IBM will give Cloudscape, the database software it acquired through its 2001 acquisition of Informix, to the Apache Software Foundation, which will oversee Cloudscape as an open-source project.
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IBM said this marks the first time it donated the source code of a full, commercial product. Although it stopped promoting Informix's Cloudscape to new customers after it acquired the company, IBM has used the software in its own products, most notably its Workplace line of middleware offerings.
"We backed away from selling it, but it got heavy use internally - it had almost a viral effect internally," said Rod Smith, IBM's vice-president of emerging technologies. "Cloudscape showed up and our developers salivated."
Cloudscape's code comprises more than half a million lines, and IBM estimates the software's value at $85m (£47m). IBM said its goal in releasing the code as open-source is to spur Java application development, creating new business opportunities for its infrastructure software products.
"It's amazing how many times I've looked at a Java application and someone has written their own little relational database," Smith said. "Now, people won't have to do that anymore."
Cloudscape, called Derby in its latest incarnation, is a lightweight, Java-based relational database with a footprint of just 2Mbytes. It is significantly less resource-intensive than enterprise databases such as IBM's DB2. It is aimed at small websites, point-of-sale systems and departmental-level or small-business applications.
RedMonk Analyst Stephen O'Grady said Cloudscape addresses an area of the database market which lacks a clear technology leader.
He does not see it displacing robust software such as MySQL; rather, he sees Cloudscape as an alternative to lightweight products like HSQL (Hypersonic SQL) and Sleepycat Software's Berkeley database.
"I would not anticipate anytime soon that we'll see the traction behind this that we see behind something like MySQL, but on the other hand, I don't think you have to," O'Grady said. "The opportunity is there to pick up some substantial users."
Cloudscape is already in use by several of IBM's business partners, including Akamai Technologies, which incorporates the database in its caching technology.
IBM rival Computer Associates International also released one of its database products, Ingres, into the open-source community earlier this year. Fresh off its SuSE Linux purchase, Novell is transitioning toward a business model emphasising open-source products, while even GPL (General Public License) arch-nemesis Microsoft has quietly released a few of its technologies under open-source licences.
RedMonk's O'Grady said he sees different motives and circumstances driving the various companies' open-source releases, but one widespread influence is the growing recognition that for a product on which development has stagnated, companies can benefit by tapping community resources.
In the case of Cloudscape, a product that gets heavy use internally at IBM, releasing it as open source can help extend IBM's technology stack throughout the developer community, O'Grady said.
He also sees political gain in the move. "IBM needs to keep donating to the community to keep up the goodwill. That's true of any company that wants to make a big commitment to open source."
IBM plans to release a commercial version of Cloudscape later this year, which it said it will base on the Apache code. IBM expects its Cloudscape code to be available at the Apache.org website within the next few weeks.
Stacy Cowley writes for IDG News Service