Freedom express

Free is the new buzz word of the database world - and it's not just in the open source space. Proprietary stalwarts IBM and Oracle have now followed Microsoft - the third member of the Big Three - into the free database world.

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By  Colin Edwards Published  March 12, 2006

|~|train200.jpg|~||~|Despite their dominance of the database world, the Big Three - IBM, Microsoft and Oracle - are getting worried about the potential threat from open source databases, at least at the entry level.

To a man, the Big Three dismiss the open source challenge as being a non-runner in terms of the high end market, citing manageability and functionality shortcomings. But the fact is, high end is not where the majority of open source users are currently.

It is the lower end user that is welcoming free open source solutions with open arms. And that's what's worrying the Big Three. Minnows have a habit of becoming bigger fish and the last thing the incumbent vendors want is a new generation of corporates growing up with all their database applications hosted on ever-improving open source systems rather than their proprietary offerings. So, free databases are the means to lure emerging enterprises.

Mohamed Al Ojaimi, technology marketing manager, Oracle MEA, is quite open about the strategy. "Basically the enterprise database vendors are trying to give users the advantage of using, for example, an Oracle database (Oracle Database 10g Express Edition) free of charge, so that when they grow in the future, they don't need to migrate. They don't need the hassle of migrating and converting their database and applications to an enterprise-based solution," he says.

Microsoft Middle East's newly appointed server and tools, business group manager, Desmond Nair, denies the Redmond giant has any ulterior motives in offering a free version of its Windows SQL Server. The company has done so for many years, initially with its Microsoft Data Engine (MSDE) and now with SQL Server 2005 Express, which now has functionality and usage terms that make it very attractive to users of all sizes.

"No, we're not offering a free database purely because it allows us to get into a customer at an early stage. If anything, we're expanding our SQL Server product range to cater for multiple uses of the database in a customer environment. SQL Server Express offers a level of technology, which customers will adopt because of requirement rather than being forced to. What we do offer though, is a very smooth migration to go up to the SQL World group, which is a brand new edition of the main product, which we offer with SQL Standard," he says.

Then there's IBM, also now with a free version of DB2, which is also dubbed Express. "We now have a free database offering specifically tailored for the SMB," says Bashar Kilani, manager, software business, IBM Middle East.

But despite all these 'for free' moves by the Big Three, the open source MySQL database is building up momentum, according to analysts. While it might not be treated seriously by the mainstream players, it certainly takes itself seriously and has its eyes set beyond its current small user and largely internet deployments. ||**|||~|kilani1200.jpg|~|Kilani: Unstructured data is becoming a huge challenge.|~|MySQL continues to upgrade its offering and over the past six months has added several important features for enterprise use, including triggers, views and stored procedures. It makes no bones about its ambitions to get a much bigger share of the enterprise market.

"MySQL is trying to get awareness at the enterprise level, however when you look at what's being offered to the enterprise, you are talking about charges of almost US$5,000. When enterprise customers start paying money, they make a decision based on what the market share looks like and what the benchmarks look like," says Nair.

"Although we are seeing customers evaluating all options, MySQL has yet to achieve TPC benchmarks and in terms of market share today SQL Server, for example, is now used by more than 50% of SAP customers worldwide, so Microsoft is pretty entrenched in the enterprise," he adds.

Ojaimi says there is little indication of a big take-up of MySQL in the Middle East. "In our region, I have not seen much evidence of open source databases to be honest. In our region, the use of MySQL appears to be very limited. Worldwide, it is different.

"The problem with MySQL is that it's a very simple database in terms of functionality. It doesn't offer much for what even simple applications would require. It needs someone who understands the product and understands the different offerings and their limitations. In this region, ISVs are not taking it up yet. They would rather go for something simple, easy. They want to keep their applications very simple and rely on the backend database to do most of the work," he adds.

