Why MySQL’s Exec Exits May Not Burn Sun

Last week was sure an interesting one for MySQL.

First, we learned that found Monty Widenius was leaving Sun. A day later, the other shoe dropped as former CEO Marten Mickos decided he’d had enough fun in the Sun, too.

With $1 billion dollars of Sun’s money invested in MySQL, is this a cause for concern? Is Sun at risk of watching its investment disappear?


Sun’s MySQL division is, in my opinion, not necessarily worse off as a result of these two departures. MySQL is much larger than just two men regardless of what their titles are, or were.

Certainly, Widenius as the founder holds a special place in the MySQL development world, right?

Again, not necessarily. For the last year at least, Widenius has been preoccupied with the Maria engine, which is a plug-in for the main MySQL database. With his exit from Sun, he has pledged to continue to work on Maria, which makes very good sense. His work will not only be uninterrupted by Sun, it could potentially blossom — more so than it could have at Sun, where Maria development might have been restricted.

There are other transactional database engines for MySQL, notably the InnoDB engine, which has been owned by Oracle (yes, that Oracle) since 2005. MySQL has been working on its own new transactional database engine called Falcon since at least 2006. No, Widenius does not lead the Falcon effort — instead it is being spearheaded by Jim Starkey, whose firm Netfrastructure was acquired by MySQL in February 2006. One could potentially argue that Starkey’s Falcon efforts are equally, if not more, important to the future of the MySQL database than the recent efforts that Widenius has been engaged in.

Widenius was also not particularly happy about the recent MySQL 5.1 release, yet he wasn’t able to prevent it. You see, the simple fact is that Widenius hadn’t been the main project lead for MySQL. Though his opinion matters a great deal, others within the Sun infrastructure manage MySQL development. As a result, the departure of Widenius does not have a direct immediate impact on the ongoing development of the main MySQL database.

As for Marten Mickos, the former CEO of MySQL, his departure is also not entirely unexpected — nor is it necessarily detrimental to the future of the MySQL database. Yes, Mickos was the business leader of MySQL, but in a bigger company like Sun with many seasoned executives, Mickos wasn’t going to get the same control he had when MySQL was just a startup.

From a leadership point of view, though, Sun’s own CEO, Jonathan Schwartz, has a clear vision of what open source is all about, and I have little doubt that he can pitch and monetize MySQL as well if not better than Mickos.

For an open source CEO to leave after being acquired by a bigger company is also not entirely unheard of. Linux vendor Red Hat bought open source Java middleware vendor JBoss in 2006 for $350 million. Barely a year later in 2007, JBoss founder Marc Fleury left JBoss. Did Fleury’s departure in some way diminish Red Hat’s purchase of JBoss? Two years, later the answer is a definitive no, with Red Hat growing the business and revenues.

There is a certain mystique in the technology world around company founders and technology creators. Everyone knows of individuals like Steve Jobs, who founded Apple (and who returned after being forced out and who, until he recently took a medical leave of absence, has run the company ever since). The open source space has Linux creator Linus Torvalds, who, ten years on, is still the leader of the Linux kernel development effort. Jobs and Torvalds aren’t necessarily the norm, though.

Things change when companies get acquired, though the cult of the founder can still persist. Only time will tell whether Sun will be stronger without Widenius and Mickos than it had been with them.

One thing is for sure, though: MySQL is widely deployed and continues to develop thanks to the efforts of both those at Sun as well as the wider open source community that MySQL has so ably served for so long.

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