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Open source database improvements grow

By , Network World
March 15, 2004 12:06 AM ET

Network World - New open source databases users seem to blend the fervor of religious converts with the hardheaded realism of IT professionals.

"I needed an inexpensive database that could handle millions of records and generate [query] results in as short a time as possible," says Rich Allen, voice/data traffic coordinator, at Matanuska Telephone, an independent telco in Alaska.

He replaced flat text files and the Filemaker application with an open source version of MySQL .

"In addition to being free, and robust enough, it is also the most stable application I have ever used," Allen says. "MySQL is running on a dozen different Mac OS X servers and has never failed in the three years I've been using it."

The open source software is taking care of the most critical data for the telco: subscriber inventory for each of 52,000 access lines, billable call record data and traffic logging.

Allen's experience is typical. Open source databases often still are used in specialized niches. But they are important, even vital, niches for a growing number of corporations: Web portals, e-commerce applications, high-speed Web searching, content management, and most recently, data warehouse reporting.

Consider what's happened with these databases:

• Use of MySQL grew more than 30% in 2003, according a database survey by Evans Data. In the same period, use of Microsoft SQL Server and Access grew just 6%.

• PostgreSQL 7.5, due out around June, will run on Win32 platforms for the first time, offer a passel of performance improvements, partition data more efficiently, and might include support for two-phase commit, which is vital for transaction processing.

• MySQL next month will unveil new software to cluster database servers, so applications keep running if one server fails.

• February saw the release of Version 1.5 of Firebird, which is based on Borland's short-lived public release of the venerable Interbase source code in 2000. A key change is shifting the code to C++ in preparation for an array of enterprise-related improvements being hammered out for Firebird 2.0.

A nice mix

The mix of developers, consultants and some vendors in the communities that create and extend these databases are moving between adding features that make these open source applications more reliable, and trying to avoid the panoply of elements that make commercial databases such as Oracle or Microsoft SQL Server complex and demanding.

Increasingly, these databases are being seen as part of a package, or stack, of open source software that can create an application infrastructure for corporations. The initial version of the stack was dubbed LAMP, for the Linux operating system, the Apache Web server, the MySQL database, and either PHP, Python or Perl as the development language. PostgreSQL boosters have been promoting what they call a "brighter LAMP," which is Linux, Apache, middleware (such as Java application servers and messaging) and PostgreSQL. The effort reflects the consensus that PostgreSQL is better suited to large-scale, high-volume applications.

"Smaller companies want a simple [application] solution, with no licensing fees, which they can get up and running quickly," says Fred Moyer, a founder with his partner of Redhotpenguin.com, a consultancy specializing in open source database applications based on PostgreSQL. The open source stack lets him do all that, and he can deploy ready-to-use application modules, written in Perl, from sites such as Cpan.org.

Moyer is working with a few large companies that are evaluating PostgreSQL as a potential replacement for some of the Oracle databases they currently use. "Not everything they need is there yet [in PostgreSQL]," he says. "But it will be during the next six to 24 months."

The Robert Frances Group, a market research firm, recently completed a study on ROI for Linux deployments in corporations. "We found that application 'owners' are more willing to look [farther] up the stack for open source deployments, to consider application servers and databases," says Chad Robinson, senior business analyst with the firm.

It's easier to treat open source databases as part of a software infrastructure because developers are adding the features needed for that role.

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