The future of MySQL in a post-Sun world

Oracle's takeover of the MySQL copyright could create licensing headaches and bundling limits

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Oracle's absorption of Sun is complete. Now that the European Commission has blessed the merger, the Oracle logo is proudly displayed to anyone who types "sun.com" into a browser. Yet if you visit mysql.com, you'll see hardly any mention of Sun, the company that purchased MySQL for $1 billion in 2008, and Oracle's logo is buried deep at the bottom of the pages.

It's almost as if the endless legal briefs, the hearings, the saber rattling, and the hand-wringing never happened. For the moment, database administrators, IT managers, and tiny website operators everywhere continue with business as usual, leaving MySQL running on the servers and fielding the queries that come zipping in. Yet now that Oracle holds the keys to the MySQL copyright, the question remains: What does the future hold for the popular open source database - and the organisations that rely on it?


The question is a tricky, and the answer depends heavily on MySQL's role in your business, the type of licence you use, the amount you want to spend, what you want purchase, and who you plan to work with in the future. To further complicate matters, MySQL is one of the most prominent open source projects and businesses in the world, so any discussion about MySQL becomes a proxy for a debate about open source licences such as the GPL (GNU Public Licence).

MySQL, today and tomorrow

There's good news for fans of MySQL: It  won't be left to wither and die any time soon. Oracle has made very public assurances that it will spend more on developing the database than Sun ever did, at least for the next three years. The Community Edition will continue to see improvements, which will be released under the GPL at no charge with all of the source code.

These assurances suggest that the average MySQL user won't need to think about whether or not to drop MySQL for the next few years. If you're happy with your version of the database, you will be able to keep running it - as long as you have a compiler.

There's some good historical evidence that Oracle will make it easy to continue using MySQL without a compiler. One developer, who is familiar with how Oracle nurtured Sleepycat after purchasing the open source database company, said the deal worked out wonderfully for everyone. There are now more engineers than ever, and the company never changed the licences.

"It's four years later and we're almost all still here," said one developer who isn't allowed to speak publicly for Oracle. "People are still engaged and happy. Oracle is an excellent engineering organisation."

Assurances such as these aren't enough to calm everyone's nerves. The very fact that MySQL's website is so distinct (unlike Sleepycat.com, which redirects to the Oracle website) may be more than an oversight. Oracle executives know just how tumultuous the journey has been for MySQL. Marching right in and redirecting mysql.com to oracle.com would upset people who are still brooding after the purchase of Sun.

Your licence or mine?

Organisations and developers aren't simply concerned about the future of MySQL as a product, but how Oracle's possession of the database - and its copyrights - will affect licensing.

Monty Widenius, one of the original founders of MySQL, has been one of the most public opponents of the Sun-Oracle merger. He left Sun in 2009 to start up MariaDB, a new version of the MySQL source code, under the umbrella corporation Monty Program AB.

Widenius lobbied the European Commission to prevent the merger, arguing that it would be bad for Europe and society in general to let Oracle gain control of the copyrights to MySQL. He made the case that a company such as his, whose product is built on the open source database, is sustainable only if it can offer commercial licences to users who don't want to be bound by the GPL.

Yet if Oracle were to become the sole copyright holder, he argued, no competition would be permitted to sell commercial licences. (The original MySQL corporation always insisted on keeping the full copyright by asking that all contributors sign agreements assigning the copyright to the company. This power meant they and they alone could sell the chance to ignore the GPL.)

The trouble with forcing a customer to embrace the GPL is it's an arguably confusing license, the details of which can grow fairly complex. Some suggest, for example, that the licence applies to the drivers that are usually more closely linked to everyone else's software and the protocols that define the connections. Others argue that the idea is overreaching.

In the past, I've known MySQL salespeople to effectively exploit would-be customers' confusion over the GPL, convincing them that opting for a commercial licence would be simpler, eliminating any chance of costly legal battles down the road. And, of course, buying a commercial licence helps feed starving developers. It's proven to be an effective and profitable scare tactic.

A kinder, gentler GPL

There's reason to believe that the fear of the GPL is dissipating. Google has no qualms running MySQL with the licence. "There are a lot of people who read into the GPL what they wish it says," said Chris DiBona, the open source programs manager at Google. "We understand the GPL and we'll use it the way that it's made."

He noted that the GPL requires developers to include the source code when distributing copies. Most of what Google distributes is results, not software, so the company doesn't need to distribute any changes it makes to the software - if it makes any at all. Many companies use MySQL and other GPL projects without any changes.

"Pretty soon, selling people on the idea that the GPL is scary and 'You should pay us not to hex you with it' is not going to be a durable business model," said Eben Moglen, a Columbia University law professor who often helped Richard Stallman draft versions of the GPL.

In the past, Moglen worked for both Oracle and MySQL to help them understand and define the role of the GPL in business. When the European Commission debated the merger, Moglen came to the conclusion that the marriage of the two companies PDF would not damage the openness of the source code, the most important factor in his mind and the real focus of the GPL.

Stallman took a different tack and chose to focus on economics and competition, joining with other open source advocates to echo Widenius's argument that the ability to issue commercial licences was essential. In a letter to the European Commission, the group made this case: "As only the original rights holder can sell commercial licenses, no new forked version of the code will have the ability to practice the parallel licensing approach, and will not easily generate the resources to support continued development of the MySQL platform."

For better or for worse, the European Commission was not swayed by these arguments and agreed to let Oracle gain control of Sun and MySQL. How this will affect the way companies use and license MySQL remains hazy, but Oracle, its customers, and its competitors are preparing.

An open approach

Monty Program is not the only company that wants to support database administrators who use MySQL. Another group of ex-MySQL developers have started work on Drizzle, a fork of MySQL still in alpha form. Data center manager Rackspace recently announced hiring several major developers from Drizzle, a decision that should move the company closer to shipping a version that's generally accepted as stable.

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