By Russell J.T. Dyer
Linux was first started to fill a simple need by a young man at a university in Finland. In a short period of time, a bunch of people joined in and helped him to develop Linux into something spectacular, a dependable operating system now used by some of the biggest corporations in the world. This story has been repeated for a variety of open-source software which are community driven and usually developed by volunteers and are free to use.
Some open-source software, though, has either been started by standard businesses or has in part been corralled by commercial enterprise). For an example of the former, other companies like MySQL AB (owners of the database system of the same name) have created software with the intention of controlling its development, while still grounding it in the community. For an example of the latter, Red Hat has harnessed Linux in part by providing an easy-to-install distribution and related software. For both of these business models, though, seizing revenues in large amounts has been difficult compared to closed-source counter-parts like Microsoft. To prosper financially, open source businesses have had to offer ancillary services for which they can collect revenues. Simple enough in a normal corporate business, but it requires keen salesmanship to convince business managers that they should use open-source software to save money (among other reasons) and then convince them to pay for related services.
They've been developing the MySQL database system for ten years now. It now rivals huge competitors such as Oracle on speed and stability. Where they differ is on price. Oracle takes in huge amounts of revenues from the sale of their software. Conversely, MySQL offers their software either for free or for only a few hundred dollars depending on the user's needs. There haven't been many instances of the six million installations of MySQL in which purchasing a license has been required. So, MySQL AB also offers support, consulting, and outright database design services for a fee. Since there's nothing like hiring the people who make the software, it does gives them an edge. Unfortunately, it hasn't put them on the Fortune 500 list. A little here and a little there can add up, but it's not the big money that you'd expect from a software company that boasts of 35,000 downloads of their product a day.
To be able to recognize some serious revenue, though, these companies have to have even more specialized business savvy. To that end, MySQL has recently introduced a package called MySQL Network - much like Red Hat Network. It includes access to support around the clock, access to their new subscriber-only knowledge base, notices e-mailed to subscribers or their cell-phones to alert them of any security vulnerabilities found, and notices for new updates and patches as they come available. These features are excellent for an administrator of a large system to stay on top of her job and to resolve problems quickly and sometimes before they can happen. MySQL Network also includes access to an FTP site for certified binaries and upgrades for MySQL software, and warranty and indemnification for the software. Red Hat and Novell offer similar packages related to Linux. Planned for release later this year, MySQL Network will also include software you can install on your server to regularly analyze your system and settings and to make suggestions on changes. This is similar to Novell Ximian's Red Carpet; however, the suggestions will include not only recommended software upgrades and patches, but also recommended changes for security and performance, based on your server's particular needs and usage—A very neat service.
Some purists may dislike the growth of open-source companies like MySQL over Posgresql, Red Hat over Debian, and so forth. However, those strictly community driven choices will always be available. And, the good news is that by carving out some revenues for themselves through professional services, companies like MySQL and Red Hat will survive, giving users and businesses affordable alternatives that meet their individual and enterprise requirements.
For more information on the trends happening with open source companies, read our interview with the Zack Urlocker, MySQL AB's Vice President of Marketing.
Russell Dyer is a Perl programmer and a MySQL developer living and working in New Orleans. He is the author of MySQL in a Nutshell (O'Reilly 2005). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.