Eric Lai

Sun + MySQL = bad news for MySQL users

By Eric Lai
January 18, 2008 3:19 AM EST
Whenever a big corporate entity swallows up a small one, customers of the latter company worry - worry about the future of a beloved product or whether the level of personal service will deteriorate. MySQL users, especially the hundreds of thousands using the open-source database for free, are right to fret a little about the implications of Sun Microsystems $1 billion purchase.

For one, there's the risk that Sun will not 'get' MySQL and mismanage its sales, its employees, its technical direction, as a result, despite the promises of Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz and MySQL CEO Marten Mickos. So warns Jeremy Cole, a MySQL consultant who was former lead DBA at Yahoo! Inc.

"I think that Sun has a very good chance of leading MySQL better than MySQL," blogged Cole. "At the same time, it’s always disconcerting to see a project managed within a very large company. Having been through the large company picture once already, I know how wrongly things can go when too many people (especially management types) are involved in a project."

Despite having 400 employees scattered around the globe, MySQL seemed to have a strong culture of helpfulness towards free users and paying customers alike. Users such as Boyd Hemphill, a DBA in Austin, Texas, aren't optimistic that when MySQL joins Sun's 34,200 employees, it won't change.

"I do foresee a sharp decline in the personal nature of the service," Hemphill wrote by e-mail. "I researched a problem the other day and noted that Heikki Turi (owner of the Innobase storage engine used by MySQL) responded to a bug report, validated it and specified the fix. At the first MySQL conference I attended, (MySQL founder and CTO) Monty Widenius got me and a room full of others drunk on expensive tequila while we discussed MySQL licensing. I have a hard time envisioning a 14 billion dollar company such as Sun operating in that way. I hope this is just my ignorance of Sun's operations."

Also, remember how long it took for Sun to convert to the open-source religion? You could debate whether Sun yet gets it. Take a look at the negative grip Sun still exercises over

Emerging in the aftermath of the dot-com downturn when IT budgets were slim, MySQL made decisions to build a user base for the long haul, rather than trying to grab the (non-existent) money and run.

The database has been downloaded 100 million times. MySQL is used by plenty of popular Web sites (Google, YouTube, Craigslist, Yahoo, Second Life, etc.) and even more unknown ones. As Mickos cheerfully admitted to me last July, only about one in 1,000 MySQL users ever pay the company a dime.

That attitude will have to change. By spending $1 billion on MySQL, which The 451 Group estimated only had $48 million in revenue this year, Sun valued MySQL at 21 times its revenue. By contrast, Oracle paid $8.5 billion for BEA Systems, which was just 5.6 times BEA's most recent 12 months' revenue of $1.5 billion.

There will be lots of pressure for Schwartz to make the MySQL buy pay off. Especially since Sun's earnings and revenue growth remains sluggish, keeping a lid on its stock price.

Sun won't pull the plug on the free community edition of MySQL. That would destroy all of the good will that MySQL has built up over the years, the good will that partly justifies MySQL's high valuation. But I think there's a good chance Sun will change MySQL's business model - which is to give away the database for free and sell support to enterprises - to more of a dual distribution model. In that scenario, Sun would reserve certain features - management or developer tools, enterprise-scale features such as clustering or extra security - only for paying users, while also more aggressively pushing its enterprise support.

This is a model many commercial open-source firms have adopted - Alfresco, Jaspersoft, IBM, etc. - and which many open-source licenses permit. Dual distribution isn't possible under the GPL license MySQL uses today, but who knows what license it will be under in the future.

What do *you* think will happen to MySQL when it is absorbed by Sun? Do you think Sun will change MySQL's culture, technology, business model - and will it be for the worse?

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