Are Open Source Databases Following in Linux’ Footsteps?

One would be tempted to think Oracle is alone in its assessment that Microsoft may be threatened by a MySQL down the road. Not so. Gary Ebersole, president and COO of upstart ANTS Software, said he could see reasons for Microsoft having concern about this issue. Ebersole speaks as a competitor of Oracle and IBM, and ANTS technology looks to eliminates database-locking conflicts in high workload applications that need to be frequently updated, such as messaging platforms or stock trading. Ebersole argues IBM and Oracle can’t handle the concurrency of data ANTS can, and sees that as a way for the small company to insert itself among the big vendors.

“I would contend that MySQL is following the same trajectory that Linux has followed,” said Ebersole, who sold his firm Clustra Systems to Sun Microsystems last year. “It’s a strong, viable technology. MySQL is a very mature, stable product, whose disciplines are just as strong as Linux. 80 percent of database requirement is pretty basic SQL. Oracle has every possible, product that an SMB departmental application doesn’t need, such as data warehousing features. They probably don’t see the loss because their low-end share was never that strong. Oracle doesn’t see the business their not getting.”

However, he said Microsoft’s database share is so rooted in the SMB space (though he admitted the pending Yukon server is aimed at the mid-market), that Microsoft might have reason to be concerned.

IDC’s Olofson described the competitive positioning. MySQL “is not really cutting into the business of Oracle (or other mainstream RDBMS vendors) at the moment, because it is addressing a market segment that they do not serve today. Most businesses like the comfort they get from the security of knowing that a company like Oracle or IBM or Microsoft is managing their RDBMS technology and providing regular upgrades and support. MySQL is getting there on the service side, however, and may soon start to eat into the low end. At that point, Microsoft has more to fear than Oracle or IBM, but the open source incursion into the market may not end there. Open source vendors, as they gain credibility, may slowly work their way up from the bottom, putting more pressure on Oracle and their competitors to provide more and more high end innovations. But these innovations confine them to a stratospheric level of use where managing tens of thousands of concurrent users, handling arcane security requirements, supporting complex data types and mixed workloads of data and content, and managing very large and complex data warehouses are the key requirements. Database workloads outside of these areas become increasingly available to open source exploitation over time.”

But the problem with all of this competitive finger pointing, is that SQL Server is not exactly what keeps Microsoft up and running as a business. That software giant has plenty of other revenue streams to rest its head on. Even if a MySQL were to eat away at its market share, it isn’t likely that Microsoft will be that affected.

But Meta Group’s Garry said Microsoft continues to push the value of its stack and while they’re price performance is close to the larger guys, they are not overpriced beyond what people are willing to pay for.

“Microsoft isn’t so dependent on DB revenue that they couldn’t cut bundle their standard edition in their operating system for free,” Garry said. “It certainly helps boost the value proposition versus Linux. But, I don’t see any appreciable impact of open source databases on the commercial vendors until the end of the decade.”

So, then the question becomes less about how open-source can take market share from commercial vendors, and more about what purpose it can serve to customers.

What the open-source advocates say

Josh Berkus, who runs consulting firm Aglio Database Solutions, as well as an active participant and advocate of the PostGreSQL open-source database movement, believes this is a valid argument.

“The “SMB” market is, in my experience, the most rapid adopter of open-source technology. I run an independent consulting shop, and 80% of my clients are small-to-medium business. Their evaluation of technology is usually based on only these factors: 1) How much does it cost? 2) Does it have the essential features I need, or can it be affordably customized to have them? 3) What kind of maintenance does it require?”

Berkus said open-source software, and solutions based on it, have historically lead proprietary packaged vendor software in low cost, “hands-free” reliability, and customizability.

“Largely this is because of the economics of software development; it simply doesn’t pay for any multi-million dollar development company to create software for tiny market sectors with specialized needs or for “mom & pop” operations. So this market section, which is quite balkanized but constitutes a large portion of the economy, is left to small ISVs to service. And small ISVs increasingly use Open Source software to hold *their* costs down. This will remain true whether we are talking about conventional desktop in-office software, or some future “Web Services” architecture.”

As for PostGreSQL, Berkus likes its potential. “The PostgreSQL project has a much more ambitious goal,” than competing, he said. “We want to be the best RDBMS period, Open Source or proprietary. We have already made some steps toward this goal by designing features which no proprietary database has, like our support of more than a half-dozen procedural languages and support for certain advanced parts of the SQL standard, among other things.”

Forward looking, forward thinking

Are MySQL and its fellow open-source database crusaders a threat right now? No. But that doesn’t mean that open-source can’t nibble on commercial vendors’ pie slices in the future and it would be wise to adapt to the evolving market, according to IDC’s Olofson.

“For the next few years, we don’t see open source databases as a threat to Oracle, but over time Oracle must morph into a software platform provider that offers a complete managed environment, in order to be picked apart from the bottom by this new disruptive force in the market. Oracle is in fact moving in this direction with its application server technology and emphasis on complete integration of fundamental IT services through its software. IBM and Microsoft are moving in a similar direction, each seeking to be seen as a software platform provider, not merely a database vendor.”

A proper question one might ask, then, is what will the business computing market look like in the future. Olofson’s wonders: “Will we still have the Fortune 1000 with large data centers and in-house IT staffs, and myriad medium and small businesses with limited, locally managed computers? Or, will the lower end of the market migrate to outsourcing services and integrated self-managing (“autonomic”) computer systems, causing database technology to become, for them, integrated components of suites of computing services where the details are left up to professional computing service providers (online or packaged software)? What impact will all that have on database vendors, large and small?

Right now, the answers remain elusive. But check back in five to ten years.