MySQL and the 'invisible hand'

What's the link between Adam Smith, often regarded as the father of modern economics, and the open-source software movement? According to Marten Mickos, CEO of MySQL, it's Smith's concept of an "invisible hand" guiding the market.


What's the link between eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, often regarded as the father of modern economics, and the open-source software movement? According to Marten Mickos, the chief executive officer of open-source database company MySQL, it's Smith's concept of an "invisible hand," which guides individuals pursuing their own betterment to achieve goals that also benefit society at large.

Mickos sees an invisible hand at work in much of what's going on in today's open-source community. This includes the wrangling over the current draft of the GNU general public licence version 3 (GPLv3), which he anticipates will result in a good outcome. MySQL's database is distributed under the GPL.

Even Oracle's surprise acquisition of Innobase a year ago has worked out well, says Mickos. Oracle's purchase was widely seen as a predatory strike against MySQL, which bundles the Finnish startup's InnoDB database storage engine with its database. The move led to other firms approaching MySQL about developing their own engines for the database and ended up with the company opening up its database storage API (application programming interface) to third parties to give users more choice of which engines to use. He spoke to China Martens from the IDG news service.

Recently, number of open-source developers have expressed their unhappiness with the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and the second draft of GPLv3. Are you concerned about a potential forking of the licence as some people stick with GPLv2 and others move to GPLv3?

Mickos: It's not a catastrophe if we have two GPLs out there. It does show how sometimes success can turn against you. The fact that GPLv2 has been so successful means developers don't see a need to change. They say, 'If it's not broke, don't fix it.' I agree with the arguments the FSF has with the licence. They've done their homework and they have good rational reasons for changing it. But they also have a philosophical, dogmatic attitude that many open-source developers don't have.

We've always preached that open source is not a religion or a political party or a society. FSF does have a societal aspect. That's a great area but some developers don't care. They're not here to save mankind or save the planet from destruction. The process is still ongoing. It's time to debate, not time to deliver conclusions. At MySQL, we haven't made up our minds on GPL and we don't need to do so yet, it's not time.

How do you decide when MySQL needs to develop new features for the database and when to rely on the open-source community for those innovations?

Mickos: One of the essences of our business is to know when to do what. You need to figure out what the end user wants. We have 10 million users. How the heck do you figure out what they want and then figure out how to do it? If 9 million want one thing and 1 million another, it could be that the 1 million is more important than the 9 million. It's the ability to know what makes sense.

Thanks to the early releases [of our products], we can fix mistakes. We're allowed to make mistakes in passing. For example, we had an internal project on optimisation or a cache that we were developing, then we found someone else was developing one too. We could turn [around] our mistake and choose what was best. Or, take our JDBC (Java database connectivity) driver. The community developed three, four or five. One was clearly the market leader. We acquired and licensed it and brought the developer onboard. We didn't decide, but let the ecosystem or Darwinism say what works best.

So, is open source then a more forgiving environment than the proprietary software world?

Mickos: No, you're not forgiven, but open source is self-healing. There's no forgiveness, but someone else can cover up for you. A year ago, Oracle bought InnoDB. Now, a year later, there are many ways you can store MySQL and many players. It's like the invisible hand that Adam Smith spoke about is really working. There's some sort of invisible hand guiding open source. At the end of the day, something good can come out of it. Some people are very angry with FSF, still people will see a community and a good outcome [with GPLv3].

What's ahead in 2007 for MySQL?

Mickos: We'll see a strong uptake in the enterprise market as the number of users running MySQL 5.0 grows. It takes time for developers to adopt the new version; it's starting to happen. We'll see more partners. We already have Novell, Hewlett-Packard, Unisys and recently Red Hat. There will be others. With our technologies, there will be Falcon and MySQL 5.1. We're doing great work on our GUI tools and making our ODBC (open database connectivity) and JDBC drivers even better.

What's the latest news on Falcon, the transactional database engine being developed by database architect Jim Starkey who joined MySQL in February?

Mickos: It's not just Jim Starkey. We have a handful of engineers working closely with him. The next stage is for Falcon to be in alpha [testing], which will be soon.

Is MySQL's current dominance of the open-source database market ever a cause for concern?

Mickos: I do hear sometimes from staff, "We're great. We don't need to work." But then our engineers are very self-deprecating and they get embarrassed about any problems. It's a balancing act. Sometimes, I have to say to the organisation, "Cheer up, we have a great product;" other times, "Don't be complaisant. We're not done yet." If we're good, we keep going at it until we feel we're done and can rest. If something bad happens, we should work a little bit harder to get it done. Like it looked bad when Oracle acquired InnoDB. At first it was "What the heck are we going to do?" But we turned it to our advantage.

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