After Oracle, should MySQL users stay or go?

Some say the deal will be the ruin of MySQL, while others say it could be a boost for the open-source database

How do MySQL users feel about Oracle Corp.'s takeover of the open-source database through its acquisition of Sun Microsystems Inc.? Judging by Twitter, anxious -- and snarky.

Here's a sampling of Tweets discussing the deal:

"Man, Oracle buying Sun. Please don't wreck MySQL."

"Soon MySQL will be called Oracle Lite and to download you must have a support contract costing a million $ per year."

"Oracle now owns MySQL?! In related news, the Rebel Alliance has been acquired by Darth Vader for three wookies and a tantan. :("

Oracle and MySQL's many competitors in the database arena were only too eager to offer explanations as to why those fears will be realized. Other observers, however, argued that Oracle may prove to be a positive force for MySQL.

One of MySQL's prime attractions is that nearly all of its features are available for free, even those running production databases. Less than one in 1,000 MySQL users ever pay the company a dime, former MySQL CEO Marten Mickos famously admitted.

Sun tried last year to edge toward a dual distribution model, reserving certain key features for paying customers. It quickly backed down in the face of an outcry.

Don't expect Oracle to be as abashed as Sun.

"Companies think 'price increases' and 'usage audits' when they think of Oracle," said Ed Boyajian, CEO of database vendor EnterpriseDB Inc.

Oracle will always have to at least nominally support the free community edition of MySQL, the one that has generated more than 100 million downloads.

But given Oracle's rapacious reputation, users who have invested their time mostly in MySQL should expect to be strongly pressured to open up their wallets.

"Oracle claims in their release they can wring more profit out of existing Sun assets, but history shows this will largely come out of users' pockets," said Roger Burkhardt, CEO of open-source database provider Ingres Corp.

Microsoft Corp., whose SQL Server competes fiercely with both MySQL and Oracle's own database, tried to be subtle while sounding the same alarm.

"Customers should ask themselves if this will add more complexity and cost to their environments at a time when the industry is asking for more clarity and value," said Neil Charney, general manager for application platform and developer tools at Microsoft.

Oracle could achieve this through several tactics done in concert. First, it could steer MySQL's development away from features such as scalable clustering, said John Newton, chief technology officer at content management software vendor Alfresco Software Inc. That would be fine for Web developers, who make up the bulk of MySQL users today, but it would be bad news for would-be enterprise users, he said.

Second, Oracle could create compatibility layers for users to migrate from MySQL to the Oracle database -- and then unleash its salespeople on them.

"We would expect Oracle to treat MySQL as an on ramp to the pricier, proprietary portions of the database lineup," Boyajian said. "It will be interesting to see how much up-selling pressure Oracle puts on MySQL users."

But will MySQL users be forced to switch to Oracle?

"I'd be surprised if that happened, as there would be a lot of upset customers," said Gartner Inc. analyst Kenneth Chin.

The deal could be good for MySQL

On the other hand, MySQL could get a boost under Oracle.

Donald Feinberg, another Gartner analyst, said that Oracle might port its existing technology into MySQL to "harden" the database -- a move that could prove to be a boon for enterprise users.

Oracle could also bring firmer direction to MySQL, which is disorganized even by open-source standards. For instance, three different versions of MySQL are being developed today -- two of which are "forks" of the official Sun-backed version.

"Oracle [has] phenomenally good product managers. This is not MySQL's strong suit," said Paul Vallee, executive chairman of database support provider The Pythian Group.

Vallee, whose firm primarily supports Oracle and MySQL databases, said that Oracle's reputation is misplaced. Its track record with its recent open-source acquisitions has been positive.

When Oracle acquired the popular MySQL storage engine InnoDB three years ago, many key InnoDB employees stayed at Oracle, and the technology has since continued to improve, he said.

"I haven't seen InnoDB's position erode under Oracle's stewardship," Vallee said.

Others argued that contrary to appearances, most MySQL users are not up in arms over Oracle's takeover.

"There's a vocal minority that will say a lot about this. But MySQL has an installed base of 12 million," said Mickos in an interview with Forbes on Monday. "You and I pay attention to this stuff, but lots of developers probably don't even know MySQL is owned by Sun."

Still, for the users who decide to abandon MySQL, where would they go? Newton said another open-source database, PostGres, stands to benefit from such a migration.

"PostGres in many ways competes with Oracle in ways that MySQL doesn't," he said. "I would think that MySQL-PostGres migrations will be a huge market opportunity."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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