RealTime IT News

Q&A: MySQL CEO Marten Mickos

The database market has been quiet of late, with the exception of a few announcements here and there. But while Big Blue, Oracle and Microsoft are all busy ramping up the next versions of their market-leading 9i, SQL Server and DB2 products, respectively, some companies are working on their own platforms businesses can use to maintain and manage their data.

A young company is making some waves in the industry for its open-source approach to database technology: MySQL. The Sweden-based company has been both welcomed by analysts as the purveyor of a "disruptive technology" in a segment driven by licensed revenues, and has received a shoulder shrug by commercial vendors for its lack of complex feature functionality and scalability.

But there are indications the privately-held firm's stock is rising, at least in the figurative way, as Benchmark Capital has recently led a $19.5 million round of funding for MySQL, quite a boost in a time when investments are scant. The company also recently inked an intriguing deal to take over the development of ERP leader SAP's open-source database, SAP DB. It boasts more feature functionality than MySQL's database.

MySQL, which gained the commercial rights to SAP DB, will then marry SAP DB's code with its own product, paving the way for a more functional, next-generation database. That, MySQL hopes, will bring in more customers and users: as of today, the firm can lay claim to 4 million MySQL installations worldwide and 30,000 downloads per day.

MySQL CEO Marten Mickos is at the helm, leading his Sweden-based company through the harsh climes of the current economic terrain. A former high-tech entrepreneur, Mickos formed his first company, Polycon, in 1987. He has worked with project management software, database software, telecommunications software, and real-time mobile sports entertainment. The executive recently took time to discuss his company and the database market with internetnews.com.

How did you come to take the helm at MySQL?

I met Monty Widenius (MySQL CTO and co-founder) in 1981 when we both enrolled at Helsinki University of Technology, Dept. of Technical Physics. I've known David Axmark (MySQL's co-founder) since the same time. Since those days, we became good friends and played some poker together. Around the end of 2000, Monty and David called to tell me that their little project was literally exploding in their hands and they needed a CEO to run the growing business. When I realized what a fantastic thing they had built, I joined the crusade and became CEO. We brought in some external capital, professional directors and hired a management team.

Q: What is MySQL's value proposition?

We provide database management software that has superior performance, high reliability, and a high level of ease of use at very affordable prices.

Q: Oracle, Microsoft and IBM all have similar licensing models, ranging in prices of $1,000 to roughly $40,000 per processor or server for their database offerings -- standard editions for smaller businesses and enterprise-class editions for large businesses. What is MySQL's business model?

We are what we call a "second-wave, open-source" company, meaning we have a functioning business model that is in harmony with our free software principles. Our dual licensing allows us to offer our software free of charge under the GNU General Public License (GPL) while at the same time selling the same product under a regular commercial license. We can do this because we own our software and have the freedom to license it any way we wish. Commercial licenses account for nearly two-thirds of our revenues. The rest is support and services. Our operations are profitable. Our commercial license has a highly attractive licensing policy: we charge a flat fee of $440 per server and you can have as many users and as many CPUs as you want. Put this in context of the pricing of other database management systems and you can understand why we sell so much. This is all in line with our mission "to make superior database technology available and affordable to all."

Q: While commercial vendors such as Oracle and IBM have said they do not fear open-source database groups such as MySQL, PostGreSQL, or Firebird, analysts say there is a definite opportunity for such models in the small- and medium-business SMB) space because those firms won't likely be able to, or want to shell out the cash for more expensive systems? What do you think about that?

I would say we are an excellent complement to, say, Oracle. Oracle focuses on the that part of the market in which people are ready to pay for all the latest features and all the options and add-ons. We focus on the commoditized part of the market - the one in which performance, reliability, convenience and price are the determining factors. So it is more an issue of how large the commodity database space is, and how large the other part of the market is. I guess we can say that we are the leading commodity database. IBM, Oracle and Microsoft compete against each other in the other part of the market.

Q: Solve this argument: commercial vendors argue that open-source databases can't compete on security, scalability, or number of additional features, but analysts say that many of the features in commercial databases go largely unused, or more extremely, customers don't even know they exist within the software they buy. Do you agree? Disagree? What do you think of that?

I would argue that open-source software (of any category) generally stands out as [better performing], more secure and more convenient. Legacy software generally stands out as having more features. So in terms of the sheer number of features, the "commercial vendors" are probably right. But so are the analysts. Legacy database management systems have more features, but the market may not always need them. We have chosen specifically NOT to compete on features, but to fulfill the real needs of the commodity database space. We are doing very well in that segment, and our customers love us.

Q: At a partner event in April, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison discussed how Linux could make Microsoft "irrelevant." When an analyst asked him if he feared similar consequences from open-source databases, he said "no" because, among other reasons, security of a database is so important that he didn't believe open-source firms could create one as secure and as trusted as Oracle 9i -- at least not in the near future. What do you think about that?

I cannot comment on other people's statements or how they arrived at their conclusion. What I know is that MySQL is used in thousands of highly mission-critical heavy-load applications without missing a beat. But we are not in the business of making other offerings "irrelevant". We are in the business of serving our customers' true needs.

Q: What ways are you differentiating yourself from commercial vendors? What challenges do you face in the market to gain more customers?

I don't think any other DBMS vendor is specifically focused on the commodity DBMS market, so therefore I don't see a vendor we need to specifically differentiate from. As a result of our customer focus, there are naturally a number of ways in which we differ from other vendors. First, we have a product development machinery (the open source model) unlike any other in the DBMS industry. Second, we have a licensing model (dual licensing) unlike any other player. Third, we distribute our products in a completely new fashion - through tens of millions of downloads and companion distributions. Fourth, by cleverly using the Internet, we are able to be near our customers and serve them around the clock with highly sophisticated services. All of this we do at an affordable price, so that our customers make fantastic savings.

Q: IDC analyst Carl Olofson recently posited two schools of thought on what the future of software will be like: "Will we still have the Fortune 1000 with large data centers and in-house IT staffs, and myriad medium and small businesses with limited, locally managed computers? Or, will the lower end of the market migrate to outsourcing services and integrated self-managing ("autonomic") computer systems, causing database technology to become, for them, integrated components of suites of computing services where the details are left up to professional computing service providers (online or packaged software)?" What impact will all that have on database vendors, large and small?" What do you think about this and what does what is MySQL working on to meet the evolution of the database market?

I believe that databases will grow significantly in number. Perhaps we think we have covered all database needs in the world with a DBMS today, but I don't believe so. Companies, individuals, and therefore also devices, will increasingly want to track all kinds of new information in an intelligent manner, so they will want to store more and more information in structured databases. To serve this need, there needs to be DBMS software that can be deployed instantly in huge volumes. Some of those databases will be huge in size or traffic, so they will need to reside on heavy hardware. But "heavy hardware" can be either a single big iron, or a high number of dumb appliances. Open source databases are excellent for deployment in high numbers, so that is clearly a focal point for us. But we also believe we can "componentize" the database so that you can assemble a huge database from a number of interlinked computers. We are figuring out how to best enable this type of building block-based database operation. There are a number of ways in which this can be solved, and some solutions are already being developed in the market.

For a more analysis of the open-source database landscape, please refer to last week's feature report.