Watch out, MySQL: MariaDB could replace you

Even as MySQL’s popularity has flattened and even declined, MariaDB has boomed

MariaDB never should have happened. Monty Widenius, the founder of both MySQL and MariaDB, made a bundle selling MySQL to Oracle years ago, but he then launched MariaDB to try to return the heart of MySQL to a proprietary-free open source(only to later add in his own proprietary bits to MariaDB). It has made for great theater but, somehow, it has also made for a very popular database.

How popular? Of the 343 databases tracked by DB-Engines, MariaDB now ranks 14th overall, ahead of Hbase, Amazon DynamoDB, and most every other database you can think of. Even as MySQL’s popularity has flattened and even declined, MariaDB has boomed. With so many ways to get a MySQL fix these days, why is MariaDB thriving?

To get some sense for how impressive that current ranking is, it’s useful to see how far MariaDB has come in a short period of time. As of February 2017, it ranked No. 20. That was a nice bump from No. 23 in February 2016. In September 2013, it was No. 34. Back in 2009 when it launched, MariaDB was a rounding error. For those keeping score, popular databases like PostgreSQL and MongoDB have inched up the charts in that same timeframe. MariaDB’s movement, by contrast, has been a rocketship.

Granted, it started from a much smaller base, so its movement up the DB-Engines popularity chart is more pronounced. But it’s still impressive, no matter how many disclaimers you slap on it.

The question is what’s driving that continued growth in popularity?

Well, Oracle for one thing. Or, rather, the shadow of Oracle. Even though Oracle has continued to make significant investments in MySQL, most of the committers now come from an @oracle.com email address. The major Linux distributions like Red Hat Enterprise Linuxtook notice early on, and switched to shipping MariaDB instead of MySQL. Open source freedom may not matter to all, but it does matter to the Linux vendors, and so they’ve made it much easier to get MariaDB instead of MySQL.

In other words, MariaDB is now the default “MySQL” that developers get out of the box with Linux distributions.

MySQL, despite those continued contributions from Oracle, acts less and less like an open source project, with a quarterly release cycle, less frequent (and less transparent) security enhancements, and more cutting-edge features. While no longer a drop-in replacement for MySQL (unless you’re using “vanilla MariaDB” without the proprietary and open source extensions it increasingly offers), MariaDB is still a great open alternative to the increasingly closed MySQL.

As Steven Vaughan-Nichols put it to me, “It just works.”

Oracle’s acquisition of Sun netted it expertise in hardware that, unfortunately, has been a fading asset. The crown jewel, really, was MySQL, then at the peak of its popularity. Since then, under Oracle’s watch, MySQL has flatlined in popularity and started to decline, even as MariaDB, MongoDB, and PostgreSQL have all increased in popularity. Yes, Oracle still makes lots of money with its database hegemony, particularly from its Oracle database but, no, developers no longer look to Oracle’s database for new applications.

The risk is that they’ll also stop doing so with MySQL.

With the Linux distributions shedding MySQL (and embracing MariaDB), and with the public clouds like Amazon Web Services building services (like Aurora) that support MariaDB, developers will increasingly find it more convenient to use MariaDB than MySQL. Given MySQL’s installed base, it will take years for something like MariaDB to displace it, but with each passing day Oracle is ceding the future of databases to competition like MariaDB—one developer at a time.

One obvious answer, of course, would be for Oracle to revert to a more open development model for MySQL. Although not part of Oracle’s DNA, the company wouldn’t give up much were it to do this. It wouldn’t yield a revenue hit. But it just might give Oracle a beachhead with developers, one that could pay dividends for years to come.

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