Tassie newspaper tames open source Firebird

While high-profile open source efforts like MySQL and PostgreSQL slug it out with the big four commercial databases, a Tasmanian newspaper is betting on the lesser-known Firebird SQL server for its B2B Web applications.

Two years ago The Examiner, based in Launceston, began investigating software for its new online B2B initiative, which started as proof-of-concept so a "cheap" database that could handle hundreds of simultaneous users was sought by the company's systems developer Nigel Weeks.

Weeks started out with MySQL, which is "brilliant for light reads and simple queries", but "curls up its toes" when it comes to complex queries and business logic.

"Firebird uses a very similar query structure to MySQL so any developer can switch," Weeks said. "It's just getting your head around transactions, but once that's done there is a whole world of possibilities."

Firebird is a community project based on the InterBase source code originally released by Borland in 2000. The Firebird Foundation is now based in Glenning Valley, NSW.

Weeks praised Firebird's "super server" architecture, which is a "drop-in replacement" for MySQL and can do whatever MySQL can do "with its eyes closed".

The Examiner now has six different Firebird-based applications that are available to the public to which are connected about 300 companies - like automotive dealers and real estate agents - connect each day.

The applications are developed with the popular PHP scripting language and delivered by the Apache Web server on Linux, exactly like the LAMP (Linux, Apache, and Perl/Python/PHP) stack, but without MySQL. Firebird is also used on FreeBSD Unix and Windows Server.

"Our transaction throughput is pretty light, we might do about 20,000 transactions a day," Weeks said, adding the biggest database is about 16GB. "But maintenance is non-existent - it's a DBA-less database. Backups can be done on the fly, so there's no need to take it offline, and it comes with a simple level of replication built in."

Weeks has also tried developing with PostgreSQL, but it "used all the memory and crashed the server".

He describes PostgreSQL as more of a research database with more features than Firebird, but lacking its level of enterprise robustness.

"News happens 24 hours a day so we need it to go all day, every day," he said. "All development is done on a 166MHz Pentium machine with 64MB of RAM to force you to write good code."

Support is reliable, Weeks said. Firebird's community support is good in that "if you don't get an answer back in 10 minutes, it's a bad day".

"IBPhoenix provides commercial support and also does database recoveries," he said.

Helen Borrie, IBPhoenix Firebird consultant and author of The Firebird Book, said IT departments should consider all the open source database offerings to break free from the "shackles" of commercial products but Firebird's interoperability is a "strong decider".

"The SQL language implemented is highly conformant with the standards [and] its application programming interface is available for all of the popular and upcoming languages and IDEs," Borrie said. "It slips easily into virtually any of the environments where database engines already have a place."

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