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Open Source Databases Reduce TCO by 60%

Posted by davidvc on November 21, 2006 at 4:03 PM PST

I remember in the late 1990s when I first heard how many companies were switching over from Windows to Linux. There was story after story from my IT friends how they grabbed a cheap box gathering dust in the corner that could barely move under the new Windows releases, and they would install Linux and Apache on it, and it would just scream. They would rave about performance, stability, and cost. I couldn't believe it. Corporations running their production systems on an open-source operating system?. Amazing.

Open Office has a similar story. More and more people are discovering that they can get what they need out of Open Office without having to pay the Microsoft tax.

In both these cases, companies were weighted down by premium costs from vendors who have a virtual monopoly on a key component of their infrastructure, with no options in sight. Nobody ever believed open source could deliver functionality equivalent to what they were paying for. An operating system built on open source? No way. A competitor to MS Office, where everybody is donating the code? Impossible.

The latest "impossible" story is databases. Databases are particularly problematic because not only are they core to the business, more than almost anything else, and not only are they complex -- they are also a bear to migrate from one vendor to another. There are so many different levels of lock-in, from database APIs to differences in datatypes and SQL, all the way down to key behaviors in terms of locking, caching, and so on, where an application that screams on one vendor runs like a dog on another. I experienced this first-hand when I worked at Sybase, where SAP refused to port to Sybase in part because we didn't implement row-level locking. This decision by SAP was one of the key reasons (IMHO) that Sybase lost the war with Oracle.

For these reasons, many people doubt that open source databases will ever make any kind of real dent in the database market. Sure, you can use these guys for your web apps, but they don't have the features and support required for corporate data centers, and migrating is hard, risky and expensive.

But history with Linux and Open Office tells us a different story. Also, we do need to remember that it wasn't too long ago that mainframes owned all corporate data. Mainframes are still key to businesses, but many companies put in the massive effort (sometimes taking up to ten years) to migrate from mainframes to UNIX-based relational systems. Why? Cost. Mainframes are exorbitantly expensive. For a significant reduction in cost, companies could get the same functionality out of UNIX relational databases like Oracle and Sybase. I remember that some of the best years at Sybase was when the economy was in a downturn and everybody was trying to save money. So, these companies did the math, and they made the effort.

Now the big proprietary UNIX relational vendors are the gorillas on the block, charging exorbitant fees "because they can." The upstart open source databases are these annoying little yap dogs barking at the Big Guys heels. But even though they get a lot of press these days, they continue to have very little of the overall database market share.

What this means to me is that I think most IT shops still do not believe it is safe or worth the effort for them to move their big Oracle or DB2 databases to MySQL or PostgreSQL. But it's making more and more sense for those apps on the edge, and the edge is starting to move in. I believe over time people will notice that open source databases are often good enough, they will look at the numbers, do the math, and they start making the effort.

Perhaps today the open source databases don't have the features, the performance and scalability, the ISV support, and so on that the Big Guys have. Perhaps migration is difficult. But if history is any indicator, some day we may wake up to find ourselves in a Brave New World in the database market...