," she says. "These are marketable skills, and demand for them is increasing."

Novell vice chairman Chris Stone delivers a keynote address just after lunch titled Enterprise Adoption of Open Source.

Stone openly admits that Novell was a proprietary software company for too long, and now that it's becoming a member of the open source community, "We're buying our way into it." (He is, of course talking about Novell's purchase of Ximian and SUSE.)

He also lays blame for rapid open source growth at the foot of proprietary software companies, including Novell. "It's our own fault," he says. "We drove the industry in this direction." Stressing that these are personal opinions, not official Novell positions, he mentions licensing greed and a "one size fits all" mentality as two ways the proprietary software industry has alienated customers. He also makes no bones about why Novell has glommed on to Linux and open source so hard: "We had nothing to lose." He mentions the slide in revenue from Novell's traditional (proprietary) product line.

From there, Stone moves into a series of sound bites, accompanied by humorous slides, that delight the ears of the (many) open source boosters in his audience. And he's not talking only about ideals even though he pays obeisance to the Free Software Foundation. One of his slides says, "The Growth of Open Source: Follow the Money."

This crowd is definitely doing that, and MySQL is happily helping them -- and doing a bit of money-chasing itself. It has gone from a small open source project led by two self-effacing Swedish programmers, Michael "Monty" Widenius and David Axmark, to a full-blown company with a worldwide workforce and an impressive leadership roster. Monty and David are still around, as nice as ever, and Monty is still dressing in battered T-shirts, while most other MySQL execs in attendance are wearing ironed shirts with collars and MySQL logos.

This week, Monty and David, as smiling and friendly as they were when MySQL was barely a gleam in Monty's eye, are presiding over a gathering of the faithful -- and the conference itself is breaking even, more or less, according to Monty, who says aside from its other benefits to the company and its customers, it is a great way to get feedback from people who make MySQL work in production systems, and would be worth holding even at a loss for this reason alone.

But money is obviously coming in. While the GPL version of MySQL is free and is going to remain so, commercial MySQL licenses are decidedly un-free, although one user points out, "It's still a great deal, about a third as much as Oracle." This same user says that yes, there are still some extra-large applications -- "mostly data warehousing" -- where he and his company still prefer Oracle, but that MySQL is finding its way into more and more corners of the company's server rooms.

And licensing is only part of the picture; over here, between sessions, three young men from Friendster are chatting with a neat-looking person in a MySQL shirt, who introduces them to another neat-looking person in a MySQL shirt and says, "he'll be your primary support contact."

Nothing like some nice support contracts to bring in revenue. And most of the people at this gathering work for companies (and government agencies) that can afford to pay for database support, no problem. Heck, they're used to paying for it. Haven't they been paying proprietary database vendors for support their entire working lives? Why would they balk at paying an open source company for the same service? (Answer: They don't balk at all.)

There are a few sessions -- only a few -- aimed at people who aren't yet using MySQL, including one given by Mike Hillyer called Converting MS SQL and Access Databases to MySQL. These sessions, surprisingly enough, are among the least-attended. It seems that hardly anyone here needs to learn how to migrate to MySQL or to be sold on its wonderfulness. They're already using it.

More MySQL Conference coverage is in the pipeline...

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