Andrew Channels Dexter Pinion

Wherein I write some stuff that you may like to read. Or not, its up to you really.

April 06, 2005

Rather Missing the Point

Most of the people talking about or commenting on the recent Open Source Database opinion piece published by the Register are making a rather brave assumption when they agree that the likes of MySQL and PostgreSQL aren't a danger to companies who charge for their RDBMS software.

They assume that for a software product to succeed in this day and age it needs to be "supported" by a company. The contention is that other commercial organisations won't use software that isn't guaranteed by a legal entity who they can sue if it all goes wrong. Not only is this missing the point of free and open source software (you can fix it yourself) but it also assumes that you actually can sue your software vendors.

Do me a favour and read the license terms that you agreed to when you bought Oracle database licenses (or DB2, or SQL Server). Then try and sue. I'll wait.

See, you can't. The fallacy of commercial software is that whilst the vendor may be responsible for their software you sign away the right to sue them when you buy your licenses.

In this way commercial software isn't any better or worse than open source software. I'm still using Oracle because it's a good product, not because I can sue the pants off Larry Ellison if my data gets corrupted.

It's a bit like assuming software vendor's support organisations purpose in life is to solve customer's problems. That may be a bi-product, but because they are measured by call completion rates they only focus on trying to close calls as quickly as possible.

Posted by Andy Todd at April 06, 2005 12:27 PM


Indeed. It's my experience that the support that you get when using open source is *far* superior to the support you get commercially. Open source authors aren't in any way bound to help you, but because they care, they do anyway.

Posted by: Simon Brunning on April 6, 2005 07:32 PM

Enterprises buy RDBMS license on the strength of support, not legal liability. I'm sure no one would buy an Oracle product if they think that the company was going under and there will be no one around to fix bugs, or provide QFE with enterprise data.

These licenses provide some degree of assurance that the supplier is going to be profitable and around in 5 years time. Remember, the value of the data and applications built on top far exceeds the cost of the database. In contrast, there is not enough profit to assure that there is continuity of developers in a free product.

Although whitebox hardware may be cheap, most open-source developers aren't in a position to test scalability impact of their code, or clusterability. These still remain the domains of the big-boys.

Posted by: Chui Tey on April 7, 2005 11:22 AM

Chui, do you honestly think that most of Oracle's customers would keep paying if Oracle put out a GPL version of thier database?

If you want to garauntee that your database will be around in 5 years, do what Afilias did: hire several developers from the open source project to work on it. This way the only persons whose profitability you have to try and sustain is your own!

Posted by: Robert Treat on April 8, 2005 06:11 AM

Again guys, you are missing the point. Just because you are paying a company for a software license doesn't mean that they will continue to support it for five years - or realistically any period after you have paid for.

Just ask the people running Informix databases today. They are faced with the prospect of migrating to DB2 or, well, migrating to DB2. Which may be the right thing for them but they certainly can't carry on paying for support for their Informix databases.

This is my point, which I don't think I've made very well. It's not that open source is bad, or that closed licenses are bad (or vice versa) but that paying a commercial entity for support of software you use is somehow a guarantee of it's suitability for your organisation or it's longevity.

People may have valid criticisms of the GPL and other open source licenses but if you've got the source code for the software you are using you always have the *possibility* of using and extending it for as long as you like. Which is a good thing.

Posted by: Andy Todd on April 8, 2005 11:40 PM

Robert, the customers I have in mind are the 20,000-seat Government licensees whose IT managers job security depend on having Mr Joe Citizen's data about his home ownership being safe, and retrievable. Even if Oracle GPLs their product, it would not stop these shops from paying support.

Andy, I wasn't referring to the license money. I was referring to annual support fees. Since the software industry is rather mature, companies have to rely more on support fees rather than new licensees.

In addition, possibility does not necessarily equate with probability. If all existing linux kernel enthusiasts were to be wiped out, there is a possibility someone will be able to pick up the pieces, but how probable it is they will be able to fix code in-time and within-budget is another matter.

I'm reminded of the passing of the great ship building skills when the big shipyards in Europe were closed. Even if the blueprints were available, the detailed knowledge in how to put a boat together is lost. Forever.

Posted by: Chui Tey on April 11, 2005 10:47 PM