The new scourge of open source?

Questions abound as the database vendor begins its planned buying spree of open source companies

Oracle's done it again. Not only has it acquired another company, but in the process it has riled up the open source community once more.

If your mind was made up already, then Oracle's acquisition of Sleepycat last week doubtless seemed like yet more evidence that the database vendor has it in for its open source rival, MySQL. But to me, not only is that kind of thinking not particularly productive, but it isn't particularly insightful, either.

Let's recap. In October, Oracle snapped up Innobase, makers of a MySQL add-on called InnoDB. InnoDB enables MySQL to perform transactions, a bulletproof method of reading and writing the database that's essential for financial applications (among other things). With Innobase in Oracle's clutches, there's only one other way to get transactions with MySQL. And that's supplied by Sleepycat, through its product called Berkeley DB.

So now Oracle owns them both. If you want to use transactions with MySQL -- in other words, if you want to deploy MySQL for enterprise-class applications -- you have no choice but to go crawling to Oracle. How could the MySQL faithful interpret these moves -- in addition to a reported buyout attempt of MySQL itself -- as anything but hostile?

But let's come back to reality. For starters, let's look at what's happened to InnoDB since being acquired by Oracle. It's about what I predicted would happen: nothing much. The project continues on, with regular updates and bugfixes, freely available to anyone who wants to use it under the same terms as before.

If Oracle bought Innobase with the express purpose of bringing the hammer down on MySQL, then what has it been doing all these months? Biding its time? Waiting to close the Sleepycat deal so it can deliver the coup de grace? Come on.

I don't know what Oracle spent on Sleepycat, but I don't think I'm going out on a limb to suggest that it was a pittance compared with the $10.3 billion Oracle reportedly spent on PeopleSoft, or the $5.85 billion it spent on Siebel. If picking up a couple of small open source companies was really all it would take for Oracle to crown itself the undisputed king of the database market, these deals would have happened a long time ago.

On the contrary, here's a shocker for you: Oracle has a long-term strategy. And it isn't databases.

Think about it. Oracle won't keep its investors happy by providing a back end for SAP. These days, Oracle wants to beat SAP at its own game.

More and more, Larry Ellison and company are trying to position the Oracle brand as a name synonymous with enterprise software. From databases to middleware, developer tools to enterprise applications, if you have a business need then Oracle will have the software for you. In all likelihood, soon you won't have an Oracle license; you'll have an Oracle account, payable on a subscription basis.

So where does open source fit into this picture? Michael Olson, former president and CEO of Sleepycat and one of Oracle's more recent HR acquisitions, has some thoughts about that.

"Berkeley DB is tremendous software. We never won a deal because we were cheap and 'good enough,' " Olson said, speaking at the recent Open Source Business Conference in San Francisco. "We won deals because we were really good. We won on the technical merit and we commanded a premium in a bunch of cases."

Still, Olson added, "Oracle doesn't need to come to my 25-person company to buy good database technology." Instead, Olsen believes Oracle was interested in Sleepycat not for its source code, but for something else: its community. In short, the mere fact that Berkeley DB is open source is what inspired Oracle to acquire it.

"I think what Oracle was interested in was the reach and the breadth that our open source channel represented: the huge install base and the difference among the different users," Olson said.

Just as owning InnoDB gives Oracle access to key enterprise MySQL customers, owning Sleepycat will likewise help broaden its reach, furthering its mission of becoming the one-stop shop for enterprise apps.

And to the Chicken Littles among the open source community I would suggest one more thing: Make up your minds. Which do you hate more, Oracle or Microsoft? Which has done you more harm in the past? Because if there's one thing Oracle really hates, it's Microsoft.

With Innobase and Sleepycat under its belt -- and possibly JBoss  and Zend  still to come -- Oracle has gained new weapons for the big fight. Until you hear otherwise, those weapons are still open source; to say anything else now is simply crying wolf. Forgive me, but I just can't see a reason for all the hue and cry.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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