Oracle - the devourer of open source databases

· by Steve · Read in about 4 min · (768 Words)

In a past working life, I used Oracle a fair amount - I used Oracle 7 through 10, and they were pretty decent products. The lineup was pretty simple back then - Oracle was the gruff, stoic mercenary who didn’t talk much and cost a fortune, but had it where it counted - if you could get him to do what you wanted; SQL Server was the approachable and gregarious rogue who was a jack of all trades and came fairly cheap, but had a habit of disappearing into the shadows or asking for more money at more sticky moments; and MySQL was the happy-go-lucky bard who was just along for the ride, happy to work for free so long as it was all just a jape and no-one asked him to do any real work.

How things have changed; SQL Server has got more mature (and more expensive), Oracle has bristled with ever more confusing add-on components while the core has got cheaper, MySQL has become a much more serious contender for many businesses and has already been swallowed once recently by Sun for an insane $1bn. However, that’s all going to change again now that Oracle is buying Sun, and thus with it, MySQL. So what does this mean for MySQL?

A lot of people are saying it’ll be curtains, but I’m not so sure. Oracle has already chowed down on several other open source vendors in this space, and perhaps surprisingly not much has changed. In 2005, they bought Innobase, a Finnish company that produced the transactional back-end for MySQL, InnoDB. So essentially from 2005 Oracle controlled the most important part of MySQL anyway, certainly from the perspective of increasing its business use. And yet, really not much happened, except for some rumblings in the community and some uncertainty around MySQL 5 (which was no doubt Oracle’s intention). Then in 2006, Oracle bought Sleepycat, which produced Berkeley DB, an open source embedded database. Again, this continued pretty much unchanged afterwards. So, what will they do with MySQL now?

I’m not even sure it matters. Because the reason that Oracle’s purchase of InnoDB and Berkley DB were effectively a non-event for users is that they were both open source. No matter what Oracle did, it couldn’t change that - if they try to change the license from future versions, a fork will just appear instead and people will move. The key people involved in the project would just leave and work for whoever ends up running the fork (probably a startup) - after all, most of the time these people were in the startups that created it. There is actually not that much ‘control’ at all that you gain from purchasing an open source project like this - you get the copyright, so that means you’re the only one who can change the license for future versions, but the open source license can never be revoked on existing versions. You might own the rights, but you don’t own the customers.

So really, it makes very little sense for Oracle to try to ‘kill off’ MySQL, or to cripple it somehow. With Inno, the one thing they had in their back pocket was the Hot Backup, which was a closed part of the code, but because it’s not the majority of the product there’s nothing to stop someone else developing an equivalent - most of the time the only reason people don’t is that while the company plays fair, there’s no need to. If it’s a higher-end add-on, people tend to accept that the originator company can sell a minority of their product as an add-on, it’s “fair” given all the code they’re giving away as open source. But, if the company acquiring them then tries to exploit that, say by making it prohibitively expensive or withdrawing it completely in order to try to make the core open source product less attractive (maybe in favour of their own proprietary product), then you can guarantee others will enter the space to resolve the issue.

It’s a perfect example of why open source is a hugely valuable insurance policy to anyone using it. Even if mergers and acquisitions change the priorities of those who control the code, the kinds of forced switching and upselling that typically occurs to customers in the proprietary space (I’ve had this happen to me several times) in the wake of such M&A activity just doesn’t generally happen so much with open source products - because if vendors inconvenience their customers, they really do have the viable option to go elsewhere. As it should be!