Cloud

Why Alibaba's deal with MariaDB might open up a new front in the cloud wars

Alibaba is the first cloud to play nicely with an open source business. Is this a pattern for the future?

As the world shifts from buying software to buying services, no one sells more than Amazon Web Services (AWS), and not everyone likes it. Or, rather, not everyone likes the fact that AWS has managed to turn all sorts of free and open source software into not-so-free and proprietary services, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. In fact, AWS is so good at turning open code into closed services that it tends to make (much) more from open source projects like MySQL than those project founders ever dreamed of making, and has never been inclined to share that revenue.

Alibaba has a different strategy.

In an industry first, Alibaba and MariaDB have announced ApsaraDB RDS for MariaDB TX, a relational database service that delivers MariaDB's enterprise product. That is, Alibaba hopes to make a lot of money selling a MariaDB service...and share some money with MariaDB. Might we see AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform follow suit?

A cozy friendship gets cozier

This news comes on the heels of Alibaba's $20 million investment in MariaDB's series C round of funding back in 2017. MariaDB, a fork of the popular MySQL relational database, has long been a key part of Alibaba's technical strategy.

Though Alibaba has spent years trying to reduce its dependence on MySQL, hoping to shed problems with transaction locking, investing financial and engineering resources in MariaDB became a way to hedge that MySQL bet. With MariaDB actively embracing and then extending MySQL, MariaDB gives Alibaba a way to steer its "MySQL" investment into the future.

Oh, and to better position its cloud while Alibaba is at it.

SEE: Cloud migration decision tool (Tech Pro Research)

Though in the western world we tend to think of AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud as the big-three cloud vendors, the reality is that Alibaba takes the third spot, humming at a roughly $2 billion run-rate. Alibaba likes to refer to its position in the gargantuan Chinese market to posture as the heir apparent to AWS' cloud throne, but the reality is that it has had little to recommend it beyond the "We're Chinese" pitch.

Adding MariaDB to its mix changes things. Yes, you can get MariaDB as part of AWS' relational database service portfolio but that's it. If you want the extra bits that make MariaDB TX special (namely, advanced security and database proxy capabilities), coupled with a direct line to MariaDB's experts for support, there's only one option: Alibaba.

Learning to share

This is something AWS, Microsoft, and Google have been unwilling to entertain for commercial open source database vendors. I doubt it's a matter of preserving margin, though undoubtedly that plays into the decision. Rather, I suspect it's simply not how they want to preserve control and offer tightly knit services in their own clouds.

SEE: Alibaba's Q3 cloud revenue up 104 percent, hits $2.2 billion annual run rate (ZDNet)

Could this change? Probably not merely because of Alibaba and MariaDB linking up, but what about if Alibaba did a similar deal with MongoDB? Or DataStax (Apache Cassandra)? Then suddenly Alibaba becomes a preferred place for customers to get the enterprise builds and enterprise support that goes missing on other clouds.

Years ago, Red Hat looked at the possibility of becoming an exchange of sorts; a place for open source companies to more efficiently monetize their code. Today, there's a possibility—albeit still a distant one—that Alibaba could become a gathering place for companies that want their open source code available in the cloud, but would love to get paid for it, as well.

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Image: iStockphoto/Jakarin2521

About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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