Golden's Rules: Examining the growth of MySQL

Columnist Bernard Golden explains why he thinks MySQL is a trendsetter and a threat to the longstanding business models of its competition.

Bernard Golden

From my perspective, MySQL AB has come of age and is now reaping the rewards of pioneering and making a commitment to enterprise-level open source.

The MySQL User's Conference last week gave ample proof that MySQL is a trendsetter and should continue to be one. Over 1,300 people attended the conference -- up more than 100% from last year. There were many more sessions than last year. More companies were represented in the exhibit hall. Clearly, MySQL is benefiting from the spread of open source.

Beyond the sheer numbers, I was struck by several aspects of the conference that were, so to speak, under the radar. They were not overtly presented as conference material, but their presence indicated what the growth of open source implies. In this column, I'll point out some indicators that MySQL has come of age.

Trend #1: MySQL's growth is a threat to Incumbent business models.

According to MySQL CEO Marten, six million copies of MySQL are in use, 60,000 people contribute to it (bug reports, patches, etc.), and MySQL AB has 6,000 customers.

In other words, MySQL derives revenue from only 1 in 1,000 users of open source MySQL. Mickos said that almost all of MySQL AB's revenue comes from services, such as consulting, training, and support. The company gets very little revenue through license sales, which traditionally represent the vast majority of software company income.

MySQL represents the future of the software industry: much lower margins and a company sized to live on those margins.

As open source upstarts eat into incumbent vendor market share, incumbent margins will come down as well. That hissing sound you hear is revenue margin leaking out of the software industry. To paraphrase Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's oft-repeated warning, "Welcome to the future. Get used to it."

Trend #2: The product has matured.

MySQL got its start as a super-fast database used to power data-driven Web sites. It is an ideal tool for that purpose, in that most Web sites focus on query response time and do not store massive amounts of data.

Because of its beginnings, MySQL was dismissed by the incumbent database providers as a special purpose tool -- fine for Web sites, but not capable of driving transactions as part of a company's mission-critical infrastructure. In other words, the major database vendors said: "Mr. Customer, when you're ready for the major leagues, come and see us."

Well, the old-school database vendors can step aside: MySQL has gotten its call up to the majors.

To back up that statement, I'll note conference sessions focused on organizations using MySQL for important business applications. For example,

Ticketmaster described how they use MySQL to sell over 98 million tickets last year (Ticketmaster, incidentally, replaced both MS SQLServer and Oracle as part of their MySQL deployment).

Several other sessions focused on using MySQL in a clustered environment. Clusters are, of course, critical for industrial-strength transaction processing.

Beyond the ability to handle transactions, MySQL plays in the big leagues when it comes to database size. Because of its fast query response times, MySQL is a natural for data warehousing. Sabre Holdings was back for a second year describing its flight analysis data warehouse. A year ago, it data warehouse was around 1 Tb; today it has tripled in size.

What this trend in data growth indicates is that MySQL is moving beyond its original niche in data-driven websites and is beginning to displace incumbent vendors in mainstream IT shops.

Trend #3: Open Source is enabling new business models.

A whole new class of businesses are growing up today, delivering their services over the Internet and internally powered by open source, said Tim O'Reilly, founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, during the conference.

Companies like Amazon, Yahoo!, eBay, and the like use open source as a key part of their infrastructure, O'Reilly noted. These companies use information to differentiate themselves and open source techniques to make their business more valuable.

As an example, Amazon enables readers to post reviews of books. When trying to decide whether to buy a book, you can look to see what others have to say about it. This makes your decision more richly informed than it would be if you were considering the book in its traditional setting: a physical bookstore.

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Consequently, Amazon offers more than just books, it enables a community of participants to help one another make better decisions about what to read.

In my opinion, O'Reilly did not emphasize nearly enough the key role open source plays in these new business models. Let me explain: All of these companies deliver value to a user through and because they have a large user community. They are all based on Metcalf's Law: The value of a network grows exponentially as new participants join.

For example, I have a friend who collects Civil War memorabilia. For him, eBay is a fantastic resource. It is only because there are millions of eBay users that a critical mass of Civil War memorabilia enthusiasts can find a home there. If eBay only had a few thousand users, there wouldn't be enough of his type of seller for eBay to be useful to him.

In other words, these new businesses need scale. That's where open source comes in. If these businesses used commercial software, they could never have afforded to build the infrastructure necessary to support large user communities. Without open source, these businesses could never exist. They only make sense in a world of cheap hardware, cheap bandwidth, and cheap software.

We will see more of these new evolutions of business as open source penetrates further into mainstream IT. It should be interesting.

Golden's Rule: You can learn a lot at open source conferences. Just be sure to eat before you go, because these folks run lean and mean.

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