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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Fitting MySQL into Sun's orbit

Sun recently experienced a hail of criticism when the company hinted that some add-ons for the popular open source database, MySQL, might be available only for paid customers.

Today Marten Mickos, former CEO at MySQL AB and now senior vice president of Sun’s database group, backed off the statement, saying that Sun has not made an official decision.

Sun, which acquired MySQL earlier this year for over $1 billion dollars, raised the ire of the MySQL community when it suggested that some high-end features due to arrive in MySQL 6 would be available only to paying customers.

A shrill chorus of critics on Slashdot and throughout the online world loudly condemned the potential move and accused Sun and MySQL of betraying the community that has helped make it successful. MySQL claims users in the tens of millions.

Mickos responded to the Slashdot post saying:

In 6.0 there will be native backup functionality in the server available for anyone and all (Community, Enterprise) under GPL.

Additionally we will develop high-end add-ons (such as encryption, native storage engine-specific drivers) that we will deliver to customers in the MySQL Enterprise product only. We have not yet decided under what license we will release those add-ons (GPL, some other FOSS license, and/or commercial).

MySQL is used by a host of major Web businesses, including Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Under Mickos' leadership, outside analysts estimate, the private company garnered about $50 million in revenue last year while making its source code available for anyone to use or adapt at no cost. MySQL charges for technical support and collects licensing fees from companies that use the code in their own proprietary software.

But Mickos recently traded his chief executive title for that of senior vice president at tech giant Sun Microsystems, which acquired MySQL for $1 billion this year. And last week, as 2,000 programmers and users gathered for the annual MySQL conference at the Santa Clara Convention Center, some open-source enthusiasts blogged with alarm on learning that MySQL may offer "add-on" features to paying subscribers, without including them in the free version.

Others said that's not unusual. Mickos posted responses on several blogs, saying the move predates Sun's acquisition and is part of an effort to build revenue while keeping the core product open-source. He also said there's no decision on how the add-ons may ultimately be licensed.

Mickos' new boss, Sun CEO

Jonathan Schwartz, has called the open-source model a cornerstone of Sun's business, and describes MySQL as a key element of Sun's drive to supply everything from hardware to software for clients around the world.
We asked Mickos how MySQL fits into Sun's efforts; the following was edited for length and clarity.

Q Is Sun's approach to open source any different from what yours has been?

A With open source, you can't find two companies with exactly the same view. But when we discussed acquisition, they said we are acquiring you for what you are, not to change you.

Q Sun said downloads of your products increased from 50,000 a day to 60,000 after the deal was announced. Is that continuing?

A They did increase, but we may have reached saturation levels. (Laughs.) How many developers are there in the world?

Another thing we measure is the number of blog postings mentioning MySQL, and they have grown significantly.

Q That could be a positive or a negative, though.

A No, this is open source. It doesn't matter what they say. A blog posting saying, "MySQL stinks and here are all the defects," is a positive one. And this is what closed-source companies don't get.

When somebody is complaining about your product, they are saying, "I would love to love you but I cannot currently." These people will become your most passionate users if you listen to them and if you take action.

Q What's the conversion rate, or number of customers who are paying for MySQL compared with those who use it for free?

A We don't call it a conversion rate, because there are many who will never convert. We have worldwide about 1,000 non-paying users for every paying customer. But then, kids at the age of 11, they download our stuff and play around with it. Every student downloads it, every developer.

It's common thinking: Hey, you're open source and it's free - you will never amount to anything. But it's not true.

Yes, we will have millions who will never pay us. If you run a blog on WordPress, you don't necessarily need me to service you or your database. But if you are YouTube or Flickr or Facebook or Nokia or Cisco, then you need us, and you pay. You couldn't scale the way you scale if you didn't have MySQL and if you didn't have support from the vendor, from Sun.

Q Are you expecting to see MySQL integrated into other Sun products?

A Integrating with Sun's products is an attractive thing, but it's not the main idea. The main idea of the acquisition and of our business generally is to be the platform for the Web economy. Now, with the help of Sun, we will be able to accelerate this.

We had in our field organization 200 people; Sun has 17,000. We have a lot of usage in the big corporations, but we haven't been able to sell to them and become key vendors for them yet. With Sun, we get instant access to the big Fortune 500 and Fortune 2000 customers.

And to those who do want more than the database, we'll be able to say, "If you need the operating system, the middleware, the hardware, the development environment, you can get that from us, too."

Q Are you expecting your number of employees (currently about 400 people) to grow, and will your workforce become more concentrated here in Northern California?

A We have a distributed organization, with about 70 percent of our people working from home in 30 countries around the world.

We are a growth business and the mandate we have from Sun is to continue to grow even faster than before. So we'll continue to hire the best people, wherever they are. We have programmers in China, India, Scandinavia, the Ukraine.

The interesting thing is we have one programmer in California and he's in Los Angeles. (Laughs.) Offices are so last century.

Q Would you expect MySQL's corporate culture to change now that you are part of Sun?

A I do think it will change, but we've always had that mindset at MySQL of saying: "What are the core values that we must not change?" - but then let us change everything else.

Q You've been in Silicon Valley for five years, but you have worked in other parts of the world. What's your sense of how Silicon Valley's role in the tech industry has changed?

A Silicon Valley has changed from being a production center to a trading place. There's still development and production being done here, but this is a place where you get together to strike a deal, build partnerships, have your (conferences and other) events.

Q One component of MySQL is a product called InnoDB, developed by a company that was acquired by Oracle. Do you feel any pressure to drop that component, for competitive reasons?

A We continue to use the component. It's very good, but there are many alternatives, so it's not that we are dependent on them. The surprising thing is it's good for Oracle to have a presence in our ecosystem and it's good for us that that little piece of software is now having the backing (from Oracle) and we can trust it.

Q It's an open-source product, but you pay a license fee for it?

A It is open-source. We do pay them money for the commercial benefit we get from it. They provide us support and other things.

We always had the view that the fact that it's open-source doesn't mean you can't pay money for it. We pay money for value and our customers pay us money for value.

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