Review: Finding an opening

Review: Finding an opening

Open-source databases, including MySQL and PostgreSQL, are marching into the enterprise via their inclusion in major Linux distributions, which are quickly growing in usage on middle-tier servers and back-end clusters. Beyond Linux distributions, such as Red Hat and SuSE, open-source databases are now also being bundled with Sun Microsystems' LX50 and Solaris 9 operating systems. In addition, Apple has begun shipping MySQL with its Mac OS X Server software. Apple customers can also install PostgreSQL on the platform.

As open-source database usage increases, two questions arise. First, how can enterprises effectively utilise open-source databases to gain a competitive advantage? And second, how will open-source databases affect the database marketplace?

State of the market

To answer both of these questions, we need to look to the current state of open-source databases and where they are headed. The good news is that open-source databases are available for a wide range of platforms. For example, MySQL can be run on Windows NT, Windows 2000, and Windows XP as well as Mac OS X, Linux, Solaris, AIX, HP-UX, and many other platforms. You can even run open-source databases on mid-range and mainframe systems by implementing Linux or Unix partitions on these machines. In terms of platform support, open-source databases compare favourably to their proprietary cousins.

Many enterprise customers may be wary of implementing an open-source database fearing a lack of enterprise-level technical support services. But here, too, open-source databases compare favourably to proprietary databases. For example, MySQL AB offers round-the-clock support services for its MySQL database, and PostgreSQL customers can purchase support services from a variety of third parties.

But when it comes to core SQL capabilities, open-source databases do not support all the features that proprietary enterprise databases such as IBM's DB2 or Oracle's 9i do.

Open-source database providers readily admit that their databases are not yet geared toward powering high-end enterprise systems, such as ERP and CRM applications.

Where do they fit?Open-source databases - as they stand today - are an ideal match for powering internal-facing or external-facing corporate Web sites and for handling the database requirements of medium-load business applications. Enterprise IT can benefit by replacing proprietary databases used to support these types of applications with an open-source alternative, thereby reducing licensing and support costs.

The near-term impact of open-source database adoption within the enterprise is not likely to affect proprietary enterprise databases, such as DB2 and Oracle, to any large extent. The more likely scenario will be that other proprietary databases, such as Microsoft Access, FileMaker, Sybase, and Microsoft's SQL Server, will feel the pinch as customers switch their Web site applications and their less demanding business apps to open-source database solutions to save money and increase speed. The open-source database MySQL has a particularly good performance track record.

Coming soon

But that is not the end of the story. Enterprise customers and proprietary database vendors alike should keep an eye on the progress of open-source database providers. Open-source databases are maturing quickly as developers work on outfitting them with the capabilities needed to support higher-end transactional environments and heavier loads.

For example, the 4.0 release of MySQL - now available in beta form - adds a number of improvements that enterprise customers will find useful. Among these are new support for transactions and row-level locking, along with speed improvements, security additions, and enhancements that make it easier to migrate from other databases.

The rival PostgreSQL open-source database is also moving forward with additions and enhancements that make it well-suited for enterprise use. The most recent PostgreSQL release shows good improvements to database administration and transactional support in larger settings, along with new performance improvements, security fixes, support for internationalisation, and improvements to database connectivity for customers using JDBC or ODBC.

On the flip side

Still, there are areas where the proprietary databases, including DB2 and Oracle, are far ahead of open-source database offerings. For example, customers using DB2 will find it easier to integrate information in other databases (including open-source databases) with DB2 while also being able to access and work with data in file systems, application message queues, and Web services.

With its 4.0 release, MySQL has begun to offer Embedded MySQL to provide support for applications and various mobile and embedded devices where a small, fast database is mandatory. IBM's DB2 Everyplace offering has been supporting data requirements for mobile and embedded devices for some time.

Likewise, IBM is offering DB2 developers more mature features and tools with which to grapple XML and Web services-related tasks. For example, in IBM's latest release of DB2, Version 8.1, automatic schema validation is supported when composing XML documents from DB2 data, and automatic style transformation is supported via XSLT.

By contrast, open-source databases at present provide only basic conversion tools for translating relational data to and from XML. Furthermore, they don't offer native XML storage within the database, nor do they yet offer other tools to help developers work with Web services.

Now and in the future

Still, for Web applications and business applications that require medium-sized data sets, open-source databases are up to the task. Customers can reduce costs by replacing proprietary databases with open-source database solutions for these types of applications.

Proprietary database vendors and enterprise customers would be wise to keep tabs on the progress of open-source databases. Emerging features and tools within open-source databases will provide fruitful benefits for customers as well as some stiff competition in the database marketplace.

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