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MySQL: A threat to bigwigs?

Open-source database has dazzling opportunities ahead

By David Kirkpatrick
FORTUNE.COM


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(FORTUNE.COM) -- Talking last week with Marten Mickos, CEO of MySQL, took me back to the golden days of 1999. Here was a fresh-faced, unbelievably enthusiastic CEO, raving about the future prospects of his product, just like so many executives I met back in those unreal times. But Mickos has a very real opportunity. The open-source movement has become a major factor across the software industry, and MySQL is the world's most popular open-source database.

In contrast to typical commercial software, open-source products have their underlying programming code available for all to see and modify. The products are also free or close to it, which, needless to say, helps them grow rapidly if they're good. MySQL is used in four million installations around the world, Mickos estimates. The product gets downloaded for free off the company's site about 30,000 times a day. And here's what Sun CEO Scott McNealy said in a February interview with Computerworld: "If you want to save...money, make the default database MySQL. It's free, it's bundled [with Sun's Solaris software], you've got the whole open-source community working on making it better. If Yahoo and Google can run their entire operations on MySQL, then certainly there's a huge chunk of your operations that could run on it as well."

McNealy slightly exaggerated the Yahoo and Google stuff, but both companies do use MySQL extensively. I e-mailed so-called "Technical Yahoo" Jeremy Zawodny, who replied: "We use it all over the place-for batch feed processing in Yahoo Classifieds and Yahoo Finance, to serve live content in Yahoo Sports, Yahoo News and Yahoo Finance, and even in some billing systems. Our usage continues to grow."

And the product has impressive capabilities. It is mostly used to run sites, including Alwayson-Network.com, Slashdot.org, parts of Sony Pictures, and many more. In addition, it's built into products from many technology companies. Aside from Solaris, it goes into the server version of Mac OS X and most commercial versions of Linux. Cisco puts it into intrusion detection devices.

MySQL employs a so-called dual licensing model. Anybody can download the product for free and use it for whatever they want, but in so doing they become ethically obliged to share any modifications with the company. However, there's a second option. Pay for the product and you can do anything you want with it. "We're not a charity," says Mickos. "Even when we give it away free we always get a benefit out of it. We have the world's largest quality assurance facility."

This database costs only $395 for every server on which it is installed, quite a contrast to the $20,000 you might pay for Oracle. The product also runs on cheaper hardware and typically is cheaper to maintain. MySQL had $5 million in revenues last year, a figure that should double in 2003, says Mickos. Privately funded, with ABN Amro lead investor, the Swedish company just turned profitable.

MySQL lacks many features big companies want for using it with applications that are central to their business, like manufacturing or finance software from companies like SAP. But it is getting inexorably better thanks to all those helpers bequeathed by its business model. Says open-source expert Stacey Quandt at the Giga Information Group: "As the feature/functionality gap continues to narrow, MySQL will eventually take market share away from Oracle, [IBM's] DB2, and Microsoft SQL Server at the high end." Charlie Garry at Meta Group says open-source software is now supplanting costlier proprietary software for well-defined, commoditized tasks. He predicts that the established vendors will fight back with free, stripped-down versions of their own products, but he has no doubt about MySQL's prospects: "MySQL will penetrate the enterprise similarly to the way SQL Server did, but with much greater speed." Yahoo's Zawodny makes a different analogy: "MySQL is to Oracle as Linux is to Windows. It will slowly but steadily creep up the food chain, just like Linux has."

Mickos is already seeing real headway. "I estimate we command 20 percent of the worldwide installed base of databases," he says , "but of revenues we only command only .02 percent. So there's a factor of 1,000." He laughs. "And we are making money. People ask me 'What's wrong-why are you leaving money on the table?' We say 'You should ask the other database companies what is wrong with their cost structure." His confidence may be 1999, but his pragmatism and customer-centric approach are very 2003.


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