OSDBs Take on the Enterprise

Give open source databases (OSDBs) two years or less, and they’ll be ready to take on the enterprise. That’s not just some conclusion I came to out of my head; that’s the latest word on the subject from AMR Research, a research firm that specializes in providing analysis on enterprise software. The report has not yet attracted the attention it deserves–but it will. Even IBM and Oracle may start feeling the pressure in the next year, if AMR’s view on this can be trusted.

It’s a Matter of Trust

First, let’s check the source of the information. AMR Research is not the biggest research firm covering technology in the field, by either income or sheer number of employees; they’re much smaller than Gartner Group, for instance (which is one of the biggest and best-known companies in that area). But AMR has been around since 1986, and earned a good reputation; it’s safe to take it seriously. And given its specialty, in this particular case it might be ahead of the curve. For the gist of this report, the firm says it “interviewed 140 Information Technology (IT) professionals about their plans for OSDB technologies.” So this, folks, is real.

The full report in question is titled “Open Source Databases: Side Street to Main Street.” (Non-subscribers can still access the abridged version, “Open Source Databases: Widespread and Mainstream by 2006.”) Even that much made for very interesting reading. None of you will be surprised to learn that many companies that use databases are looking for ways to save money, and very concerned with ease of administration. This report confirms that proprietary databases frustrate those desires; those surveyed complained that “they have too many databases from too many vendors, and the databases themselves are too expensive and too hard to maintain.”

{mospagebreak title=Features and Cost}

It’s hard to beat anything that’s open source on the cost issue. If a company actually wants to spend money on open source, it can buy maintenance and support contracts–no doubt a source of comfort to those who are more familiar with proprietary software. Even with such contracts, OSDBs should cost a company less than their proprietary counterparts, since there’s no initial licensing fee. As for the ease of administration–well, that raised an interesting point. It seems a database with fewer features (assuming all the important ones are included) is easier to administer. Currently, OSDBs include fewer features than proprietary databases, which is just one factor in their ease of administration. Many, if not most, of the IT people interviewed by AMR seemed confident that OSDBs would continue to increase in quality while possibly avoiding the “feature bloat” plaguing proprietary systems.

I admit I’m extrapolating. Here’s the relevant quote: “Even among those not using an OSDB…25% believe OSDBs are ready for mission-critical systems now, with only 13% believing that they will never be ready. Those that are using OSDBs are more resolute: 80% believe they will be ready for mission-critical use either now or within 24 months.” Those who have to maintain mission-critical databases take a very hard look at what’s involved, and you can bet–if you don’t already know from experience–that the features of the database play a large role, because they have a major effect on the ease of maintaining the database. You don’t want software that’s suffering from feature bloat to be a mission-critical element in your network.

So if OSDBs aren’t quite ready for prime time yet, what do companies use them for? According to the report, “about 60% of current OSDB use is for custom systems, websites, or systems exposing data to a company’s outside customers.” Everyone knows that DevShed.com uses an OSDB–MySQL by name–to serve information at its web site. But did you know that C|Net Networks uses the very same OSDB to serve information at its web site? They have offices in 12 countries and something like 65 million folks checking them out regularly. And their whole point of existence is delivering information. You can possibly get more mainstream and mission-critical than that, but it isn’t easy.

{mospagebreak title=How Independent Software Vendors can Capitalize}

One interesting point made in the report is the role that independent software vendors (ISVs) can play in this trend. There are, after all, distinct cost advantages to ISVs in promoting open source software in general. AMR Research expects many ISVs to start supporting at least one OSDB in the next couple of years, with a real competitive advantage to be gained from supporting an OSDB in the next 12 months. Small and medium-sized businesses are likely to be the most receptive to OSDBs, at least at first. The last time I checked, there were a lot more small and medium-sized businesses in the US than large ones.

True, large businesses can generate more income for an ISV; each large business employs so many people that, whenever they buy something, it involves large numbers. Whether a company is large or small, however, it must deal with some of the same problems, such as expenses and price/performance. On top of that, large companies and small companies regularly end up competing for the same clientele. A large company isn’t going to give up any competitive advantage it can get–and if that means going open source, then it’s just common sense for an ISV to be prepared to cater to them.

All of this is very good news for a number of reasons. First of all, as I mentioned above, AMR Research is respectable enough to be taken seriously when it writes about enterprise software. Second, it’s taking open source in general, and OSDBs in particular, very seriously–which will encourage a lot of professionals to take it seriously. Third, it’s accurate about the advantages of open source. Fourth, databases may not be “glamorous,” but they’re so important to business that any news or trends concerning them–particularly news that offers the possibility of a competitive advantage–can’t be ignored. Which boils down to this: so long as OSDBs keep improving, you can smile smugly…because, when it comes to proprietary software-based databases, we can wait them out.

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