Pressure on MySQL increases as Oracle purchases Sleepycat, with more to come

In November, I looked at Oracle’s
purchase of InnoDB
, as well as their release of Oracle Express, and the
effect on MySQL. In short, I concluded that the positives for Oracle were
clear, but that MySQL must be feeling outmaneuvered. Since InnoDB, with its
full transactional capability, has become an integral part of their product
offering, I suggested that both BerkleyDB (their first transactional storage
engine, but which has never got beyond so-called gamma status) and MaxDB
(what was SAPDB, which is a fully-featured database but does not yet integrate
well with MySQL’s other products) had both become critically important.

Shortly after Oracle purchased InnoDB, MySQL vice-president Richard Mason
acknowledged that MySQL were "evaluating options to replace that
functionality in some way," but that they were "not at the point yet
where we can go public with what that plan is but we will be shortly."

However, since then Oracle has upped the ante even more. On February 14th,
Oracle purchased Sleepycat Software, who provides MySQL with the Berkeley DB
transactional storage engine. Furthermore, in the last few days, rumors have
been flying that Oracle also intends to purchase both Zend (‘the PHP Company’),
as well as JBoss. I believe this is another smart series of moves by Oracle
that can only benefit them.

Serious threat to MySQL

Their purchase of Sleepycat enhances their embedded database product line,
but is also a serious threat to MySQL. MySQL’s newfound credibility,
painstakingly built up culminating with the release of version 5, is now at
risk. With both their key InnoDB and BDB storage engines now owned by a rival
company, MySQL’s obvious options are limited to two. They can either develop
their own transactional storage engine, which would not be a trivial task at
this stage, and many commentators believe is beyond them. Or, they can very
quickly integrate with MaxDB. SAP licenses the software to MySQL, and the two
companies jointly develop and market it. SAP will also be feeling the heat from
all of Oracle’s moves, and it is likely that they will increase their efforts
in supporting MySQL with MaxDB. To date, there has been very little progress in
integrating the two. The MaxDB Synchronization Manager allows data to
be inserted into MySQL, but the reverse process, moving data from MySQL to MaxDB,
and which according to the MySQL documentation was meant to be completed during
2005, has still not seen the light of day. Oracle could of course continue to
support MySQL by continuing to develop either or both of InnoDB and Berkeley
DB. However, the uncertainty is probably enough to keep most enterprise clients
away from MySQL. Oracle could then either attempt to purchase MySQL (perhaps at
a lower price), or keep it constrained and unable to make much of an impact in
any of Oracle’s markets.

An important distinction is beginning to be made, between companies that are
fully in control of the software, but release it under an open source license,
such as MySQL, and open source software that is community-controlled. The other
open source databases (in particular PostgreSQL and Firebird) are likely
beneficiaries of both this realization and the growing threats to MySQL. Both
are not tied to a single company, as MySQL is to MySQL AB, nor are they as
reliant on 3rd-parties, and so they are less vulnerable to any direct or
indirect threats. Firebird has just released version 2.0 in beta, and its
imminent release as stable could be a great opportunity for Firebird supporters
to try to gain some momentum. PostgreSQL meanwhile has always had a reputation
as a solid database, and has a stronger community than Firebird, so could also
be well placed. Many smaller open source projects still rely entirely on MySQL,
and many will now consider it prudent to support one or more alternatives as
well.

In spite of all the challenges, MySQL has just secured an additional $18.5
million in funding and financially is in a very healthy position. Some have
even suggested that MySQL itself being a potential takeover target of the
cash-flush Oracle does it no harm in attracting funding. This may be true of
Intel, as well as other smaller investors, although in the case of SAP, one of
the major investors, it is likely that their motivations are rather different.

