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Martin LaMonica

Staff Writer, CNET

Will the software industry’s wave of open-source databases spill onto Microsoft’s turf?

Perhaps. The software giant is considering making the source code for its SQL Server database available to customers, according to Tom Rizzo, director of product management in Microsoft’s SQL Server unit.

In an interview with CNET, Rizzo said that the company is thinking about including the forthcoming SQL Server 2005 in Microsoft’s shared-source program for disclosing product source code to customers.

“It’s not finalized. It’s not anything there, but if a lot of customers demand it, we’ll definitely look at doing shared source with SQL Server,” Rizzo said.

Stephen O’Grady, an analyst at RedMonk, said Microsoft would do well to tap into some of the advantages of the open-source development model.

“There is an opportunity to realize a lot of the benefits around the community in terms of security, transparency and openness and just demonstrate that they’re not a natural enemy to open source,” O’Grady said.

Exposing the source code of a product generally leads to more scrutiny of that product, which will help customers spot security lapses and other hard-to-find faults, according to open-source proponents.

Indeed, the main motivation around sharing the source code of SQL Server would be mainly to assure customers of the security in the product, Rizzo said.

Tom Rizzo
SQL Server unit,

Microsoft already has a free database, Microsoft Database Engine (MSDE), and plans to release a revamped free database called SQL Server 2005 Express sometime this summer. Open-source databases are generally available for free download; vendors often charge service fees for ongoing support and updates for commercial customers.

“Not a lot of people touch the code. They just want the good warm feeling that there are no back doors, no security violations,” Rizzo said.

He added that with SQL Server 2005, Microsoft has boosted security by complying with an international software benchmark called the common criteria certification, often used by governments. The database development team also has changed its processes to conform with Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing plan, which includes having Microsoft employees attempt to hack the database server.

More code to see
The practice of disclosing the source code of commercial products is becoming increasingly common.

By viewing the code, customers can make customizations, and third-party developers can more easily create add-on products, according to open-source proponents. Having a free product is also a good way to distribute software widely.

Microsoft, in fact, continues to look for areas in which making source code available is valuable, Jason Matusow, the director of Microsoft’s shared-source program, said earlier this month. Last year, the company released the code to at least three products under its shared-source program.

Jason Matusow

Others may be joining the roster: In a recent blog posting, a product development manager for Microsoft’s Windows Forms development floated the idea of making the code for the Windows Forms tool, which is for building graphical user interfaces, available to developers.

The database market, in particular, has seen a rush of activity around open-source development in the past year.

Computer Associates International created an open-source project based on its Ingres r3 database. IBM started the Derby project at Apache around its Cloudscape embedded Java database. And Sybase made a Linux version of its database available for free with limitations on usage.

Open-source database company MySQL saw its revenue double last year to $20 million, and another well-established open-source database, PostgreSQL, last month got backing from Pervasive Software, a commercial database service provider.

The cost factor
The amount of open-source activity in the database world is an indicator of how important cost is becoming in database purchasing, said Noel Yuhanna, an analyst at Forrester Research.

The leading commercial providers–Oracle, IBM and Microsoft–will continue to compete with high-end features to win over larger customers. But at small and medium-size businesses, cheaper and simpler databases meet the needs of many applications, Yuhanna said.

Giving in to the open-source wave

The database market has seen a rush of activity around open-source development in the past year. Here are some of the notable proprietary players:

Computer Associates
Created an open-source project around its Ingres r3 database last year.

Started the Derby project at the Apache Software Foundation around Cloudscape, its embedded Java database.

Made a Linux version of its database available for free with limitations on usage.

Oracle and IBM were not immediately available to comment.

At a panel on open-source databases at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo last week, panelists from open-source database companies argued that freely available databases will become more commonplace.

“People don’t expect to pay huge license costs for the database. The value should come from the application,” said Tony Gaughan, senior vice president of development at Computer Associates.

Whether Microsoft decides to reveal the source code to SQL Server or not, it’s clear that open-source alternatives are affecting the decisions of established database providers, Forrester’s Yuhanna said. He noted that Oracle and IBM released cheaper, low-end editions of their databases last year in an attempt to win more medium-size businesses as customers.

“The open-source database community,” he said, “is seeing a lot of traction among customers looking for low-cost databases.”