February 3, 2006

Newly free databases validate open source pioneers

Author: Jay Lyman

Nowadays, the biggest traditional database companies are making free availability and open source development an increasingly significant part of their product lines. In the latest such move, this week IBM announced it would make its DB2 Express-C package available at no cost, though still under a proprietary license.

Before that, the Big Blue took on the Cloudscape open source database and development, and other database vendors have adjusted their strategies. Oracle acquired the open source database Innobase last fall, and also made available a free, "starter" version of its Oracle Database 10g. Sybase has offered a free Linux Express Edition of its database since 2004, and Microsoft has also offered an Express Edition for some time. There have also been others, including CA, which open sourced its Ingres database in 2004.

IBM director of data servers Bernie Spang acknowledged both the contribution and competition of free and open source databases and developers. He called IBM's and other traditional database vendors' moves toward the free and open source models a "recognition of the greater opportunity if we address the needs of developer communities, and sets of developer communities."

Spang called DB2 Express-C a continuation of Big Blue's "ongoing story" in support of open standards and interfaces that stems back to the 1990s. "Part of being open is to give clients flexibility," he said, conceding that the company may not have fully recognized the value of free, open, or commodity databases two years ago. "The open and otherwise free data servers have demonstrated to us a greater opportunity for data server use."

He also dispelled the idea that bringing a free, more open version of the DB2 database to market with the DB2 Express-C means that IBM's dedication to Derby development and the Cloudscape open source database would be impacted.

"No, it certainly doesn't negatively affect the Derby Project," Spang said. "There isn't just one development community in the world."

With Derby and Cloudscape, IBM and the community around that database technology get a pure Java product, while the new DB2 Express-C provides a fast, free, testable version of DB2 that retains the more scalable database's core architecture and application interfaces, Spang said.

The open source community reacts

Long-time open source database vendors greeted IBM's news with a smile.

"I'm amused seeing IBM 'one-up' Oracle on the permitted configuration of its Express version," PostgreSQL core team member Josh Berkus said. "I'm now wondering if we're going to see a commoditization race from IBM, Oracle, and Microsoft to provide the most capable free version. That would be fun!"

Even if that race never comes to pass, Berkus said no one can deny that database management systems (DBMS) have become commoditized except at the very high end of the market. "This is good news for OSS projects, which thrive on commoditization, and for database users, who can now find other things to spend their money on," Berkus said.

He said the free activity in the database market will promote increased competition based on features and performance, which should help drive innovation. "The worst thing that could happen to the DB market is a monopoly, since then innovation would stop completely," Berkus said.

Berkus also said the availability of free and "lite" versions of the big traditional databases actually has development benefits for open source communities. "One question we always have on new features is, 'How do the commercial databases implement this?', and the free versions make it possible for us to check easily," he said. "And we can use the 'Express' versions to test integration and migration tools, license permitting, of course. It also lets users make their own head-to-head performance comparisons for small databases."

The commercial vendors' mimicking of free and open source databases that offer free availability and code or development support is a "wonderful validation of the power of open source databases," as well as his own company's business model, MySQL CEO Marten Mickos said. "Not long ago, the traditional DBMS vendors ignored us. Then they laughed at us. Then they resisted the suggestion that the DBMS business is getting commoditized."

Rather than viewing the adjustments toward open source as a competitive threat, Mickos called it a validation of open source databases, "and an acknowledgment that the DBMS market is indeed getting commoditized."

Change of heart

While the traditional database vendors have generally scoffed at predictions they would open their proprietary databases, those predictions are now becoming reality.

"This is what we have been predicting for some time," Mickos said. "And it is not just IBM and Oracle. Microsoft has, for a long time, had a zero-cost version of their product with crippled features. Sybase too."

Berkus said IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, and Sybase had all continually denied there was real competition from OSS databases. "In the meantime, they have made free versions available to the low-end market, where they weren't selling licenses anyway, and are discounting their license prices and/or offering more bundling," he said. "While all of the big four are claiming business as usual, their actions show that they're feeling market pressure. It's pretty much exactly what I'd do in their place, except maybe I'd have started offering a free version earlier than three of them did."

Despite what the traditional database vendors are saying in their press releases, they have, through their actions, acknowledged open source databases are competitive with their products, Berkus added.

Free with a price

While Mickos graciously referred to the strategy shift forced by open source databases as validation of his company's business, he also pointed out the difference between the original and latest "free" and "open" offerings.

"Now they all have zero-cost products," he said of the traditional vendors. "Noteworthy, however, is that all these products are closed source and have artificial limitations built in." Mickos argued the traditional vendors are proving "that there are no free lunches," explaining the companies need to limit the capabilities of their zero-cost products and build in "hooks" "so that they can then move customers to the very costly commercial versions," he said. "At the same time, I would say that we are proving that even if there are no free lunches, there is free software. The entire MySQL server with all its features continues to be available freely under the GPL license for anyone to download, and some 50,000 do it every single day.

"It takes determination and courage to go all GPL, but it is well worth it. The FOSS community is stronger than any single corporation," Mickos said.

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