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Software // Information Management
06:35 PM
Rick Whiting
Rick Whiting

Open Source, Open Questions

Features due in the next version of MySQL database could add to its momentum--or rob it of its simplicity

Open-source databases took a giant step toward the mainstream last month when Hewlett-Packard began supporting MySQL and certifying it to run on HP servers--the first major system vendor to do so.

HP's move adds to the growing evidence that open-source databases--primarily MySQL--are becoming a viable alternative to commercial databases from IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle. "It's no longer the lunatic fringe," says Gartner analyst Kevin Strange, who has seen a surge of interest in MySQL in the last six to eight months.

Like the open-source Linux operating system and Apache Web server, open-source databases are freely available on the Web, and developers can download the source code and modify it any way they like. But companies also can pay vendors such as MySQL AB and PostgreSQL Inc. for support and other services in the same way they can purchase Linux software and support from Red Hat Inc.

Why the sudden interest in open-source databases? Cost is the main reason. Companies are undertaking new IT projects as the economy improves, but budgets remain tight and IT managers are increasingly open to low-cost alternatives to high-priced database software. MySQL implementation costs can be as little as 10% or 20% the cost of a commercial database, says Mike Gaydos, the lead architect of MySQL solutions at IT services firm EDS.

Open-Source Risks bar chartBusiness-technology executives now have a higher comfort level with open-source software overall. As Linux, Apache, and the JBoss open-source application server gain acceptance, IT execs who just a year ago might have balked at the idea of using an open-source database are taking a second look.

Open-source databases lack some of the sophisticated capabilities offered by commercial databases, but they're widely perceived as capable of handling routine and even critical computing tasks. AMR Research, in a report predicting open-source databases will be widely adopted by 2006, found that 43% of companies using open-source databases say they can handle mission-critical jobs today, while 37% expect them to be ready for such tasks within 24 months.

Increased use of MySQL and other open-source databases, in fact, represents something of a revolt among IT buyers against IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle, which continue to fill their database products with new features and technology that many business users aren't ready to use. Oracle, for example, built grid-computing capabilities into its 10g database, even though many customers are a long way from building grid systems.

The government of Pottawattamie County, Iowa, is swapping out its Windows server software for Linux. It uses MySQL for several database applications and plans to convert others to MySQL from Microsoft's SQL Server database. Aside from the cost advantage MySQL has over SQL Server, county IT director Thomas Broniecki claims MySQL is more secure than Microsoft's database.

Few companies, however, are ripping out their Oracle, Microsoft, or IBM DB2 databases in favor of open-source databases. Commercial databases are too entrenched within IT networks, and businesses have too much invested in applications--either developed in-house or packaged apps from PeopleSoft, SAP, and others--that run on those databases.

Open-source databases move in most often for new, custom-built applications, particularly within small and midsize companies, educational institutions, and government organizations.

"Pretty much every part of the business runs on MySQL," says Corey Ostman, technology VP at LLC, an online comparison-shopping Web site. The database serves up content to the Web site, which gets thousands of hits every second during peak times, and tallies up the clickstream data used to calculate fees paid by retailers to PriceGrabber.

PriceGrabber chose MySQL when the company was started in 1999 because the database was easy to manage, Ostman says. He had worked with Oracle's database and says it needed constant attention and tuning. And while cost wasn't a major factor in the initial decision to use MySQL, Ostman says it doesn't hurt that its maintenance and support from MySQL AB costs "thousands of dollars per year rather than [the] hundreds of thousands of dollars per year" a commercial database would cost.

MySQL finds its way into some big companies. Sabre Holding Corp. has 45 Linux-based servers running MySQL databases to give travel agencies fare and seat-availability information. But the heavy-duty job of calculating prices and processing reservations remains on an HP NonStop transactional database.

While the roster of open-source databases includes PostgreSQL and Berkeley DB, the momentum is rolling in favor of MySQL, which has more than 4 million installations.

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