If you had any doubts about Sun Microsystems’ commitment to open source, it’s time to set them aside. Sun put its money where its mouth is Wednesday, with the announcement that it would buy open source database vendor MySQL for a whopping $1 billion. If the price tag set tongues wagging, however, it was no more tantalizing than the question that immediately sprung to the minds of IT managers everywhere: Now that Sun owns MySQL, what on earth does it plan to do with it?
Sun has toyed with the idea of a database offering of its own for at least two years. But in a market where basic relational database functionality is increasingly considered a commodity, competing successfully is no mean feat, even when playing the open source card.
Certainly, Sun isn’t the first to try it. In 2001, leading Linux vendor Red Hat launched its own branded version of the open source PostgreSQL database, only to scrap the project a year later after deciding that servicing and supporting a database was not its core competency. Similarly, Computer Associates opened the source of the Ingres database in hopes of becoming a one-stop shop for customers in need of an enterprise application stack, but had little luck winning market share away from the likes of IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle. CA spun Ingres off into its own company in 2005, where it continues to nurture a small installed base.
In his blog announcing the MySQL acquisition Wednesday, Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz remains characteristically effusive. “Until now, no platform vendor has assembled all the core elements of a completely open source operating system for the Internet,” he wrote. “No company has been able to deliver a comprehensive alternative to the leading proprietary OS.”
Yet CA’s and Red Hat’s experiences seem to discredit the idea that a stem-to-stern platform offering from a single vendor is what customers really want. Not to mention the fact that Sun already offers enterprise support for PostgreSQL, a competing open source database that is widely perceived as being technologically superior to MySQL. Schwartz reaffirmed Sun’s commitment to PostgreSQL in a conference call Wednesday, causing some analysts to speculate whether the MySQL acquisition was anything more than a billion-dollar PR stunt.
But there may be method to Sun’s madness. The considerable goodwill that MySQL has cultivated among enterprise customers could have benefits for Sun that technology alone never could.