Like many companies, National Semiconductor is looking for ways to cut costs and has Linux and open source high on its list. While the company already is making the move to Linux, the big project this year is to take a close look at open source databases to figure out where less-expensive data management products could fit in its infrastructure.
"We looked at MySQL last year as far as software relief in concert with our leveraging Linux hardware - to be able to move a class of database applications from IBM hardware to Intel hardware," says Ulrich Seif, National Semiconductor's CIO.
The company also considered PostgreSQL and has a few small applications running on that open source database.
"The project this year is to take a serious look at an open source database road map and how it could be successfully deployed here as a second-tier database" environment, Seif says.
National Semiconductor is not alone. While open source databases are nothing new - Postgres, for example, has been around for 20 years, and MySQL celebrated its 10th anniversary in April - the projects are getting more enterprise-level features. And corporate customers in growing numbers are looking at low-cost alternatives to hefty, expensive proprietary database products.
Momentum around open source alternatives is swelling, with a number of developments in recent months illustrating the market's growing maturity. Consider that Novell, Dell and HP all now sell MySQL's database products and support services.
Earlier this month, the Apache Foundation released its first version of Apache Derby, the Cloudscape database that IBM contributed to the open source community last year. As for Postgres, a number of companies have recently emerged to provide support for PostgreSQL. One of those companies, EnterpriseDB, came out of stealth mode May 23 and hit the ground running, winning "Best Database Solution" at LinuxWorld earlier this month, edging out IBM, MySQL and Oracle. It announced general availability of its open source-based relational database management systems Enterprise DB 2005 earlier this month.
Meanwhile, MySQL in February launched its subscription-based MySQL Network to provide comprehensive support and spur corporate deployments. It already has Sabre Holdings, Continental Airlines and DaimlerChrysler on its lengthy customer list. Sleepycat Software last week announced that General Dynamics C4 Systems, a business unit of General Dynamics, has deployed its Berkeley DB Java Edition to support a visualization and collaboration tool used by the U.S. military.
"We have been getting an increasing number of inquiries about [open source databases] from clients who are looking to somehow reduce their IT costs," says Michael Goulde, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. "They are taking a look at where there might be commodity technologies that could replace the current technologies that they're paying a lot of money for - a database is certainly one of those."
Indeed, with SQL and other database standards firmly entrenched, there is a perfect opportunity for open source database projects to create products that easily fit into corporate infrastructures. Open source databases might not provide all the bells and whistles of an Oracle or IBM database, but analysts point out that in many cases customers running proprietary systems are paying for more features than they need.
"Databases are becoming a commodity, with fewer enterprises demanding advanced database features," Forrester analyst Noel Yuhanna wrote in a December 2004 report titled "Open Source Databases Come of Age." "We estimate that the majority of advanced features offered by commercial DBMS products are hardly used by enterprises; they are sometimes needed, but they aren't required for many projects."
At National Semiconductor, for example, Seif recently migrated from Sybase to Oracle but realized that not all applications need all the features of the high-end Oracle database.
"Every customer has smaller, non-critical databases and they have been throwing these in with their high-end database solution, where their expertise and support resides," he says.
When considering open source databases, questions arise about the ease of migrating applications, the level of performance and where support will come from, users say.
"If you're moving from an existing proprietary database, you have to examine the type of application carefully," says Corey Ostman, director of new technology initiatives at PriceGrabber.com.
The company has used MySQL since it launched in 1999. Ostman says the company also considered Oracle but decided that performance and support were better with MySQL.
"A simple, read-only application can generally be ported to a new database without much hassle," Ostman says. "A more complicated, read/write transactional database may rely on proprietary database extensions and might require more work."
Noel Proffitt, senior information systems analyst at the city of Garden Grove, Calif., says the key to a successful deployment is to start small.
Garden Grove has been using PostgreSQL since early 2002, and most new applications use the open source database.
"Download PostgreSQL and play with it. You won't get any sales calls; no license is going to ever expire. So grow into it at your own pace," he says.
IBM, Oracle and Microsoft downplay any heat they might be feeling from open source databases, but it's clear that the adoption of open source - and open source databases - is growing. Forrester estimates that the market for open source databases last year was about US$120 million, just a fraction of the overall US$10 billion DBMS market.
A Forrester survey this year of 95 IT executives using or planning to use Linux or open source in the next 12 months found that more than half already are using MySQL.
Still, in most cases the open source database isn't supporting the most critical applications, analysts say.
"Right now, except for specialized application domains, the open source database isn't really competing for the heart of the enterprise with IBM, Microsoft and Oracle," says Peter O'Kelly, senior analyst at Burton Group. "Those three vendors control more than 85 percent of the revenue opportunity for commercial DBMS."