MySQL Breaks Into the Data Center

Once dismissed as inadequate for high transaction volumes, the open-source database's improved performance and low cost are winning new converts -- and shaking up the status quo in the database world.

MySQL infuriated a janitor one night in the New York headquarters of The Associated Press. Because of a successful adoption of the open-source database, the IT staffers there figured they no longer needed their DB2 manuals. So they dumped them all in the trash.

"He looked at the manuals, and there were stacks of them, got angry, said he'd come back for them later and stormed out," recalls Michael Welles, a database consultant on the project. "All because of MySQL."

MySQL is also upsetting the entire database market. Charles Garry, an analyst at Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn., hails it as "a disruptive technology" that's commoditizing databases—so much so, he says, that "the future of the database market will be the standardization on MySQL."

Strong words, but adherents of the open-source database are passionate supporters, and they number in the millions. These users are drawn to it because it offers high performance, ease of use and a feature set broad enough to handle most of their database development needs. And it's cheap.

Indeed, MySQL's low cost never fails to come up in conversation with users. Mark Cotner, manager of network application development at Cox Communications Inc. in Atlanta, points out that his MySQL-based application cost less than $90,000 from soup to nuts, including the Intel-based servers, programming time and the approximately $4,000 annual license and support payments to MySQL AB, the Uppsala, Sweden-based company that oversees the development and distribution of the open-source database. An Oracle database license for the project would have totaled $300,000 by itself, he says.

Cotner is far from the only person with a MySQL money-saving story. Another is Dwight Clark, an IT specialist and systems analyst for the Marshall Space Flight Center Procurement Office at NASA. He says the NASA Acquisition Internet Service (NAIS) migrated an Oracle database to MySQL because a price restructuring by Oracle Corp. meant the licensing costs alone for a simple upgrade would be "more than twice the NAIS annual budget."

Fast and Easy

But free source code and inexpensive licensing aren't the only reasons why users sing MySQL's praises. Performance also rises to the top of the list.

Cotner says that the 700GB data warehouse he built "is very, very fast." The application atop the database gathers monitoring information via Simple Network Management Protocol on Cox's 1.2 million cable modems in the field. With it, Cox is now able to supply critical service data to analysts and technical support staff.

"The most expensive part of running a cable company is managing the last mile," he says. "So if we can do that more intelligently, we can save the company money and improve customer satisfaction."

Terry Ewing, senior systems manager at AP, says his company's MySQL application hosts 600 Web sites for affiliated newspapers across the U.S. Every day, hundreds of national and world news stories are filed and stored on a Sun Solaris 420 server, and newspapers host their own local stories elsewhere. The news pieces are updated regularly and linked in packages, such as one for Iraq, where a recent suicide bombing story was updated 17 times in one day.

In addition to the constant churn of data stored, the database includes all the multimedia files attached to each story. Readers of 600 online newspapers search through the database, find stories and their attendant multimedia files and swiftly pull them down to their PCs, Ewing says. "The performance is very good," he adds.

End users aren't the only ones who benefit from faster speed: Administrators have also noticed a difference.

For example, Ewing says it used to take two days to run a replication of AP's DB2 database. With MySQL, the process lasted a mere two hours.

NASA's Clark compared MySQL's performance against Oracle's for his application, and it averaged 28% faster during the battery of tests he hammered it with. He adds that unlike competing products, "MySQL was not a machine resources hog."

The leanness and speed of MySQL comes from its straightforward design. In MySQL, every database exists as a separate directory and contains three files: one for the structure or schema of the database, another for data and one for the index. That's it.

The database is also easy to administer. For example, users say data migration is a snap because administrators simply move their data directories into MySQL.

Clark says switching NASA's application from Oracle was a breeze. "To switch to MySQL, we only had to install the MySQL database driver module and change the connect call to the database interface module," he explains. "Once this was done, we literally had to change approximately one line of code out of 15,000 lines to begin using MySQL in our first application."

Cotner says, "I don't claim to be a database administrator, but I find it easy to administer from the command line."

Not Perfect

However, that command-line approach troubles Jay Nickson, a consultant at Ronin Software Group in New York. Although he likes and uses MySQL, Nickson thinks the vast majority of Windows professionals will bypass its cost-effective capabilities because MySQL isn't intuitive to them and lacks documentation useful to Windows administrators. He says 70% of MySQL's utilities aren't documented.

Ewing, however, doesn't see that as a problem because the open-source development community that's behind MySQL "is more vocal, more helpful and more diverse" than users of other databases.

Welles, who consults at AP through Bangstate Inc. in Brooklyn, N.Y., says finding answers to questions about MySQL was easy. "Just about every question we had was Googled," he says.

More important, Welles says, is that unlike the technical writers who crank out the manuals for DB2, Oracle and SQL Server "but don't use the system, we were getting answers from people who actually use it."

Still, Nickson says that MySQL AB's management and technical staff need to put more emphasis on documentation to break into the broader, more lucrative Windows market.

Another fault with MySQL, some say, is its youth.

Tom Rizzo, group product manager for SQL Server at Microsoft Corp., dismisses MySQL as "technically immature" and claims that "it's not very good in a high-transaction environment."

And Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. chided MySQL in a report, saying it lacked "high-end capabilities" such as support for stored procedures, a set of compiled SQL statements with one name that can be invoked by different programs for greater efficiency. Gartner contends that MySQL needs another five to 10 years to mature.

And even some happy users want more from MySQL. "Having stored procedure calls would be OK," says Cotner.

Marten Mickos, CEO of MySQL, acknowledges that early releases of the database were weak in high-volume transactional applications. But he claims that the current Release 4.0 is competitive with other databases for transaction performance. And, Mickos says, stored procedure calls will be added when Release 5.0 arrives next year.

Users who have high-end, multiprocessor environments might also skip MySQL, because it's not the best choice for a database on an eight- or 16-processor Unix machine.

But Meta's Garry doesn't think that drawback will stop the database's momentum in the market. "More than 60% of all databases run on servers with four processors or less," he says.

Yet, despite MySQL's progress in the market, "we haven't found very much MySQL out there," says Microsoft's Rizzo.

"That's the best news I could have," retorts Mickos. "As long as Microsoft is in denial, we're fine."


Database on the Cheap

MySQL AB's software costs $440 per server. The MySQL source code can be downloaded for free. Here's a look at the costs of competing products, which are priced per processor.

Microsoft SQL Server

Source: Meta Group Inc., Stamford, Conn.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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