The rumored purchase of Zend is also an important one for MySQL. MySQL/PHP
make up two important components of the LAMP stack, and not only are MySQL’s
storage engines being bought out by Oracle, so is Zend, the company behind PHP,
the language that in partnership with MySQL becomes the basis for most web
development, and which is currently estimated to be installed on around 15
million servers. Oracle and Zend are no strangers. Earlier this year, the two
undertook a joint agreement to provide integration between Oracle and PHP. If MySQL’s
integration with PHP began to lag behind that of Oracle, it would be a serious
blow for MySQL, as much of MySQL’s momentum came from its close association
with PHP. Perhaps this is what Oracle has in mind, with the recently-released
Oracle Express ready to capture the low-end of the market. SAP is currently a
strategic partner and major investor in Zend, and this move is another that
affects SAP as much as it does MySQL. It is important to understand though that
Zend and PHP are not the same thing. Zend contributes to PHP under a BSD license,
and no company owns this. This limits the potential harm that Oracle could
cause

Oracle competing with much bigger fish

Oracle’s moves are quite clearly aimed at much more than just MySQL. They
are looking to compete with IBM and Sun, who both began to embrace Open Source
software a lot earlier, with varying degrees of success. Oracle’s Linux
strategy has been reasonably successful, and they are aware of both the impact
OSS is having on their to-date core business of selling software licenses, as
well as the possibilities of moving to a subscription model based on OSS.

JBoss has been making a minor dent in the enterprise middleware market,
often in collaboration with MySQL. They recently acquired the Arjuna
Transaction Service Suite, and were planning to release it under an open source
license in the first quarter of this year. Again, this potential purchase
benefits Oracle in many ways. Competitive software is now brought into the
fold, and users can be steered towards using Oracle as a database rather than
MySQL. Oracle may or may not go ahead with releasing the Arjuna software as
open source if they went ahead with a purchase. JBoss has done the hard work of
building the product and building a community. With a takeover, Oracle could
see the opportunities for gaining some revenue, or it could be a defensive move
to prevent further penetration of their core markets.

Conclusion

Oracle contains some smart strategic thinkers. Much of the knee-jerk
reaction to the recent news was based on the belief that Oracle is essentially
an ignorant ogre, ready to come blasting in, riding roughshod over the existing
community, or of doomsday scenarios of PHP being bought and then shut down,
both of which are nonsense, and the latter not even possible. If Oracle stopped
all support for PHP and JBoss, the software could easily be forked. JBoss, for
example, is released under the LGPL. Oracle though would not be committing the
large amounts of money it has to date if it believed it would lose the
community around the software it is purchasing. Just like IBM, Oracle aims to
develop a good relationship with the software’s communities, as well as the
greater Open Source community. IBM, Oracle and Sun are all beginning to embrace
open source in a similar way. Microsoft has been the most rigid of all, still
being strongly tied to the software licensing model. For this reason, it is
still the main target amongst the more ideologically driven Free/Open Source
Software advocates. To varying degrees, IBM and Sun are seen as friendly to the
open source community. Oracle wants to enhance its standing, and will treat its
newly acquired communities with respect, looking to integrate their work and of
course leverage it for the company’s own benefit. Oracle gains nothing by
destroying the community, especially when its main competitors are not small
fish like MySQL or JBoss, but rather larger ones such as IBM, Microsoft and
SAP. It is interesting times indeed, and time for some strategic leadership
from MySQL.

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Ian Gilfillan

Ian Gilfillan
Ian Gilfillan
Ian Gilfillan lives in Cape Town, South Africa. He is the author of the book 'Mastering MySQL 4', published by Sybex, and has been working with MySQL since 1997. These days he develops mainly in PHP and MySQL, although confesses to starting out with BASIC and COBOL, way back when, and still has a soft spot for Perl. He developed South Africa's first online grocery store, and has developed and taught internet development and other technical courses for various institutions. He has majors in Programming and Information Systems, as well as English and Philosophy. For 5 years he was Lead Developer and IT Manager for Independent Online, South Africa's premier news portal. However, he has now 'retired' from fulltime work, and is hoping that his next book will be more in the style of William Blake and Allen Ginsberg.

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