Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Open source development gains ground

Despite service fees, cheaper licenses and faster upgrades attract Web developers

OPEN-SOURCE DATABASES are emerging as viable alternatives to costly proprietary databases and, in doing so, are filling a key slot in the open-source e-business development stack.

With vendors working to enhance performance, add new features, and fix bugs, analysts said that open-source databases are inching their way up to the level of proprietary databases in terms of features and functionality, albeit slowly.

Open source becomes a serious development alternative when combined with Linux running on commodity Intel servers, the database, the open-source development language PHP (personal home page), the Apache Web server, and the Sendmail e-mail server (see chart).

Momentum around open source in the Web-server arena is well-established. According to the now-famous results of NetCraft's latest survey, as of November 2000 nearly 60 percent of all respondents' Web sites ran on Apache, the open-source Web server.

The last several months have seen a number of developments in the open-source database space as well.

In early December, Great Bridge, in Norfolk, Va., announced a boxed version of PostgreSQL, and a number of services and support offerings to accompany the software. At $50,000 for the database and with the most comprehensive support package, Great Bridge's PostgreSQL is hardly free, but considering that proprietary databases easily can cost 10 times as much, it isn't exactly expensive, either. Great Bridge is merely the latest in a string of companies to support an open-source database.

Earlier this year, Borland turned its InterBase database over to the open-source community; Progress Software spun off its MySQL open-source database software and support into NuSphere; and AbriaSoft started offering support for MySQL as well.

While Nusphere and AbriaSoft duke it out in the MySQL trenches, PostgreSQL -- which has been in development for more than 25 years, beginning at the University of California at Berkeley -- is the open-source database most suited for enterprise-level use, according to analysts.

Great Bridge, in fact, ran the database through the Transaction Processing Council's TPC-C benchmark testing, and the results were similar to two vendors' technologies that the company would only describe as proprietary.

These benchmarks, however, tested the system against 100 users. Great Bridge's President and CEO Bob Gilbert acknowledged that the company still has to prove itself at the high-end, at least in terms of benchmarks.

Even the vendors said that open-source databases are not appropriate for every situation in which a proprietary database would be.

Despite the attractive initial price point, companies still need an IT infrastructure that supports the particular database. Otherwise, implementing an open-source solution of any kind is merely shifting the associated costs from one basket to another.

"If you reduce the overall licensing costs, in the long run, you'll come out ahead," said Bernie Mills, vice president of marketing at CollabNet, an online provider of collaborative development platforms based on open-source software.

Analysts said that the open-source databases are a perfect fit for the overall open-source e-business Web-development stack, but the software is less practical for companies that run other proprietary pieces.

Whether open-source databases are up to par with the proprietary brethren or not, companies are beginning to choose them instead of closed systems.

After spending six months studying alternatives and speaking with the bigwig vendors such as Oracle and IBM, Gazos Creek Group put its faith in AbriaSoft's incarnation of MySQL, according to David Lovering, a network applications engineer at the Fort Collins, Colo., provider of combined broadband, voice, data, and video services.

Singing the old Linux anthem, Lovering added that Gazos chose MySQL because of the breadth and price of tools for the database, as well as for the faster time getting new features added into the system. Lovering also said that scalability was a huge issue for Gazos, and he needed a database capable of supporting a flexible number of users.

"The open-source database can be scaled overnight," he added. "Provided that you don't violate the GPL [General Public License], you can essentially go from zero to 100,000s of users."

In the end, Bill Claybrook, an analyst at Aberdeen Group in Boston, said that most customers look at open-source databases because of the relatively low-priced ticket.

"If they weren't open source, I'd say they wouldn't have a chance," Claybrook said. "But the vendors can keep the price down, and that is important."