Sun’s bold MySQL buy

Sun’s MySQL purchase intensifies its competition with Oracle, IBM and Microsoft

Sun’s open source buy of MySQL deftly positions both companies in a high-growth enterprise market for a new generation of Web-based applications. Exactly where Oracle, IBM, and Microsoft also plan to be.

Sun's $1 billion play for the Swedish open source database vendor MySQL AB is a deft move, and a dangerous one.

It's deft because it exploits a trend toward open source software and Web-based, online applications. It's dangerous because this “Web economy,” as Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz dubs it, is also the prime hunting ground for Oracle, IBM, and especially Microsoft. Sun and MySQL have sidestepped the traditional database market to jump feet first into the emerging one.

They're likely to be welcomed there. MySQL is generally regarded as the most successful of the open source databases, which also include EnterpriseDB (based on the PostgreSQL code base), Firebird (built on the venerable InterBase code), Apache Derby, the Sleepycat embedded database (bought by Oracle in 2006) and Greenplum (which last year announced $15 million in new venture funding and a new CEO, a 19-year veteran of Sun).

Users like these databases because they typically are very fast, especially in read-only applications, have no or nominal licensing fees, and are cheap to run and administer. Their use in an array of enterprise applications has been growing steadily

“I didn't feel the need to spend money on something that worked fine, from the open source community,” says Lance Obermeyer, CTO for Digby, an Austin, Texas software company that offers a mobile e-shopping application and service, based on MySQL. “We had no qualms about using an open source product. It can be just as good as the commercial database.”

Narrowing the feature gap

While all the open source databases lack the vast wealth of features found on Oracle, DB2, and even Microsoft SQL Server -- products that were designed a generation ago -- the gap lessens with each successive iteration.

MySQL 5.0, the current release, was issued in 2006 as the company's initial foray into the data center. The database uses a modular architecture so that different storage engines (from MySQL or community members) can be plugged into the core database functions.

Currently, for example, MySLQ has two existing plug-ins for transaction processing: the InnoDB engine (acquired by Oracle a few years ago), and the company's own MySQLCluster. An alpha version of MySQL's new Falcon transaction processing plug-in is available now, with a beta version due out soon. Falcon is designed for large-memory, multithreaded, and multi-CPU applications such as high-volume Web sites, according to MySQL. Falcon architect Jim Starkey talked about his work in a November interview

These kinds of advances, coupled with Sun's global customer and tech support, will make MySQL more palatable to high-end enterprise sites, where today Oracle, IBM and Microsoft together own 85% of a $15 billion market, according to several analysts.

But neither Sun nor MySQL executives expect anyone to rip out their clustered Oracle 11g database and replace it with MySQL. Instead, they're aiming at new and emerging Web-based, online applications, where MySQL already has a solid presence and a blue chip customer list, including Yahoo, Facebook and Google.

At Yahoo, for example, MySQL quickly handles vast amounts of data from hundreds of daily news feeds. In response to the mouse clicks by Yahoo visitors, MySQL stores, marks up and posts the data in Web pages.

For these companies, and many like them, the software framework undergirding online applications is the open source software stack called LAMP, named for the Linux operating system, Apache Web server, MySQL database, and PHP scripting language.

Sun sees LAMP as the basis for a new generation of Web-based, service-oriented software architectures taking root in the enterprise. “We’re putting a billion dollars behind this open source stack,” says Rich Green, executive vice president of Sun Software.

The deal “puts Sun into a leadership position in the LAMP stack,” says Raven Zachary, research director for open source at The 451 Group. “This is a major shift in Sun’s database strategy. We’re likely to see more moves by Sun in the future to move its open strategy to the next level.”

Growth on the Web

Both companies also are betting that the next generation of emerging, fast-growing companies will be more open to open source than traditional enterprises.

“In the old client/server world, you have DB2 or Oracle on a server running payroll, or accounting, or other financial applications,” says Marten Mickos, CEO of MySQL. “But accounting doesn't grow. On the Web, everything grows. That's the main difference here.”

And that requires a different, more modern database, he says. “MySQL is unique in that we are the only significant relational database designed for the Internet, to save data to Web pages,” says Mickos. “All the others were designed before the Internet, for offline applications.”

Sun's global tech and customer support, and its fat R&D budget, are just what MySQL needs to penetrate the large-company market, says Noel Yuhanna, principal analyst with Forrester Research. “They've done very well in the small-medium business market, and with smaller database applications,” he says. “The larger enterprise is where the problem was: People were concerned about the long-term viability of MySQL.”

MySQL also fits into Sun’s corporate culture around open source, where both companies are often the primary or only contributors to, and controllers of, the core of the open code base.

“They've written every line of code to their database,” says Bruce Momjian, senior database architect with EnterpriseDB, a New Jersey database company whose rival product is built on the PostgreSQL open source code. He's also one of the Core Team members for the PostgreSQL project. “[For MySQL] open source is a way to distribute their database to the growing open source community and gain significant market share,” he says.

EnterpriseDB released a beta version of its Advanced Server 8.3 in November

MySQL's source code is licensed in two ways. Under the GNU General Public License (GPL), users can download it, change it, and never pay the company a dime. But if MySQL is incorporated into a product, users have to choose the commercial license. Cisco is a commercial licensee, running MySQL in several of its products, including its network intrusion-detection software. Any changes Cisco engineers make to the source code remain Cisco's property, and a distinguishing feature of its product.

By contrast, PostgreSQL uses the Berkeley license, under which the database code is not owned by anyone, and the development community organizes, schedules, and executes enhancements and additions.

Sun itself has a PostgreSQL development team, as well as a Java open source database project. Both will continue to be offered and actively supported, says Sun's Green, because they all fulfill different purposes and satisfy different user needs. “PostgreSQL is focused on high-end database features for applications like large data warehouses,” says Josh Berkus, PostgreSQL Lead at Sun.

Big competition

On the business front, the acquisition moves Sun and MySQL squarely into competition with Microsoft's SQL Server 2005, says Josh Farina, analyst with Technology Business Research (TBR). “TBR believes Microsoft has taken [market] share away from the open source databases at the departmental or small-business level,” he says. “Microsoft’s out-of-the-box integration with other pieces of the Microsoft stack is a strong differentiator.”

For Sun's billion-dollar gamble to pay off, it will have to maintain and strengthen ties with the open source community and tie the MySQL database ever more tightly into the emerging open source software framework for the Web.

Learn more about this topic

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