Apart from the open source threat, the Big Three are also protecting and looking to grow their customer base via their free offerings. Oracle leads or shares the relational database market with its main rival, IBM, depending on which analyst report you read. But Microsoft's SQL Server is gaining ground and, as it moves further into the larger enterprise, poses a threat to Oracle and IBM.

So, today, you have Microsoft offering SQL Server Express free to anyone who wants it. Of course, there are strings attached. SQL Express, like competitive free offerings, is a scaled down, but fully functional and scalable version of SQL Server 2005. It is limited to single-processor machines with up to 1Gb of memory. Database size is about 4Gb.

Oracle followed suit towards the end of last year with the introduction of Oracle Database 10g Express Edition to target developers and shore up business at the low end of the corporate database market, especially the 32-bit Windows and Linux systems. Not that it has much to worry about in the Linux market as analysts say more than 80% of Linux sites currently run Oracle databases.

Like Microsoft's SQL Express, Oracle's 10G Express is really a starter database for development and deployment purposes. It is also limited to use with 4GB of data and 1GB of RAM and can be used on only one processor per server.

It was no coincidence that Oracle released Express 10G about the same time as Microsoft rolled out its long-awaited SQL Server 2005 that now includes functionality aimed at making the database a better fit in demanding enterprise environments such as improved administration and monitoring tools to address management needs. Database mirroring, fail-over clustering, and online maintenance features also now make the whole offering attractive to the larger enterprise.||**|||~|alojaimi200.jpg|~|Al Ojaimi: Users don't need the hassle of migrating databases.|~|Even SQL Express now comes with more sophisticated functionality previously found only on higher versions, says Nair. These include reporting services, full merge and transaction-based replication and management tools. These extra functions are driving greater interest in the market, even in environments with less than 15 users - the usage limit with the former MSDE offering, he says.

With all these freebies going around in the name of thwarting competition and incubating future business, it wasn't going to be long before Big Blue came to the picnic. IBM decided to join Microsoft and Oracle on the freedom express early this year with the launch of a cut-down, free version of its large, mainstream database DB2. Not to be left out it also called it Express - DB2 Universal Database Express-C, or DB2 Express-C for short.

Where DB2 Express-C might have the edge in the freebie stakes is that it can be used with two processor cores, compared to its competitors' single processor limitation. In fact, it will also work with two, dual-core processors. Kilani says he expects interest among the local development community to pick up following the release of DB2 Express and other initiatives such as the company's greater involvement with ISVs.
"We have become more active in the regional development community than we have been in the past. Probably, in this part of the world, we should have done more earlier, but recently we have been working with a number of ISVs and I expect this to grow," he says.

Like Oracle's 10G Express, DB2 Express is a free database for development work that can scale to be among the biggest applications around. IBM says more structured data is stored on DB2 environments than in any other database engine.

IBM is talking about the next version of DB2 Express-C incorporating a new hybrid data server for managing both relational and XML data. "Managing unstructured data is going to become a huge challenge ahead. As far as databases are concerned it is no longer OLTP transactions that we are looking at. Analysts are saying that the kind of data we are looking at today is becoming more complicated and a lot of it is unstructured," he adds.
Although the open source threat is behind the free database movement, both IBM and Oracle are quick to point out that they embrace the open source community.

In September last year, IBM donated its entire CloudScape relational database development to the Apache foundation, which has included it in its Nero Java-based offerings. Kilani says it is being used extensively for small web sites, point of sale systems, and small application development and as the main database engine among SMBs. It is also shipped with some IBM products especially those in the IBM workplace.

Oracle is also active in the open source environment. Last month it acquired open-source database vendor Sleepycat Software enabling the database giant to add Berkeley DB to its embedded database product line, which includes Oracle Lite for mobile devices and Oracle TimesTen for high performance in-memory database applications.

Berkeley DB is embedded in several open-source products such as Linux and BSD Unix, Apache Web server, OpenLDAP directory and OpenOffice productivity suite.

It is estimated that there are between 200 million to 250 million deployments of Sleepycat and it is considered the most widely used open source database in the world today.||**||

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