Why your next database will be open source

Developers are moving past proprietary databases to open source upstarts -- often under the radar of IT management

Data has been locked up behind proprietary licenses for the past 30 years, but that's changing fast.

Although Gartner analyst Merv Adrian correctly asserts that "92.1 percent of DBMS revenue comes from top 5 vendors," all of them proprietary, new data increasingly finds its way to open source databases as developers opt for convenience.

No one should write the obituary for such venerable companies as Oracle, IBM, or Microsoft just yet. But clearly, the old-school DBMS market has something to learn from open source upstarts.

The market is changing

Not much changes in the $20-billion-plus proprietary database market. Oracle leads while IBM and Microsoft follow, with SAP and Teradata trailing along behind.

But that's paid database adoption. If we look at database popularity (across a variety of factors, as DB-Engines does), the numbers look starkly different:

database popularity DB Engines

The monthly DB Engines Ranking lists databases in order of popularity based on mentions, searches, job postings, and other factors. 

Before you complain that such measures of popularity don't equate to real adoption of technology (i.e., how much enterprises pay for it), it may be worth re-examining what "real" means. As Gartner analysts Merv Adrian and Donald Feinberg write, "Revenue numbers for [open source DBMS] arguably do not map to usage as strongly as commercial numbers do; usage is far higher for commercial open source than numbers show."

This is true, but an understatement.

In today's world, filled with open source and cloud, the CIO may be the last to know which technologies are actually getting used within her enterprise. Open source database adoption is widespread, and that isn't changed by the fact that it can't be measured by paid license count.

Open source databases rising

While open source databases have long been popular for niche use cases, over the past decade they've steadily grown in maturity and importance.

In fact, as Feinberg and Adrian note, "open-source RDBMS products have matured in the availability of DBA skills, availability of DBA tools and near-equality of RDBMS functionality. OSDBMS is being used successfully in mission-critical applications in a large percentage of organizations."

There are a variety of reasons for this broad, and accelerating adoption, but Baron Schwartz identifies the top one -- community:

The most important thing when considering a database ... is success stories. The world is different from a few decades ago, when the good databases were all proprietary and nobody knew how they did their magic, so proofs of concept were a key sales tactic. Now, most new databases are open source and the users either understand how they work, or rest easy in the knowledge that they can find out if they want.

Such community makes a software purchase/decision safe, particularly with databases, as it removes uncertainty over how to put the database to good use. Schwartz continues:

If I can choose from a magical database that claims to solve all kinds of problems perfectly, versus one that has broad adoption and lots of discussions I can Google, I'm not going to take a hard look at the former. I want to read online about use cases, scaling challenges met and solved, sharp edges, scripts, tweaks, tips and tricks. I want a lot of Stack Exchange discussions and blog posts. I want to see people using the database for workloads that look similar to mine, as well as different workloads, and I want to hear what's good and bad about it.

You are never, ever going to hear this sort of honesty from a vendor, whether they're proprietary or open source. But with an open source database, your best source of information won't be the vendor (if any), anyway. It will be the Internet.

Developers decide

According to Gartner, devops teams will heavily influence 30 percent of data center infrastructure purchases by the end of 2018. That's big, but that's purchases. As such, it's incomplete.

It's already the case, as analyst firm Redmonk has been arguing for years, that developers increasingly drive enterprise IT adoption. Those developers are voting with their browsers, rather than their wallets, for open source databases, both relational and NoSQL.

Gartner notes that open source DBMSs have moved beyond hype and "entered into full market productivity and reached at least 25 percent of the target market." This is why half of DB-Engines top-10 most popular databases are open source: MySQL, MongoDB, Postgres, Cassandra, and Redis, with a host of others knocking on the door of that top 10.

It's also why your next database purchase/download is likely to involve a Google search rather than a call to an overpriced, somewhat superfluous salesperson.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.