Open source roundtable: Zack Urlocker

MySQL's VP of products stresses the importance of serving community users and corporate customers simultaneously

Viewed by many as open source's most compelling business play in the past few years, MySQL made waves this year, accepting Sun Microsystems' $1 billion acquisition bid, opening eyes on Wall Street as to open source's potential to shake up the software industry in the process.

InfoWorld spoke with Zack Urlocker, vice president of products at MySQL, on the challenges open source projects face in gaining deeper adoption in the enterprise as part of its roundtable on the state of open source. Here's how Urlocker views the business of open source today and in the years to come.


Zack Urlocker

Vice president of products

InfoWorld: What do you see as the more pressing challenges and opportunities for open source given the current tech climate?

Urlocker: As with most systems software, it needs to continue to get easier to use. MySQL, Apache, PHP, Linux, JBoss, etc., are popular because they are powerful and easy to use. They are far less complex than some of the old proprietary software that was developed in the 1990s. But there's still a ways to go to ensure that all the software works well together with a single, simplified installation.

Open source has made the transition into IT and is being used for very complex systems development. But I think the infrastructure software is still more popular than open source applications. Still, we're seeing the start of that with companies like SugarCRM, JasperSoft, Pentaho, and others.

As we head into a recession with more IT budget crunch, I think we'll see the next wave of open source adoption. If it's good enough for telcos, banks, and the largest Web sites, maybe it's good enough for broader adoption.

IW: Where do you see open source heading in the next five years, especially with regard to development, community, and market opportunities?

Urlocker: I think there's nothing but growth. Open source is an unstoppable force. We'll look back in 10 years and consider closed-source software to have been a weird anomaly. "You mean you paid millions for software without knowing if it would work?"

Young folks starting their careers in IT are already experts in open source; they've been using it for most of their college life. For managers and older developers, I think these are important skills to have. Just like you couldn't get ahead in the late 1990s without Web development experience, I think we're going to see the same trend around open source. These will be the necessary technical skills for career development.

We'll see more and more adoption of open source. The barriers to adoption are so small that it doesn't really make sense to launch new companies without using this approach. I think we'll also see huge growth in software-as-a-service and on-demand applications fueled by open source.

IW: Does widespread adoption and commercialization of open source software create new challenges or pressures for open source projects?

Urlocker: There are projects and there are companies. Commercial growth is not everyone's top priority. Apache is hugely popular even though no one makes money off it. But I think there's greater awareness that you can build a business with open source today. That wasn't clear five or 10 years ago. Companies like Red Hat, Sun, IBM, make hundreds of millions in revenue due to open source software.

But you need to be clear if what you're doing is commercial or just a project. And if it's commercial, you need a business model that delivers value to paying customers. In effect, there are two classes of users in open source, and both are markets to pay attention to. There are your nonpaying community users and paying corporate customers. And you need to serve the needs of both groups at the same time. If you are not commercial enough, you end up like Apache. If you are not community-oriented enough, you'll never get the adoption and scale that works. Adoption must come first before there's an opportunity to commercialize. It's not easy to do this, but if you do it right, it works out well for both audiences.

IW: What are the next steps needed for open source as a software production methodology to reach the next level?

Urlocker: The most important next step is the emergence of what I call "Enterprise 2.0." It's time for mainstream corporate IT departments to look at the best practices happening in the Web area and determine how to make their own infrastructure and applications more Web-based. Companies like Google, Yahoo, Amazon, Travelocity are all running open source stacks meeting huge demands of their users for high availability, performance, scalability, and security. These are the same things that corporate IT needs. So I think there are lessons to be learned in making corporate IT more nimble and more cost-effective using open source software.

IW: Open source now enjoys a rich and complex history, which is largely the result of trial and error over the years. What would you say have been the open source community's greatest missteps, or lessons learned?

Urlocker: I don't think there have been significant missteps at all. Here's an example. For 10 years, companies like IBM, Apple, and others attempted to dethrone Microsoft's lock on operating systems. They all failed and threw in the towel. Fast forward to today. What's the fastest growing server operating system? It's Linux, a platform developed by a student hacker out of Finland. The power of open source did what billion-dollar companies could not do. The lesson learned is that if you solve the right problem in a transparent fashion, you can make good software very popular through open source. Open source software like Linux, MySQL, and others have greatly disrupted the old ways of the software industry, and that's put more power in the hands of the buyers. That's a good thing.

IW: If you could wave your wand and create the perfect software "universe," what would it look like?

Urlocker: I don't know what you mean by "software universe" but I will take a guess. To me, the ideal software universe is an interoperable stack where you can chose best-of-breed software at each layer and know that it's all standards-based and will work together. And ideally you could pick the different pieces and still have a simple GUI install that makes it easy to deploy. I'd also like to see some of the distinctions in how programmers work with data be simplified. Why does the developer need to know how data is stored in order to use it efficiently? The software should be smart enough to hide these implementation details. Also, I think developer productivity took a huge hit when we moved from GUI development with visual tools and frameworks to Web-based applications. It's like we lost 10 years of improvement. Only now are things starting to catch up with frameworks for languages like Ruby on Rails, Groovy/Grails, Scala, Zend Framework, etc.

IW: There has been a fair amount of controversy, competition, and dissent within the various open source communities. Does this lack of agreement damage the long-term goals of open source, or would you like to see more of this?

Urlocker: I'm not sure what you're referring to here. I think there's probably the same amount of competition and dissent in open source projects as in any other complex software project, particularly with regard to projects that involve participation with people coming from multiple different companies. It just happens that some of this takes place in public so it's more visible.

Roundtable home page: The state of open source

Roundtable participants
Matt Asay
Vice president of business development, Alfresco
Andy Astor
CEO of EnterpriseDB
Chris DiBona
Open source programs manager, Google
Bruce Perens
Creator of the Open Source Definition and co-founder of the Open Source Initiative
Sam Ramji
Senior director of platform technology strategy, Microsoft
Eric S. Raymond
Programmer, author, and open source software advocate
Dave Rosenberg
CEO and co-founder, Mulesource
Javier Soltero
CEO, Hyperic
Mark Spencer
Founder and CTO, Digium
Robert Sutor
Vice president of open source and standards, IBM

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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