February 16, 2006

Oracle's open source buying spree

Author: Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier

Oracle has been on a buying spree recently, and if the rumors are true it's not quite finished yet. This isn't unusual for companies of Oracle's size, but Oracle's appetite for open source companies may have repercussions for MySQL and the rest of the open source community.

Oracle snarfed up Innobase last October, and now it's purchased Sleepycat as well. Innobase and Sleepycat license software that is included in MySQL, which means that MySQL will now have to try to negotiate with Oracle for the technology in the future.

The company also approached MySQL, though MySQL opted to stay independent.

When asked, MySQL CEO Marten Mickos says that the company's ambition is "a successful independent existence" and called Oracle's purchase of Sleepycat "a great validation of the power of open source. We have been predicting for a long time that the incumbent vendors will adopt open source in some form: by acquiring companies, by launching open source initiatives, and by opensourcing old closed source products. This is all in line with that."

The perils of corporate-owned open source

Not everyone is as sanguine about Oracle's buying spree as Mickos. PostgreSQL developer Josh Berkus has worried for years about the "perils of corporate-owned open source" and says that Oracle's acquisition of Sleepycat "is a perfect case in point."

Berkus argues that a project like PostgreSQL, which is not under the direction of any one company, cannot be greatly affected by a company like Oracle simply buying out the competition. But when a single company steers an open source project, like MySQL, it leaves the door open for a massive shift in direction. Take, for example, Nessus.

In October of 2005, Tenable Network Security decided to ditch the GPL and license future versions of Nessus under a proprietary license. While the license allows for a community fork, Nessus never enjoyed the same kind of community development that keeps PostgreSQL or Apache going. Forks of the GPLed version of Nessus have appeared, but it's unclear whether the forks will be able to build sufficient developer and user interest to sustain them for the long haul.

How does this affect MySQL?

According to Mickos, Oracle's purchase of Innobase should not affect MySQL's customers or users for now. "InnoDB comes under the GPL so we don't need much of a licensing deal with them. The existing contract covering commercial licences of InnoDB has good wind-down and survival clauses so customers are safe."

Paola Lubet, a former Oracle executive and now vice president of marketing and business development at Solid Information Technology disagrees.

Lubet says that she doesn't see what Sleepycat or Innobase "brings to Oracle's strategy" aside from pushing MySQL back. "The future and evolution of that technology doesn't belong to MySQL anymore.... the database code is a pretty complex thing to do, and they might get the code, but they don't have the developers [for Berkeley DB or InnoDB]."

One wonders what Oracle's purchase of Sleepycat will mean for organizations other than MySQL that utilize Berkeley DB. The Sleepycat folks are fond of noting that Berkeley DB is used in a great many open source projects, such as OpenOffice.org, Subversion, Sendmail, OpenLDAP, and many others.

Michael Olson, president and CEO of Sleepycat, wrote on the Sleepycat blog that "We have no plans to change the open source strategy that Sleepycat pioneered, and that has been so successful for us. The Berkeley DB products will continue to be distributed under both open source and proprietary licenses." Sleepycat did not respond to requests for interviews.

Lubet says that Oracle's purchase of Sleepycat and Innobase is "slowing down open source momentum, and I think in this situation the community loses and the customer loses."

And, in particular, according to Lubet, MySQL loses. She says, "It's difficult to understand a motivation beyond a move to hurt MySQL."

Some disagree with the notion that Oracle is going after MySQL, however. Jeremy Zawodny disputes the notion that Oracle is specifically targeting MySQL with its purchases:

Trying to put MySQL out of business would be a fairly short-term tactical move. I think Oracle is looking 5 years down the road and seeing what the world looks like as the commoditization of enterprise scale infrastructure software components continues. They're seeing that they "own" a progressively smaller piece of that pie unless they act soon. The rumors of Oracle eyeing JBoss and others are completely in line with this thinking.

If Oracle can become a one-stop shop for folks building the next generation of big business applications, whether or not they use "traditional" Oracle software, the company manages to stay relevant in the new world--and that includes their lucrative consulting services.

Mickos also says he is "not so sure that the reason for Oracle to buy companies has to do with us. They may be out to create an open source presence or to better compete against Microsoft, IBM and SAP. But I don't know."

Whatever Oracle's motives, the company isn't responding to questions about them. Calls and emails to Oracle for comment went unreturned.

More to come

Sleepycat is probably not the last open source company that will be swallowed up. Rumors indicate that Oracle is also pursuing Zend and JBoss, and there is little doubt that IBM, HP, and other major IT companies are also eyeing open source companies for purchase.

Companies that depend on specific open source projects would do well to consider whether those projects are vulnerable to the whims of a single entity, or if they are healthy community projects that would continue without the stewardship of a corporate sponsor like Sleepycat, JBoss, or MySQL AB.

Whether Oracle's move turns out to be good, bad, or indifferent for open source, few are disputing that it's a smart move on Oracle's part. Berkus says, "If I was Larry Ellison, I would have done the same thing."

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