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MySQL’s Mickos: Open Source in the Enterprise

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As the CEO of open source database company MySQL AB, Marten Mickos has overseen enormous growth in his company. Some even say the plucky MySQL is starting to threaten industry heavyweight Oracle, though that contest is still very much David and Goliath. At the very least, MySQL, as a major building block of the LAMP stack, earns bragging rights as the leading open source database.

mysql, open source database, MySQL CEO Marten Mickos

Marten Mickos, MySQL CEO

In a wide-ranging interview with Datamation, Mickos talked about his company’s plans, MySQL’s competitors, and the future of the open source market.

Last year, MySQL faced a critical competitive challenge. In October 2005, Oracle acquired Finnish software company Innobase, makers of the InnoDB storage engine. A robust, enterprise-level tool, InnoDB has been distributed with MySQL for several years – and has been a key element of MySQL’s burgeoning penetration of the enterprise market.

Although Oracle stated that it “intends to continue developing the InnoDB technology,” its purchase of a key MySQL partner sent a shot across the bow of the open source database maker.

MySQL executives have made no secret of the fact that the company is developing its own alternative to InnoDB. Datamation asked Mickos about MySQL’s strategy in this regard:

Q: Since Oracle acquired InnoDB, I understand the support is as good or better and MySQL has the same contract. If that is true, why are you spending the resources to write your own?

Because we want to be in control of our destiny. We can decide the path that [MySQL] is taking, we can put our own innovations in there. There’s more freedom for us to do things.

Tech Quotes

”We want to be in control of our destiny.”

–Marten Mickos

Q: Earlier this year, MySQL AB renewed its contract with InnoDB, correct?

We have the contract for multiple years, but the storage engine’s lifetime is easily 20 years [until expected obsolescence]. Within that time frame we think it’s important for us to have our own.

Q: What about your homegrown alternative to InnoDB?

Falcon will be coming out as an alpha version in the next month.

Q: Does that mean you’ll be moving away from InnoDB in 2007?

No, no, no. We have customers who are very happy with InnoDB who will continue on InnoDB for many, many years. And we will support them fully. We have the skills to do so and we’ll have everything needed.

These storage engines have long life cycles, so you will see InnoDB and the Falcon engine living side by side for many, many years.

For example, we have the Cluster engine, which we introduced three years ago, which has been living side by side with InnoDB for three years now.

Many say as you come out with the Enterprise version, it is not open source software. I have heard there is turmoil and disagreement inside MySQL over this. What is this about?

The new Enterprise version is open source software. But there is a service component to it that is not. It’s called Monitoring and Advisory Services. It’s a service that runs, it checks your database, figures out if you have any weaknesses in it, like a missing password or if you’re running out of hard disk space.

It’s sort of a DBA [database administrator] assistant, so it does some of the DBA tasks that can be automated. It is not under an open source license.

Q: Can they run separately?

Oh sure, the database works very well without it. This is an add-on when you are a paying customer. We sell it as a service.

And, about internal turmoil, we have very strong internal debates all the time. We had it around this, we have it around every decision we make. We have 300 passionate employees who will stand up and debate.

Next page: Free Downloads and Revenue

[Editor’s note: three of these questions were supplied by Gartner analyst Donald Feinberg; specifically: the questions about InnoDB, about whether the new Enterprise release is open source, and about MySQL’s free downloads.]

Q: We hear about millions of free downloads. How does that equate to revenue? How many of the downloads sign up for a service subscription?

We don’t see a direct connection there and we have never stated that there would be one. We think that the downloads are a demonstration of usage and momentum. But we do know that the vast majority will not lead to a paying customer.

mysql, open source database, MySQL CEO Marten Mickos

Marten Mickos, MySQL CEO

We have enormous download numbers, but not all downloads give rise to a new production installation. Many downloads are to upgrade an existing one, many downloads are just for fun. Some people will download it twice because they didn’t remember they did it yesterday.

Q: What percentage of free downloads turn into paying accounts?

I know some of the numbers but I don’t disclose them. But we have roughly one thousand non-paying users for every paying customer. And I happen to know that the ratio is changing favorably. So we see the business side growing ever faster.

