Should you trust an open source database?

Would you trust your mission-critical applications to an open source database? MySQL is taking on the big suppliers, but is it...

Would you trust your mission-critical applications to an open source database? MySQL is taking on the big suppliers, but is it enterprise class yet?

In a David and Goliath-style move, MySQL AB is taking on database giants such as Microsoft, Oracle and IBM with its open source database software and is winning business.

MySQL AB said it has already bagged some sizable US customers including Yahoo, Sabre Holdings, Lufthansa Systems, Ericsson and Nasa, which are running mission-critical applications on the open source database.

One of its key UK customers is the Cambridge-based Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, a partner in the Human Genome Project. Sanger uses the MySQL database for a number of mission-critical programmes to manage large amounts of data for human gene and disease identification.

"Our servers must be very robust," said David Harper, senior computer programmer in Sanger's Pathogen Group. "MySQL meets those requirements and it is also easy to install and maintain. The pathogen sequencing unit at the Sanger Institute is dedicated to improving human and animal health, and without robust and reliable databases, this would not be possible."

The commercial version of MySQL is priced at £1,000 for a year's contract or up to £32,000 for an advanced version with round-the-clock support - far cheaper than similar products from Oracle and IBM. It comes with a choice of four levels of support and is available free to certain classes of users. Other open source enterprise databases include PostgreSQL, MaxDB (sold by SAP to MySQL AB) and Firebird.

Hewlett-Packard recently lent MySQL credibility by agreeing to certify, support and jointly sell the open source database. In a report earlier this year, analyst firm Gartner said, "HP's commitment should boost the viability of the open source movement among mainstream enterprises, as with Linux adoption after IBM's endorsement.

"MySQL will gain a renewed level of credibility; however, it still lacks the functions, third-party application support, scalability and high-availability features that many enterprise-class applications require. HP's marketing programme will boost interest in MySQL as a mid-tier web and departmental database management system, but not as an enterprise deployment."

Ovum's research director Neil Macehiter said, "A lot of functionality is becoming standardised in the database market and open source software has a place here. We have seen it in the applications market."

Macehiter said he questioned MySQL's clustering, reliability, support and enterprise functionality, but said it can fit into a spectrum of uses for databases. "People are using Oracle and IBM in places where they could be using MySQL for less mission-critical functions," he said.

Mike Thompson, principal analyst at Butler Group, was less confident of MySQL's suitability. He said, "Is MySQL enterprise-class? It is unproven and will be cut to pieces by the big suppliers. Do we believe Nasa would send someone into space based on open source database software?"

He added that Butler Group has doubts about MySQL's security and functionality compared with IBM or Oracle.

In August, Computer Associates will launch an open source version of its Ingres database, which is popular with telcos and manufacturers. Thompson said, "I cannot see any point in people going to MySQL when there is a trusted enterprise database available for free."

Ronan Miles, chairman of the UK Oracle User Group, said, "Open source is coming on strong but people have a lack of faith in trusting the data layer to it. I am aware of MySQL being used for small-scale systems and especially 'experimental' systems where licence costs would preclude the initiative. I think that as the capability of these open source databases become more proven, we will see their usage grow. If you want to run production systems with a degree of assurance, PostgreSQL is seen by some as a better bet. At the moment open source has low costs and future promise."

The database market has consolidated, with firms such as Sybase and Informix seeing their core database share fall. The once popular Informix database was acquired by IBM in 2001 and has seen its market share fall to 1.9%. IBM's DB2 database now has about 33% of the market.

Oracle, IBM and Microsoft are the number one, two and three database suppliers respectively, and have been for some time, with Oracle 10g, IBM DB2 Universal Database and Microsoft SQL Server.

Apart from minor updates, there is very little to differentiate the big three, with Microsoft playing catch-up in terms of functionality, said Thompson. But when Microsoft releases its next-generation SQL Server 2005 in the first half of next year the landscape will change because it will be embedded into the new operating system.

But Thompson pointed out that the new version will be two years late and if Microsoft fails to deliver on time, many companies will look at alternatives.

Macehiter said SQL Server 2005 is good news for Microsoft customers. "The ability to program the database logic using Visual Studio and XML support is attractive, and there is enough in there to keep existing Microsoft customers happy.

"For Microsoft, it is more a credibility issue. Microsoft technology is pretty robust and can scale to the appropriate levels. SQL Server 2005 will elevate the capabilities of Microsoft in databases."

Database and licence costs

Licensing costs have fallen over time to become a less important factor in selecting a particular database, said analysts.

Mike Thompson, principal analyst at Butler Group, cited return on investment and database administration costs as being important factors. "We are shifting more towards tuning databases to get better functionality and the level of skill is increasing as databases are getting more complicated," he said.

Ovum's research director Neil Macehiter said organisations that have a relationship with Oracle, IBM or Microsoft could gain better licensing and support deals as existing customers. He said companies should also investigate training courses and management tools when choosing a database.

Which databases are users buying?

Three suppliers lead the relational database market: Oracle with a 36% market share, IBM with 33% and Microsoft with 19% by revenue, according to Butler Group.

Analyst firm Gartner said the database software market grew 5% last year after a 6% reduction the year before. Linux database licence sales grew by 158% globally to £161m. Windows database licence sales rose only 3.8%, taking new licence revenues to £1.5bn.

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