Open-source community sees promise in MySQL deal

As part of Sun, MySQL may get more financial security, advance open source in enterprise IT

For Sun Microsystems Inc., the acquisition of open-source database vendor MySQL AB is a positive step, giving Sun its own database and a growing, loyal community of open-source users and developers to add to its portfolio.

So what's the upside or downside for the MySQL community itself?

There is some promise in the deal, said open-source activist Jon "Maddog" Hall, executive director of Amherst, N.H.-based Linux International.

"Sun has been somewhat more open with things" in recent years with other open-source projects, Hall said. "They certainly have helped out with OpenOffice and things like that," he said.

Similar acquisitions of open-source companies by large proprietary vendors such as Oracle Corp. have also worked out well for the open-source community, Hall said. "Oracle has bought a couple of databases, such as SleepyCat Software and things like that, and they have been pretty available [for continued development], so let's see what happens [with the Sun-MySQL deal]," he said.

Simon Phipps, Sun's chief technology evangelist and a well-known open-source advocate, said today's acquisition announcement will be good for Sun and for the open-source community. "I've yet to find anybody who loses because of this deal," Phipps said. For MySQL, the acquisition means that the company will get added resources and clout to grow its worldwide sales and support teams, which have long been goals of the database company. Achieving that goal on its own would have been a harder and slower process, he said, but with the support of Sun, it will be easier.

"Some [critics] will say its subtractive, but it isn't," Phipps said. "It's an additive move. I've heard some people say that maybe we're going to force people to use Solaris, but that would be a crazy thing for us to do. MySQL is in safe hands ... so it can go through the next growth stage. It's probably in the safest hands it can be in."

Eben Moglen, a free software advocate and president and executive director of the Free Software Law Center in New York, said the deal is indicative of a trend he expects to see repeated more often in the next few months as proprietary technology vendors buy up more open-source companies.

"Lots of people have decided that yes, you can make money with community-developed software," Moglen said. "Everything that helps people understand that this way of making software is not an anticapitalist thing is a good thing. Everything which brings more technology that people are allowed to study and copy and share with others is a good thing."

The deal also underscores MySQL's importance as a pioneering company that demonstrated how open-source software could be effective in enterprise technology systems, Moglen said.

"Sun has become a company that is very interested in the business employment of the [open-source] idea," Moglen said. "It's not an extraordinary cultural reach anymore, and it puts the company in a place with a broader enterprise interest ... from large enterprises to small mom-and-pop businesses with MySQL. That means that Sun and MySQL together have some reach ... in some kinds of markets that they may not traditionally been seen before to buyers of Sun hardware. It's more demonstration of the maturation of the idea of open source software."

Several industry analysts say they also see benefits in the deal, but they cautioned that a lot depends on how Sun ultimately approaches the MySQL community and products in the future.

Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT Inc. in Hayward, Calif., said that on one hand, Sun "has been a very active supporter of certain kinds of open-source projects, but at the same time, they tended to move a good deal slower in contributing any of their proprietary products either to open-source or to various other communities." Yet Sun has also moved forward with its OpenSolaris and OpenSparc architectures, as well as with Java. "Even with those efforts, they can't please everyone," he said. "They can do something with their image with the MySQL deal, but I think they're going to be watched every step of the way by people who are afraid of getting burned."

"The danger that any vendor runs into by acquiring an open-source company that has a community [connected to it] is that it's like buying a historic home in a small town," King said. "You may think that you own it, but a lot of people in the neighborhood have a very strong attachment or even a deeper attachment than you do."

Dan Kusnetzky, principal of The Kusnetzky Group LLC in Osprey, Fla., said that for Sun, the danger could come if it repeats some of its past strategies after acquiring other companies.

Often, Sun has made acquisitions, then eventually transformed them into Solaris-only products, which was good for Sun but difficult for customers. "If Sun uses this strategy with MySQL, there are a significant number of open-source database competitors, PostgreSQL for instance, that customers can migrate to," Kusnetzky sid. "If they [force a migration to Solaris] with MySQL, Sun will gain a great deal of ill will from this community and probably lose customers for MySQL."

On the other hand, he said, "if Sun sets up the company as a separate business unit and allows MySQL [some] freedom, things can probably go along like now, except the company could probably be more financially secure."

Gordon Haff, an analyst at Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata Inc., said the deal is a case of a company that already does a lot of work with open-source software buying another open-source company.

"I don't see any particularly major changes happening to the MySQL community from this," Haff said. "To the degree that there will be increasing [economic and sales] resources to MySQL ... in that sense, I think it's good for the MySQL community. I think it's fairly clear that [MySQL] wasn't a company that was rolling in dough, and I think that becoming a part of Sun opens a lot of opportunities ... that could really help the project."

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