Users buying into free 'express' databases

Missouri State University's school of information systems and Web startup Savvica Inc. don't have a lot in common apart from tight budgets. In the recent past, their spending limitations likely would have meant choosing open-source software such as MySQL or Postgres as a database.

But last month, both the university and the e-learning firm eschewed open-source technology, opting instead to install commercial databases -- albeit free, stripped-down versions, which all of the top database vendors are now offering.

"Everything's so much more solid now," said John Green, president of technology at Toronto-based Savvica. Burgeoning Web traffic was causing the company's MySQL server to crash continually. Also, its e-learning applications are written in Java, which Green felt wasn't well supported by the open-source database.

Instead of adding more MySQL servers, Green decided to roll out three installations of IBM's new DB2 Express-C database. They are managed by a load-balancing application from Xkoto, which is also based in Toronto. "DB2 Express-C just feels like a much more profound piece of software," Green said.

Defections such as Savvica's are heartening to IBM, Microsoft and Oracle, which in the past six months have all released so-called express databases that are available to users free of charge. In doing so, they have followed the lead of Sybase, which released an express version of its corporate database in September 2004.

The express databases are "significantly challenging the conventional wisdom about commercial vs. open-source databases," said Peter O'Kelly, an analyst at Burton Group in Midvale, Utah.

The commercial vendors are also opening a second front by working to get support for their databases in application frameworks that are popular with open-source users. For example, Zend Technologies last week released software that lets developers use the PHP scripting language to write applications that can interact with any of Oracle's flagship 10g databases.

"IBM and Oracle are doing something similar to what MySQL has done: win the hearts and minds of developers by giving them easier access to technologies," said Mike Pinette, vice president of business development at Cupertino, California-based Zend.

Oracle said hundreds of thousands of developers and students have downloaded its Oracle Database 10g Express Edition since the software was released for beta testing in October. The free database, known as XE, became generally available last week.

According to IBM, DB2 Express-C was downloaded about 50,000 times in the first two weeks after its release in late January.

In contrast, Version 5.0 of MySQL has been downloaded more than 6 million times since October, said Zack Urlocker, vice president of marketing at MySQL's U.S. offices in Cupertino. "Sure, the express versions are free, but they come with very significant limitations, especially the lack of support," he said. "No enterprise customer will go into production with a database that cannot be supported."

MySQL user Andy Meadows said he hasn't been tempted to switch. "Unless it's a large CRM or identity management system, I've found MySQL to be robust and scalable enough," said Meadows, president of Live Oak Interactive, a Web development and hosting firm in Round Rock, Texas.

On the other hand, Rajeev Kaula, a professor in Missouri State's information systems school, said Oracle's XE is easier to install than earlier "lite" Oracle databases and is helping him teach students to program more efficiently.

"Students who honed their skills on MySQL and PHP tend to treat databases only as a way of storing tables," Kaula said. Learning on Oracle XE, "they are realizing the power of transferring the business logic to the database itself."

Savvica's Green said he has received a lot of inquiries from IT peers who previously weren't aware that they could install free versions of SQL Server, Oracle or DB2 as alternatives to open-source databases.

"Frankly, these products are better," Green said. "As more people hear about them, I think they will start to eat MySQL's lunch."

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