Oracle-branded MySQL seems unlikely

Ellison and company have much to learn before they can take on the open source database market

In October, Oracle sent Red Hat's stock plummeting on the announcement that the database vendor would offer cut-rate support for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, under the "Unbreakable Linux" brand. Could Larry Ellison now be planning a repeat with "Unbreakable MySQL"?

In an interview with Computer Business Review, MySQL CEO Mårten Mickos says the possibility that Oracle might offer support for its own branded version of the open source MySQL database is very real, but he downplays the potential threat. In fact, he adds, "I hope they do that."

Like all proprietary software vendors, Oracle is under increasing pressure from shareholders to prove that its business is strong enough to sustain growth in the face of increasing interest in open source among its core enterprise customers. This particular round of saber-rattling may come at a sensitive time for MySQL, which, according to Mickos, is close to announcing an IPO.

But Zack Urlocker, MySQL's executive vice president of products, suggests the competition between the two companies is often overstated. "We're going after what we believe is a different market, one that wants a commodity database that is easy to use," he said in an e-mail. "Oracle (and Microsoft and IBM) believe that there is no such market and that database users always need all the bells and whistles and advanced features for the most demanding applications."

In fact, Urlocker admits that the marketplace is even more complicated than that. Many customers will deploy both products and use each for different applications.

Product strategies aside, if Oracle is planning to issue its own, competitive support offering for MySQL, it will be hard-pressed to do so profitably. Last week, MySQL announced that it would offer an unlimited site license to its enterprise database for $40,000 -- the price, the company claims, of a single-CPU license of Oracle's enterprise database.

Can Oracle match that price and still give customers something above and beyond what they get from their current MySQL support contracts? And, more to the point, if Oracle chooses to go head-to-head with MySQL in this way, will it be a fatal blow to the upstart's open source business model? Or merely an endorsement of it?

With the Unbreakable Linux initiative, Oracle acknowledged that enterprise customers increasingly value service and support foremost when selecting software. But while such companies as Sun Microsystems have come to understand that this market evolution leaves plenty of room for open source development models -- and may even encourage them -- Oracle, like Microsoft, seems inextricably wedded to the traditional, proprietary software business.

Intrinsic to everything Oracle does is the concept of ownership. If you own your market, you own your customers. One way to own your market is to produce a product that's loaded with features above and beyond what the competition can offer. Another way is to leverage your reputation and customer base to undercut your competitor's offerings, as Oracle tried to do with Unbreakable Linux. (At one time, Oracle reportedly even tried to own MySQL outright.)

MySQL, on the other hand, wastes no time with such score-keeping. It doesn't own its customers; they can download the software from MySQL's Web site, for free. It doesn't even own the product. The source code is readily available. If Oracle wanted to package its own version, there would be nothing to stop it. And yet, to do so would be to wade into waters completely alien to Oracle's way of doing business. Even as a show of force, such a move seems like an empty gesture.

Oracle's proprietary database has made it one of the most successful software companies in the world. As a result, it certainly has the financial wherewithal to enter the open source database market with an Unbreakable MySQL, if it so chooses. The real question is: Could it compete?