Growing interest in open source has permeated through every strand of the enterprise. It is now touching database deployment as well. While the major proprietary software vendors still claim the bulk of the enterprise market, organisations are beginning to dip their toes into the open source world to see if it could meet their needs.

Why would an organisation go down this route? Is it purely about cost? Roger Burkhardt, CEO of open source database vendor Ingres, thinks that cost constitutes a major part of the decision making process. "The open source model is a more compelling economic model. The capital costs are lower and the customer is not locked in to a proprietary system."
Price hikes applied by proprietary vendors have provided much free marketing for open source databases, Burkhardt points out. Last July for instance, Oracle raised the prices of some important components of its database management suite by more than 40 per cent, prompting a doubling in the number of sales inquiries that Ingres received.

Oracle has a commanding lead in the database market, claiming 44 per cent of all database revenues, according to research firm IDC. IBM's DB2 comes in second at 21 per cent, followed by Microsoft's SQL Server with a 19 per cent market share. Because market shares are typically calculated by license revenue, adoption of open source databases is poorly represented in market research studies.

In a study published earlier this year, Forrester Research ranked Ingres and MySQL as the top open source database options for enterprises. The research firm cautioned however that these suites are only suited for small to medium-size enterprises.

Oracle will take over MySQL as part of the acquisition of Sun Microsystems. The company also offers several other open source databases such as Berkeley DB and InnoDB, a transactional storage engine which is used in MySQL.

While there seems to be a compelling economic reason to move away from closed source software vendors, that's not the full story, argues Bernie Spang, Director of Marketing for IBM's data management software. "Overall, IBM is more innovative than the likes of MySQL and Ingres, and that innovation is powered by the revenue we earn from DB2 sales."

"IBM has been making some unique innovations in XML that will helpDB2 9.7 customers in areas such as data warehousing, or any customers working in text-heavy industries," says Spang.

Burkhardt counters out open source vendors are also capable of innovation, highlighting the work that Ingres has done with Intel on Vector Wise to improve performance on Intel chips.

This should not be seen as an ideological battle. Some of the proponents of each camp - particularly on the open source side - tend to see this as some kind of struggle, but that's not always the case.

IBM's Spang can see many advantages to open source. "Open source databases have actually done a great service [to the industry]. They've opened up the usage of database software to a greater set of users, for example hobbyists and small businesses. We've got a growing set of developers who use open source databases until they become more proficient. We're looking to appeal to those people with our own free product, DB2 Express C. This is real DB2 software, available for people to build real applications."

While Spang looks for people to start out on open source before moving to proprietary software, Ingres' Burkhardt thinks it should be the other way around. The threshold in migrating from one database product to another has been overstated, he says. "If you're an experienced database administrator, it's just a four-day class to learn a new system. You simply have to learn the different names for commands. It's really not such a big deal. Sybase and SQL Server are based on early versions of Ingres, so migration from those two is straightforward."

For Burkhardt, pressure from various governments will drive open source acceptance, although many governments have been handling open source differently from one another. "Some governments have been proactive. There's at least 650 million euro worth of [government] contracts moving to open source this year."

There is still some way to go as some governments are dragging their feet, notes Burkhardt. But he believes that the need to cut spending in the public sector will eventually lead to greater acceptance of open source within larger public organisations, which in turn will translate into increased acceptance in the private sector.

Regardless, it is clear that both open source and proprietary databases have their advantages and disadvantages, and there is plenty of room for both in the enterprise world.