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March 3, 2010

What now for MySQL?

With the EU approving Oracle’s takeover of Sun Microsystems, Steve Evans looks at what the future may hold for the open source database MySQL and the industry in general.

By Steve Evans

When Oracle announced in April 2009 that it had reached an agreement to buy the ailing Sun Microsystems for $7.4bn the open source community reacted with understandable anger.

The takeover would give Oracle control over the open source productivity suite OpenOffice and the popular database platform MySQL. Oracle of course already has its own Database 11g product, so where would MySQL fit in? Would it be in Oracle’s interest to keep MySQL going? These were the questions the open source community wanted answered.

In September 2009 the EU launched an investigation into the deal amid concerns that it would prove anticompetitive. But for some in the open source community this wasn’t enough. MySQL co-founder Monty Widenius, who quit the company in February 2009, set up a website to raise awareness about the potential conflict of interest that would arise if the deal went through.

“If Oracle acquired MySQL,” Save MySQL! says, “it would have as much control over MySQL as money can possibly buy over an open source project. MySQL’s success has always depended on the company behind it that develops, sells and promotes it. That company as always owned the important intellectual property rights (IPRs). If those IPRs fall into the hands of MySQL’s primary competitor, then MySQL immediately ceases to be an alternative to Oracle’s own high-priced products.

On the back foot
Oracle went into defensive mode in an attempt to appease EU investigators. In December 2009, the company released an open letter to MySQL customers confirming its commitment to the application. The promises included continued availability of storage engine APIs, a commitment to enhance MySQL in the future under the GPL (general public licence), no requirement to purchase support services from Oracle as a condition to obtaining a commercial licence to MySQL, and an increase in spending on MySQL research and development.
The move worked and in January 2010 the EU formally and unconditionally approved the acquisition. Fears over the future of MySQL were unfounded, the Commission decided.

“The Commission’s in-depth investigation showed that although MySQL and Oracle compete in certain parts of the database market, they are not close competitors in others, such as the high-end segment,” it said in a statement. “Given the specificities of the open source software industry, the Commission also took into account Oracle’s public announcement of 14 December 2009 of a series of pledges to customers, users and developers of MySQL concerning issues such as the continued release of future versions of MySQL under the GPL open source licence.”

While Widenius has vowed to take his fight to China and Russia, David Axmark, MySQL’s other founder, believes that, despite some reservations about the deal, MySQL can continue to flourish. “I do believe that Oracle has no real reason to support MySQL. I don’t think the competition between them was enormous, but it is growing and has been growing for a number of years. I don’t think it’s healthy for Oracle to continue to grow it,” he tells CBR. “I doubt they’d ‘kill’ anything though. Will they aggressively sell to companies that Oracle can sell to? Never. Will it hurt the current MySQL customers? Probably not. There’s no money to be made for them there. Upselling current MySQL customers to Oracle would be tiny money. Stopping Oracle customers from downgrading to any open source database will be lots of money.”

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Axmark also believes that aiming MySQL at a market where Oracle’s existing database applications do not operate will mean that the two can coexist. “If I was Oracle, I would aim MySQL even more at the web sector, where Oracle doesn’t really have anything. So more development, more uses and they don’t really lose any revenue. I wouldn’t aim it at the enterprise sector where Oracle already is,” he tells CBR.

Open alternatives
One of the reasons behind the EU’s decision was that there are alternative open source databases available should customers not want to remain with Oracle. One company expecting a boost in migrating customers is Redwood City, California-based Ingres. “End customers may now be saying there’s ‘too much Oracle’ in one place. App vendors that had built on MySQL, for example, may be worried about the competition from Oracle and we believe we’ll see more moving over to us,” Steve Shine, executive vice president of worldwide operations at the firm tells CBR.

Oracle, however, is not worried about the open source community deserting MySQL. “It’s not either/or, it’s not a choice between open source and proprietary. The two are complementary,” Oracle UK Database and BI Technology director Andrew Bond told CBR. “We support both and customers just have to look at what we’ve done in that space,” he added, referring to Oracle’s February 2006 acquisition of Sleepycat, the firm that oversaw the Berkeley DB family of open source developer databases.

Despite his open source origins, Axmark also believes that it can co-exist with proprietary software. “Of course they can co-exist,” he says. “But with closed source you have to be very sure about your market, because if someone can figure out the business model and do the same via open source, they’ll kill you. It’s hard to compete with free.”

Although Oracle is keen to play down the open vs. proprietary debate, the question of support is something that database management firm Quest Software says is right at the top of the list of concerns for its customers, according to European CTO Joe Baguley. “One of the original and never-ending concerns about open source is the fact that the person paying the money likes to have someone else to call up and shout at when things aren’t working,” he tells CBR. “With a proprietary database you can call an engineer to sort it out, with a MySQL application that is supporting the business, who do you phone?”

The open source community would argue that that is exactly what it is there for. “But would they provide it in the same timely manor as a vendor would?” Baguley asks.

“That’s the standard criticism from proprietary vendors,” counters Shine. “The idea that it lacks support probably comes from the early days of open source. At Ingres over 50% of our people are dedicated to the support of databases.”

It’s possible that this perceived lack of support is holding back open source databases from being used for mission-critical, customer-facing applications, says John Pocknell, product manager of TOAD (tool for application developers) for Oracle at Quest. “Right now, it’s an extremely risky venture to put your business and the applications that support your business on a platform like MySQL, simply because if you’ve got SLAs you have to meet and it’s only the open source community providing the back up, you’re going to have problems somewhere along the line. That may change with Oracle,” he says.

Some of the biggest names on the web use MySQL, including Wikipedia, Facebook, Google and Twitter as well as other technology giants such as Dell and Cisco. Steve Shine from Ingres was also keen to play up the company’s influence in the banking sector and other mission critical applications. “We have major banks in our installed customer base and about 25% of all financial transactions go through an open source platform. One customer uses Ingres for flight and maintenance scheduling,” he says.


CBR opinion
Oracle’s message to the EU should assuage some of the worries the open source community has over the future of MySQL now that it is part of the computing giant. Its co-founder seems relaxed about MySQL’s future and as he points out, it operates in a different market to Oracle’s offering. Oracle would gain nothing from killing MySQL, apart from alienating the innovative, passionate and loyal open source community.


MySQL timeline
1994 David Axmark and Monty Widenius start development of MySQL
1995 First release of MySQL
1998 First Windows version released
1999 Company first talks to potential investors
2001 VC money starts rolling in, MySQL opens first office, Marten Mickos arrives as CEO
2003 MySQL gets US funding
2004 Mickos moves to Silicon Valley
2006 Adds subscription service
2008 MySQL AB acquired by Sun Microsystems for $1bn
2009 Widenius leaves Sun, Axmark also leaves saying company was way too big” for him
April 2009 Oracle announces $7.4bn deal to acquire Sun
100 million downloads of MySQL source code to date.

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