Data Centers

Why does Oracle keep trashing MySQL, its own product?

Oracle CTO Larry Ellison can't get enough MySQL bashing into his earnings calls. Is there a method to this madness?

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Image: wellesenterprises, Getty Images

By most accounts, Oracle has been a reasonably good steward for MySQL, the open source database it picked up when Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems years ago. Oracle has contributed significant engineering resources to MySQL to ensure "improved performance in areas that were long considered impossible to address," as former MySQL product executive Zack Urlocker once put it.

More recently, Oracle CTO and chairman Larry Ellison has made no secret of his disdain for MySQL, telling analysts that "you've got to be willing to give up tons of reliability, tons of security, tons of performance to [use MySQL instead of Oracle because]...we have a huge technology advantage." This would be fair game to call out against a competitor, but this is Ellison talking about a product that is primarily developed by Oracle.

SEE: Cloud migration decision tool (Tech Pro Research)

Caught in the crossfire

Not that Ellison set out to demean the industry's second-most popular database—he was trying to undermine confidence in Amazon Web Services, which offers MySQL as a database service, either as RDS or as Aurora. Ellison, known for stretching the truth to suit his competitive posturing, makes believe that "Amazon Aurora is just MySQL open source, and Amazon Redshift is also just a borrowed open source system." Both assertions are dubious, as Gartner analyst Nick Heudecker points out.

It's true that AWS customers can buy an Aurora service that has MySQL smarts baked in, but there's much more to it than this.

SEE: The future of Everything as a Service (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

There's also much more to MySQL than "a very old system[]." (A curious criticism coming from Oracle, which peddles even older database technology.) And it's simply not true (in any meaningful sense) that "Oracle's autonomous database has the biggest technology lead [Oracle has] ever had." (This same tripe sounds like Oracle's former laugh line that "AWS is 20 years behind Oracle," despite AWS generating 80 times more IaaS revenue than Oracle and 10 times more PaaS revenue than Oracle.) New license revenue has been in terminal decline at Oracle for many years. MySQL, by contrast, and its kissing cousin PostgreSQL, continues to be popular, whether purchased as a service through cloud companies like AWS or run on-premises.

Oracle's Hotel California

What is true is that Oracle makes it incredibly hard to leave. Touting how "nobody [but Amazon] is going to go through that forced march to go on to Amazon databases if Amazon can't even get there without [so much] effort," Ellison played up the difficulty of migrating a database and, specifically, Oracle's database, to anything else. "But in terms of technology, there is no way that someone can move—a normal person would move—from an Oracle database to an Amazon database. It's just incredibly expensive and complicated."

This sort of sound bite may play well to money-hungry financial analysts, but if you're a developer or a CIO reading Ellison's comments, what sort of signal does it send?

SEE: Oracle's Ellison: No way a 'normal' person would move to AWS (ZDNet)

It says, as one Twitter commentator put it, that "Ellison is right that it would be expensive and complicated to move away from Oracle. That is how it is designed. It is like inviting bedbugs into your house." Oracle...bedbugs...indeed.

Which is just one reason that many developers aren't starting with Oracle at all. In fact, I would hazard a guess that virtually no developers opt for Oracle. How could they? Not only is Oracle technology cumbersome and complex, it's also pricey. A developer can start with MySQL for $0.00, or with MySQL (or RDS or Aurora) running on AWS for $0.01. Purely from a convenience factor, Oracle will lose every single time.

The only thing Oracle has going for it is inertia. As Gartner analyst Merv Adrian declared, "The greatest force in legacy DBMS is inertia." Not technology superiority. Not cost advantage. Not anything other than habit and years of calcified scheme design, physical data placement, etc.

But that's merely a moat around old applications. As companies build the future, they're not building it on Oracle, though they may at times be building it on the open source database that Oracle seems to despise, MySQL. Given Ellison's sneering distaste for his own product, it's hard to see Oracle remaining much of a steward for MySQL over time.

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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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