Tech Quotes

“Every morning 50,000 people go to work for Oracle, and every morning 50,000 people go to download our software.”

–Marten Mickos

But that was expected. Because when you first launch a technology, you reach the pioneers and the open source people. That’s the first area you cover, and you get millions of people but you don’t get millions of customers.
Now we’re getting much stronger into the enterprise, where customers will pay upfront. They will say, ‘Whatever I do, I’ll pay you because I don’t want to run the risk of being on my own.’

In total, it’s about 50,000 downloads every single day. It’s enormous. Recently it’s gone up and it’s higher.

[He compares that number of downloads to the number of employees at Oracle.] Oracle has 50,000 employees. Every morning 50,000 people go to work for Oracle, and every morning 50,000 people go to download our software. (Laughs) I didn’t pay for them to do that.

Q: How has revenue growth been at MySQL AB? [The privately held company doesn’t disclose revenue, but this report stated the company earned $12 million in 2003.]

It has been very encouraging. We’ve grown over the last five years, on average, about 100 percent per year.

Q: Really, one hundred percent per year?

We started small. But we are the fastest growing database company on the planet.

Next page: MySQL vs. Oracle

Q: I recently interviewed the platform architect for the city of Chicago, and she told me she uses MySQL for lower priority databases, but uses Oracle for mission critical applications. How can MySQL grow in the face of this attitude?

Many say that about Microsoft’s SQL Server as well, yet it makes $3 or $4 billion in annual revenues. What I mean is that this is not a half-empty glass, it is a half-full glass.

mysql, open source database, MySQL CEO Marten Mickos

Marten Mickos, MySQL CEO

We have reached various levels of mission-criticality depending on the sector. In the Web world we are completely mission-critical – just look at Google, Yahoo, YouTube, and others. In the OEM world we are completely mission critical – just look at Nortel, Alcatel, Nokia, etc. [All powered by MySQL.]

In the so-called enterprise market we are coming up from the grassroots. Many apps are mission critical, and many are not. A third of all Oracle users also use MySQL. Sure, Oracle by tradition has the heavy ERP applications. But the big growth is elsewhere – it is in data marts, ETL, Web front-ends, e-commerce and distributed apps – and that’s where we are strong.

So we see an enormous growth opportunity here, evidenced by our sales growth. And we are specifically NOT trying to migrate Oracle apps to us. That’s an uphill battle that we happily leave to others.

So we see it as absolutely great that we are on the radar of the city of Chicago, because we never spent any marketing dollars to get in there.

Our motto is like Wayne Gretzky’s: skate to where the puck is going to be.

Look at when Toyota and the Japanese carmakers entered the U.S. market. People, said, ‘Yeah, I have a second car which is a Japanese car and it’s small one, but it’s not the big one and the main one.’ But today, who is the dominant leader in the car space? It’s Toyota, with Lexus, with big SUVs, with everything – the highest quality, the most affordable prices, and it’s just an amazing business.

Tech Quotes

“Our motto is like Wayne Gretzky’s: skate to where the puck is going to be.”

–Marten Mickos

Q: That would suggest that you do intend to go head to head with Oracle.

I think we will grow into more and more mission critical use and we do it by the day – we see it happening every day. And it’s the innovator’s dilemma here at work. I’m not saying that we’ll make the old guys completely irrelevant, but look at what happened with the main frames, and then came the minis. And the minis took all the new business and the mainframe still remain. And then the PCs came and did the same thing to the minis.

Q: And there are still mainframes.

Yes, and there will be, and it’s good business. So in the same way, Oracle will always have good business somewhere there in the back room, and in something old and classical. But the interesting thing is the new growth.

Next page: Tackling the Enterprise

Q: What about the new Enterprise version MySQL?

It’s our first [enterprise version]. It was launched a month ago. The initial reactions have been very positive. But note here that we launched the Enterprise version with [release] 5.28, which is a new version, but it was not a major new feature release. And the monitoring service that we discussed earlier is as a release candidate so it will come out as GA in about one month.

mysql, open source database, MySQL CEO Marten Mickos

Marten Mickos, MySQL CEO

So the announcement happened a month ago, the product was immediately available, but in typical open source fashion we add new functionality all the time. It’s ‘release early, release often.’ We don’t sit and wait it for it, to make some big bang announcement.

