Open source @ Oracle: Mike Olson speaks

Oracle VP Mike Olson talks about the state of open source at Oracle: what it's doing with open source, and what it's not doing. A very candid look at how a company with a lot to lose from open source...gains from it.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
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.
Matt Asay
5 min read

A week or so ago I mentioned that I'd be running an "Open Source @" series of posts, and try to capture the work that various large enterprises are doing with open source. Being large enterprises, it has taken a bit longer to collect these than I would have liked, but we now have a critical mass and can move forward.

Today we're profiling Oracle. I have been harshly critical of Oracle in the past, and yet I continue to hold the company in high esteem. Oracle is one of the few winners in the proprietary "battle of the ecosystems." I do business with a wide range of Global 2000 businesses, and I see Oracle all over. I can't say the same of several of Oracle's competitors.

I asked Mike Olson, formerly the CEO of Sleepycat and currently vice president of Embedded Technologies at Oracle, to comment on the state of open source at the company. How can a company so dependent on revenues from proprietary software forge ahead into open source?

Over to you, Mike....

First off, thanks to Matt for dreaming up this series of posts, and for inviting me to participate. He and I haven't always seen eye to eye, but I like him and I enjoy our arguments.

If I'm going to digest the state of open source at Oracle, I need to start by explaining what Oracle is. Many people think about us as a database vendor. That has been wrong for a while, now. We're an enterprise software company. We have an extremely successful database product, of course, but we also have large, and growing, middleware and applications businesses. One of the key advantages we offer our customers is a suite of products -- database, applications, middleware -- that arrive pre-integrated, that can share data, and that can be deployed and managed using a consistent suite of tools.

Since our goal is to distribute and support a suite of integrated products, we obviously care about the most popular third-party packages that our customers use. We need to make sure our products work well with those packages. These days, that includes a lot of open source.

Our bet is that customers want to buy our high-quality enterprise platform, and need to deploy it in combination with open source components. Our job is to make that easy. As a result, Oracle's contributions to open source are aimed at improving the projects that our customers use, and at making sure that our private source products work well with them. We believe that customers will continue to deploy a mix of private and open source software.

This is where the skeptics say, "Hah! Open source changes the rules! It's disruptive! Proprietary models like Oracle's are doomed!" I can only observe, based on the financial results we've posted over recent quarters and on third-party published measures like market share, that I don't see that effect.

The Oracle Unbreakable Linux support program is pretty well-known, but our involvement with Linux goes way back. Oracle was the first commercial database vendor to offer Linux support in 1998. We've made some substantial stand-alone contributions to the project, like Oracle Cluster File System. More importantly, we have a large development team with a number of kerrnel committers who show up at work every day and work on GPL-licensed enhancements to the kernel. We're an active member of the Linux development community.

Of course, lots of our customers and partners build applications that run on top of Oracle Database or Oracle Fusion Middleware. Integrated development environments built on open source technology are tremendously popular, so we put a lot of effort into developer-facing packages. We contribute to PHP directly, and we also work closely with Zend to make sure that PHP developers can build Oracle-based applications easily. We've invested in development in our private source products and in open source projects, to make sure that Oracle Fusion Middleware supports hot-swappable, plug-and-play integration with projects like Hibernate, Ruby on Rails, Perl, Spring, Apache and others. Many of our customers are Eclipse users, so we've taken a board seat at the Eclipse Foundation and have released Oracle TopLink under an open source license.

We still develop and distribute the enormously popular storage engine for MySQL, InnoDB. Despite some early concerns about our intentions when we acquired Innobase, maker of InnoDB, we have a good relationship with Marten and the team at MySQL AB. And, of course, near to my own heart, we continue to develop and distribute Berkeley DB using the same dual licensing strategy that Sleepycat pioneered. Berkeley DB is part of our strategic move into the market for embeddable databases, and open source distribution is a big advantage there.

That's a very brief snapshot of what we're producing, here. Frankly, I don't think people realize how many developers at Oracle earn their paychecks working on open source software. It was certainly a surprise to me.

Of course, like many large enterprises, we are not merely producers of open source. We're big consumers, too. Our Austin data center is an acre of floor space and more than 10,000 servers managing three and a half petabytes of storage using 64-bit Linux grids. We use the same development tools, Web browsers, email clients and so on that the rest of you do. Open source matters a great deal to Oracle.

We're pragmatic, though. When we look at any third-party technology, we assess how we can use it to best effect for our customers and our business. That's exactly how we think about open source. We're interested in high-performance 64-bit operating sytsems for mission critical services, and we're interested in quality development tools for people who build apps. We're interested in them for different reasons, and we embrace them in different ways. Fundamentally, our approach to any open source package is driven by our customers. They're the experts on the tools they need for their businesses.

So what's the state of open source at Oracle? Well, it's open source. It's big, diverse and a little bit noisy, but that just makes it interesting.

Regardless of any technology that Oracle got when it acquired Sleepycat, it scored a major coup when it acquired Mike. He is a fantastic (and credible) advocate for Oracle. Much to my chagrin, at times. :-)

Our next profile will focus on Novell. Watch this space.