Met Office swaps Oracle for PostgreSQL

UK weather service the Met Office has started swapping Oracle for Postgre SQL in a strategy to deploy more open source technology

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UK weather service, the Met Office, has started swapping Oracle for PostgreSQL in a strategy to deploy more open source technology.

James Tomkins, data services portfolio technical lead at the Met Office, said: "Traditionally we have always used Oracle as our relational database management system. It is quite a difficult monopoly break."

He said the Met Office wanted to reduce its dependency due to the cost of annual support and maintenance, in a broader initiative to embrace open source software across the organisation.

As Computer Weekly has previously reported, the Government Service Design Manual recommends: "Where appropriate, government will procure open source solutions. When used in conjunction with compulsory open standards, open source presents significant opportunities for the design and delivery of interoperable solutions."

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The manual also states that proprietary software should only be used to solve "rare problems". 

"Problems which are rare, or specific to a domain, may be best answered by using software as a service, or by installing proprietary software. In such cases, take care to mitigate the risk of lock-in to a single supplier by ensuring open standards are available for interfaces," it states.

The migration away from Oracle follows on from the Met Office’s open source plans to use Red Hat and PHP scripting in 2012. At the time, Met Office executive head of technology, Graham Mallin, said the Met Office used IBM’s AIX proprietary operating system on its supercomputers, but was running Python internally for software, with Red Hat running on its IBM mainframes. It had 500 Red Hat desktop users, alongside 1,300 Windows users.

While MySQL is the most popular open source relational database, the Met Office was cautious over using it because it is owned by Oracle. Tomkins said there were many branches of development in MySQL source code, which would have made managing the code more difficult than if only one version existed. The Met Office selected the open source PostgreSQL relational database instead.

Implementing PostgreSQL

The Met Office considered MySQL as an open source database to replace Oracle. But the team was cautious over using it because it was owned by Oracle and there were quite a lot of branches of development in the MySQL source code. The Met Office selected PostgreSQL instead.

Rather than attempt a big bang approach to replacing Oracle, the Met Office targeted two pilot migration projects.

The two pilot projects went into production in April 2014 when the Met Office’s locations management database (Strabo) and LIDAR (light detector) data capture system were re-implemented in PostgreSQL and PostGIS.

Tomkins said: "We looked at big bang approach, but because of the size of our investment, it would have been prohibitively expensive and complex."

To reduce the burden and open opportunities for the future, the Met Office decided on a small rollout of the PostgreSQL open source relational database, which would enable it to develop its competency in the technology.

Tomkins said the move from Oracle to PostgreSQL was an easy technical migration But he said: "Oracle is more of a  black box, while PostgreSQL allows us get more beneath the covers."

Rather than buy a traditional enterprise licence, PostgreSQL is open source, which means the Met Office only needed to buy a support contract, since the code can be downloaded for free.

The Met Office selected 2ndQuadrant to provide support and consulting.

Tomkins said: "We have a large number and heavy investment in Oracle skilled staff but we are looking at a programme of upskilling development and operational staff in PostgreSQL." Initially, 2ndQuadrant gave all staff initial training to prepare them for deploying the two pilot Postage migration projects into production. 

"Our intention is to build skills and increase our PostgreSQL deployments. But we haven’t yet reached the same level of skills as we have in Oracle, so we need to build our skills and confidence in PostgreSQL," he said.

Managing licence fees

Tomkins said that one of the big benefits from moving to PostgreSQL is that the cost of support is not related to the power of the hardware. "There is no direct hardware impact. Oracle licenses on a per processor basis – so if you put the database on superior hardware you pay a greater licence," he said. "With PostgreSQL at the Met Office we only licence support." 

According to the January 2014 price list, licensing Oracle Enterprise DB on a per-processor basis costs $47,500. The way the Met Office has licensed PostgreSQL means it can deploy the open source relational database on more powerful hardware without incurring a larger licence fee.

2ndQuadrant’s marketing lead, Howard Rolph, said: "The Met Office is one of a number of high-profile clients across the globe we’re helping to break free from paying unnecessary licence fees to store and manage their data. 

"The tide has definitely turned in favour of free and open source software in large organisations, which see products like PostgreSQL as a real alternative to proprietary software. The availability of enterprise-class support has changed the game."

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