February 27, 2007

Portrait: Brian Aker, database strategist

Author: Bruce Byfield

"I'm not interested in the more academic aspects of computing," says Brian Aker, director of architecture at MySQL. "I'm interested in solving problems." This approach has taken Aker from being a teenage hacker to today, when he spends an increasing amount of time thinking about where IT in general and databases specifically are heading.

Aker's interest in computing began when he was 13 and uploading programs for a Commodore 64 to bulletin boards around Lexington, Kentucky, and inviting others to use them. "I would say that I got interested in open source before I even knew what it was," Aker says.

From this early work, he branched out to writing for OpenVMS, 386BSD, and Apache. "386BSD was where I first got interested in doing actual patches," he says, recalling that his first effort was a driver for an unsupported Western Digital Ethernet card. His original interest in university was environmental science -- to this day, Aker describes himself as a "tree-hugger" -- but, largely because of his contributions to open source projects, he ended up with a triple degree, with majors in environmental science, computing, and mathematics.

One of Aker's most memorable jobs was with Andover.net's Slashdot. Originally hired to port Slashdot to Oracle, he ended up working with Patrick Galbraith -- now another MySQL employee -- and Chris Nandor to tweak the code to continue running the site on MySQL. He ended up working mainly on the administrative interface, writing libraries that would theoretically allow the site to run on MySQL, Postgres, or Oracle.

Brian Aker - click to enlarge (Photo by James Duncan Davidson/O'Reilly Media)

To this day, Aker remains interested in Slashdot, praising it as "a really good combination of a user-contributing environment and editorial control." At the recent Vancouver PHP Conference, he suggested that, had the site not already established its own solutions for handling its audience, it might make a good candidate for Amazon's EC2 pay-as-you-go computing.

However, although Aker enjoyed his time at Slashdot, after nearly three years he was ready to move on. For some time, MySQL had been trying to hire him. After David Axmark, one of MySQL's founders, "spent about eight hours" after a presentation trying to persuade him, Aker agreed to become a MySQL employee. "I really, really enjoy Monty [Widenius] and David as people," Aker says, explaining his reasons for accepting. "I get to work with really good people, and I get to work on something that changes the world around me."

Although Aker's position was originally left broad, he says that, gradually, his role is "becoming more and more strategic. It's what I enjoy doing."

In the past, MySQL's main interest was data warehousing. However, according to Aker, one of the current goals at MySQL is "to be the world's best online database." To achieve this result, Aker spends his time thinking about such issues as whether the entire structure of a database needs to be online and editable online.

Just now, Aker's main interest is scaling. "Scaling has always been my cup of tea," he says. "I did contribute some of the interface to Slashdot, but my biggest contribution was actually in scaling, and continues to be [in other jobs]. His particular interest is in the "mass scaling" needed for large interactive sites like Google, MySpace, and Amazon.com, and "in how you commoditize the architecture around that."

Scalability also figured in a talk Aker gave at the Vancouver PHP Conference this month. "What I was reflecting in my talk was how to solve caching, replication, and just learning how to study performance and solve routing."

Another problem is geographical replication of data in dispersed sites. "We really don't have -- and I do not believe that there is -- a simple solution," he says, flatly.

However, true to his major in environmental science, one of the most pressing problems that Aker sees for the large interactive sites is the problem of providing sufficient computing power and of dealing with the resulting release of heat. In his talk, Aker referred to the problems one IT-dedicated building in Seattle has of channeling all the power it needs into such a small space. "They had to take out an elevator and use the shaft for all the cables," he says. Jokingly, he adds that the reason that Google Earth obscures views of nuclear sites is to protect its own power sources.

"How do we reduce the amount of power needed for rackmount or blade servers?" he asks. "The first whack-a-mole to attack is the processor, and looking at what Intel is doing, I think it understands that." The low-power processors used by the One Laptop Per Child product are promising, but they are not designed for use as servers. Solid state components, he thinks, may eventually provide at least part of the solution.

Aker declined to discuss in any detail what niches MySQL's competitors have in the market, although he did speculate that EnterpriseDB, a commercialization of PostgresSQL, was aiming to be a direct open source alternative to Oracle. "All the different databases have different niches," he said simply. "That's why you still see multiple databases on the market. Where [MySQL] is at is how to take the next generation of applications and make them work with MySQL." The answer, clearly, will come at least partly from Aker's sense of the market and his ability to translate that sense into practical software engineering.

Our Portraits series seeks to profile individuals who are doing interesting things with free and open source software. If you know of someone you'd like to read about, please let us know.

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