Column: Why open source databases are ripe for acquisition in 2006

Is the clout of open source databases, expected to grow to a $1 billion market by 2008, going to lead to their demise by acquisition? This columnist ponders the meaning of Oracle's Sleepycat and Innobase acquisitions, and MySQL's anti-acquisition stance

The courtship of open source database vendor MySQL by Oracle, as well as MySQL's rejection of those advances, is only the beginning of another interesting year for databases.

Analysts predict that the $300 million open source database market is going to continue to grow rapidly. Forrester Research Inc.'s analyst Noel Yuhanna projects that mission-critical deployments of open source databases will increase by 20% this year. It is that growth that Yuhanna believes will drive the OSS database market from $300 million now to the $1 billion mark by 2008. Most importantly, analysts say, this segment is being taken seriously by proprietary database vendors attracted to making open source technology part of their own product offerings.

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Oracle Corp. is only one of the Big Three database vendors that is contemplating big buys in open source database space, industry analysts say. Microsoft and IBM have sizeable war chests with which to buy market share, and vendors like EnterpriseDB, MySQL and Ingres Corp. could provide it. Whether they follow Oracle's lead or invest in other ventures remains to be seen.

Certainly the traction for open source databases is there, and Cambridge Mass.-based Forrester has said that OSS database-related inquiries increased 50% in 2005.

Going beyond "good enough"

Cost and licensing headaches are the primary drivers of increasing deployments of open source databases, but users are also more confident in the quality of today's open source databases -- and the maturity and stability of their vendors, according to Yuhanna.

"In 2005, the industry witnessed great momentum around open source databases, from product enhancement, improved customer support and increased adoption to new vendors jumping on the bandwagon," Yuhanna said. "Open source databases continue to make inroads into enterprises, offering low-cost database management system alternatives to support all types of business applications."

Proprietary vendors would have to hide their heads in the sand not to see the marketplace impact of greatly improved product quality and support offered by commercial open source database vendors.

The market share stolen by open source database companies is more of a nuisance than a threat, however. Gartner Inc. analyst Donald Feinberg argues that the SleepyCat buy is not proof that Oracle or any big three vendor for that matter, is afraid of open source to the point where they see buying it up as a last resort. He did concede, however, that the fact that proprietary vendors have issued deeper discounts, scaled down versions and more advanced features at no extra cost have bolstered the case that OSS is having an effect.

That effect will likely be short-lived. It will be easy for proprietary vendors to buy their competitors or copy them as a means to protect their marketplace.

Oracle is taking both routes. The company got a jumpstart with acquisitions of Sleepycat Software Inc. and Innobase database firms for its stable. Oracle spent only $3 million for Innobase. Oracle released a free version of its database application called Oracle Database 10g Express in 2005.

Microsoft, it seems, is paying attention. It released a scaled-down open source database, SQL Server Express.

Assimilation, not liberation

Don't think that the release of a basic product to open source means that proprietary vendors have adopted the tenets of the open source community. Don't bet the farm that they'll be offering free, no-lock-in enterprise database software.

Feinberg explained that the Sleepycat acquisition was made so that Oracle could embed that application within Oracle apps. Sleepycat will not become an open source product standing on it own and sold by Oracle.

That's pretty much how the acquisitions of commercial open source companies will go, analysts say. Like Star Trek's Borg, proprietary vendors will buy and assimilate some open source companies and products. The acquired companies will become part of the collective, and their unique identities will disappear.

Is resistance futile? MySQL's refusal of Oracle's offers shows that strong, well-funded vendors may be able to resist assimilation and keep the open source dream alive.

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