Q; What does MySQL have planned for 2007?

It will be the growth into the modern enterprise. And I say ‘modern’ specifically to show that we are not trying to get the migration deals from Oracle. We’re trying to get the new applications that are being deployed. And that’s the part that is growing much more rapidly than anything else.

And we just won a big deal in Sweden. The Swedish police decided to build all their new applications on Linux, JBoss and MySQL.

Q: What will your main focus be in the years ahead?

We think we are powering the new online world. And we learned this trade in Web 1.0 and Web 2.0, but it stretches into the enterprise today. So it’s online in terms of data marts, it’s online in terms of departmental, data warehousing, and e-commerce. And it’s online in terms of telephony and telecom applications. So that’s our focus very much.

We just see that with one billion people on the Internet today, and companies being more and more Internet-enabled, that’s where the big, big growth will be.

Q: So the new growth will be powering the online world. In your view, is this a different world than the enterprise world?

I think there will be an old part of the enterprise world that refuses to see the new stuff and they will continue to run on mainframes and old Oracle databases. But the new ones are the ones being built now that follow the new scale-out architecture and service-oriented architecture, and they will run on us.

Tech Quotes

“There will be an old part of the enterprise world that refuses to see the new stuff and they will continue to run on mainframes and old Oracle databases.”

–Marten Mickos

Q: What are the challenges for MySQL?

For a growth company it’s important to stay focused and just have your internal things in shape. Just managing growth – to focus the organization, keep it running very fast, and fix the problems quickly. There are always things that go wrong and then you need to fix them quickly.

I don’t want to sound too arrogant or anything, but I think out in the marketplace we’re just enormously popular. We have so many passionate customers who are just loving this.

How many complaints per year do I get elevated to me? I think I’ve had four this year – four customers who’ve had situations they had to raise to my level. And with millions of users I think it’s just amazing how well we’ve been able to serve them.

And keeping up with that takes a lot of internal work. We have a fantastic support team and we need to make sure they have the training and the manpower they need. And all that happens behind the scenes, but that’s what we’ve been spending a lot of time on.

Next page: Open Source Leaders

Q: In terms of challenges, no external challenges? They’re all internal to the company?

Externally, it’s a fantastic new world. Sure we have competitors. They will take all kinds of actions. We already see some serious actions by the establishment when they realize that the whole world is going LAMP.

mysql, open source database, MySQL CEO Marten Mickos

Marten Mickos, MySQL CEO

But, you know, I just see them [the competitors’ actions] as welcome new things, they give more credibility to open source, they give us more attention. Look at Oracle – they’re distributing MySQL from their Web site. (Laughs) I think that’s just wonderful!

Q: Is that a new development?

When they announced that they’re supporting Linux, they put a Linux distro on their Web site for anybody, and it includes MySQL.

Go to the and click on the links to the Linux page and download it, and open the package and you’ll find us there. This is the power of open source, that anybody can distribute our community version. And even those guys do it.

Q: What is their motivation for doing it?

Tech Quotes

“Microsoft has no way of keeping pace with what’s happening here.”

–Marten Mickos

I have no idea. You must ask them. Maybe they didn’t think of it, maybe they didn’t realize that MySQL is included, how do I know? Or maybe they think that MySQL is such a great database that it’s worth distributing. Maybe they needed to distribute a very fast database. (Laughs)

Q: Anything else to add?

I always say that I’m thankful for all the press attention we get, but I think there’s a bigger issue at hand. We have the LAMP stack but the companies around it are more than just L and A and M and P.

For this to make sense to the world and to be useful to six billion people on this planet, there needs to be applications and all kind of services on top of the LAMP stack – and those are now happening and that’s a very interesting thing.

So look at Pentaho, Alfresco, JasperSoft, ActiveGrid, Zimbra, OpenBravo, Zmanda
– those guys are building very innovative new stuff on an open source platform. And they’re growing like crazy.

Everyday I get new e-mails – somebody has built some great new widget or gadget that runs on the LAMP stack. The innovative power of this ecosystem is just enormous. And Microsoft has no way of keeping pace with what’s happening here.

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