Are Closed Source Databases Doomed?

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That's the question posed by Sun's Allan Packer:

Times of change are upon the database market. The major established database companies are being challenged by open source upstarts like MySQL and PostgreSQL. For years, Open Source Databases (OSDBs) have been quietly increasing their penetration, but until recently they have lacked the capabilities to seriously threaten proprietary databases like Oracle, IBM's DB2, and Microsoft's SQL Server.

All that has changed. OSDBs now boast the necessary features and robustness to support commercial databases hundreds of Gigabytes in size. And a growing trickle of competitive benchmark results shows them performing more than acceptably well against their better-established cousins, while offering significant benefits in Total Cost of Ownership (TCO).

What does this mean for proprietary databases? Are they doomed? And more importantly, are there opportunities for end users to benefit from the rise of OSDBs?

He then proceeds to answer his question by analysing the dynamics underlying the database sector. These basically amount to historical price-gouging by the main database incumbents, especially the move to charge on a per-core basis (why should software companies get paid if you decide to buy and use more powerful hardware?), the rise of open source databases as users rightly got sick of paying through the nose in this way, and the fight-back by closed source companies, for example through the “revenue pull-through” technique:

Include the database as a bundle with other pieces of your software stack. Focus the customer's attention on buying something else, and chances are they won't notice or won't care that they've bought your database as well.

It's a long post, but well worth reading. And Packer's conclusion?

Are proprietary databases doomed, then? Not at all. Even if proprietary database companies pull no surprises, they won't fade away anytime soon. Too much legacy application software currently depends on them. Until ISV applications - like SAP's R/3, for example - support MySQL and PostgreSQL, end users will be wedded to proprietary databases. (Note, though, that SAP does support its own free and open source MaxDB database with R/3). As Oracle builds its software portfolio, too, more applications will ship with the Oracle database bundled. And for the forseeable future, proprietary databases will be the platform of choice for the largest mission-critical database deployments.

Make no mistake, though, open source databases are coming. For established companies it's more likely to be an evolution than a revolution. We will probably see a gradual OSDB surround, where new applications and deployments are increasingly based on OSDBs, driven by the cost savings. In emerging markets, though, it's looking more like a revolution. Last year I met with a small number of high-adrenaline companies in India, a market undergoing very rapid growth. They were openly dismissive of proprietary databases. One company had a small installation that was described as a "legacy" application due for replacement by an open source database. This is the scenario playing out today at high fliers like Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr.

For me, the key phrase there is “high fliers”: I think the world is bifurcating, with conservative companies sticking with what they know – and paying the price – and those willing to take a chance and reaping the benefits of doing so. Moving from a proprietary database to an open source one may not always be easy, but it's worth considering whether the decision is really based on a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, or simply a product of the easy convenience of inertia. (Via Simon Phipps.)

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