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It's Open Season

As Oracle and other major software companies buy open-source vendors, the commercial market takes on a new and uncertain look

The already thin line between commercial and open-source software keeps getting blurrier. Oracle last week bought Sleepycat Software, while open-source stalwarts such as JBoss, MySQL, and Zend Technologies look like plum acquisition targets. Now the commercial software giants must prove they can keep marching deeper into open-source territory without quashing the innovation and relationships they so covet.

Oracle bought Sleepycat and its open-source Berkeley DB embeddable database for an undisclosed price, and it also reportedly had talks with Zend, supplier of tools based on the open-source PHP scripting language, and JBoss, developer of an open-source application server. All this activity comes four months after Oracle acquired Innobase, a Finnish developer of the InnoDB open-source database storage engine.

That Oracle, a company that has shown little support for open-source software projects, has developed an appetite for open-source acquisitions illustrates how much the worlds of commercial and open-source software are colliding. IBM has proven open source can thrive with the help of a large commercial developer, and now it's pushing its open-source strategy further. The experiences of Sun Microsystems and CA show how complicated the balance can get.

Open-Source Plays
Retirement is golden CA's Ingres database business had dried up. Spinning it off as an open-source "startup" offloads development costs.
Foot in the door Microsoft has released about 75 products under shared-source licenses and a few as open source. Microsoft doesn't want to be ostracized forever from this influential part of the development community.
Brownies to Girl Scouts IBM starts customers on open-source middleware, then tries to move them to commercial software as they grow up.
Altruism doesn't pay the bills As open-source programmers grow up and take on mortgages, they need income. Linus Torvalds makes a nice salary at OSDL. Marc Fleury may sell JBoss. The best of both worlds: Community, plus cash.
Vacuums suck up everything For Oracle, buying PeopleSoft for $10.3 billion and Sleepycat for far less are related this way: Oracle needs avenues to new customers.
When you can't be 'em, join 'em OpenSolaris
Not all have gotten the open-source religion, as witnessed by the dour view from SAP. Many of the open-source applications moving forward today won't survive, predicted SAP executive VP Peter Graf at last week's Open Source Business Conference. Open source from companies such as Compiere, OpenMFG, and SugarCRM will disappear in an upcoming wave of industry consolidation, Graf predicted. "We don't believe open-source applications have enough time to mature before the next wave of consolidation hits," he said. "We invite you to join us and think about how to get from open source to open markets." SAP would like open-source developers to focus on its NetWeaver as a platform for their projects.

A Different World
Many in the open-source community view big-business encroachment with trepidation; they worry that Oracle, for example, is more out to kill a competitor than build a bridge. Yet others note there's only so much that any heavyweight can dictate in the open-source world. "The software stack and the communities around it, you can't buy those," says Scott Kveton, a director at Oregon State's Open Source Lab. If big vendors think they're buying customers with such deals, they're throwing money in the wrong direction. "That's the old school mentality of 'we're going to dictate where our customers go,'" Kveton says. "... This is 'watch where your community is going, and get there.'"

Quite a challenge for an egocentric company like Oracle, but it shows signs of approaching open source with respect--and probably a trace of fear. During negotiations, Oracle execs were keen to learn how to maintain a vibrant open-source community and how to give code away and then follow up with a commercial sale, Sleepycat CEO Mike Olson said last week.

Olson's own actions show the importance of community. He was keeping a close eye on Slashdot, the blog of choice for open-source programmers, as the deal unfolded. "The Slashdot guys are concerned," said Olson, who becomes an Oracle VP. "We need to demonstrate by our actions that we will keep freely distributing the product line, and that we will remain active supporters of the community."

Both IBM and Sun have shown that it's possible for tech companies to live and work amid open-source communities without hijacking them. Sun took a long time to work through its conflicted stance on open source, as Linux threatened its Solaris operating system. But it has released Solaris 10 and its Java Enterprise System middleware under open-source licenses, and it also supports Linux.

IBM may be the most skillful employer of open source. It began shipping the open-source Apache Web server as the default HTTP server in its WebSphere system in 1999, an example of how IBM builds products on top of open-source technologies. IBM's donation of the Eclipse developer workbench, which lets different vendors' tools work together and swap code files, has been a huge success, helping consolidate Java tools and make them competitive with Microsoft's more integrated Visual Studio. "We don't see this as commercial versus open source," says Scott Handy, IBM's VP of Linux and open source. "More people are using the two together."

Larry: Don't Fight It
The Machiavellian view of Oracle's intentions is fueled by the fact that MySQL, the leading open-source database, incorporates InnoDB technology into its products. After Oracle bought the Finnish owner of InnoDB, MySQL talked with Sleepycat about using Berkeley DB. Thanks to the Sleepycat deal, MySQL is back talking with Oracle about renewing its InnoDB license. MySQL has other options, says Zack Urlocker, VP of marketing, including tapping another open-source database or developing its own high-speed backup engine. ButMySQL tried to keep the focus on its opportunity. "Oracle is a fantastic friend of open source," MySQL CEO Marten Mikos cracked at the open-source conference. "It created a market for open-source databases with its high-priced licenses."

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