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Red Hat sought help in database plan

Red Hat is preparing to launch an open-source database product, but its decision to develop the project on its own comes after another company rebuffs its request for help.

Red Hat is preparing to launch an open-source database product, but its decision to develop the project on its own came only after another company rebuffed its request for help.

Red Hat, currently the leading seller of Linux, plans to expand its software strategy Monday by entering the database market with a product that has been called, simply, Red Hat Database. The product, including round-the-clock technical support, will put pressure on other open-source companies such as Progress Software subsidiary NuSphere, Abriasoft, IBPhoenix and Great Bridge, and eventually could pressure better-established database companies such as Oracle.

But people familiar with the matter have told CNET that Red Hat had originally planned to develop its product with the help of others--specifically Great Bridge. Great Bridge sells support and services for the PostgreSQL open-source database and employs three of the six members of the core team in charge of the PostgreSQL effort.

Durham, N.C.-based Red Hat approached Great Bridge several months ago, said Frank Batten Jr., chairman of Great Bridge owner Landmark Communications and the angel investor who initially funded Red Hat but who resigned from its board in January 2000.

Red Hat "proposed several ways where we would be a subcontractor" for the database effort, Batten said in an interview. Under all of the proposals, "they'd get most of the revenue" and control the product's brand name--terms Great Bridge found unacceptable.

"They just never proposed any economics that were compelling," Batten said. "To be a good business, you need to have the customer relationship rather than being an anonymous subcontractor."

Red Hat declined to comment on the issue, though spokeswoman Melissa London said the company's connection to Batten means "it would make sense to approach him about ways we could work together."

For his part, Batten said the database expansion idea was his--and that Red Hat's initial decision not to head in that direction was one of the reasons he resigned from the board.

"I suggested (Red Hat start offering database software) in November 1999. They turned it down because they didn't want to offend Oracle and the other commercial database companies such as Informix, Sybase and IBM," Batten said. "So that's why I got off the Red Hat board. I knew it would be a conflict" with his own database plans, though Batten added that resigning also gave him looser restrictions on selling his lucrative Red Hat stock.

IBM and Oracle both were Red Hat investors at the time, and the database companies were among the first mainstream computing corporations to endorse the Linux operating system as a credible product. Batten said Red Hat was afraid that offering its own database software would spur the database companies to favor other Linux sellers.

Buttressing PostgreSQL
Red Hat's move has several ramifications for the open-source database world, which includes projects such as PostgreSQL, MySQL and Interbase and several companies using the software.

Though Red Hat declined to comment on which open-source project the Red Hat Database uses, Aberdeen Group analyst Bill Claybrook said Red Hat told him it was PostgreSQL, and several sources confirmed the plan.

When compared to another popular open-source database software, MySQL, "PostgreSQL is the winner, hands-down," Claybrook said. "It's a very mature database-management system. In many ways it compares favorably with Oracle."

Red Hat's effort likely will improve PostgreSQL further, Claybrook said. Red Hat didn't immediately say how many developers it planned to devote to the effort.

Bruce Momjian, a Great Bridge employee and one of the six core PostgreSQL developers, also was optimistic. Red Hat's help with the PostgreSQL effort would mean "they're going to put some major resources into PostgreSQL development," he said. The company, which ships barer-bones versions of PostgreSQL and MySQL along with its current Linux product, already has sought some improvements to PostgreSQL.

However, there have been some concerns, Momjian said. Some PostgreSQL developers have been worried Red Hat will "fork" the software, taking the open PostgreSQL code and starting in a new direction of their own. And others weren't happy that the Red Hat product name apparently doesn't refer to the PostgreSQL name.

But Red Hat has been a good member of the open-source community, Momjian said, backing efforts such as GCC and Gnome, so the company isn't likely to try to appropriate PostgreSQL for its own. Momjian believes forking would be impractical as well as impolitic, and Red Hat's London offered the assurance that, "We don't intend to fork the code."

More competition
Red Hat's move increases competition in the database market, but it's not clear who will feel the most pressure.

Red Hat, for its part, said it's targeting not Oracle customers but corporate departments or smaller companies that need a less extravagant database. Red Hat wants customers already using PostgreSQL or MySQL, London said.

But Great Bridge's Batten, not surprisingly, thinks his company won't bear the brunt. "I think it's a bigger threat to Oracle, because Oracle has so much to lose," he said. But, referring to Red Hat's move, he added, "Obviously, I'd rather they'd not" enter the market.

Great Bridge is like a cardiologist with expertise, while Red Hat is more like a general practitioner that has shallower but broader experience, Batten said.

Claybrook said Great Bridge will be unharried--at least initially. In the longer term it depends on how much Red Hat chooses to expand from basic support to more sophisticated services.

NuSphere, which backs the MySQL software, is happy to have Red Hat using the Postgres alternative. "I would hate to see a more credible database offering come in against us," said NuShere president Lorne Cooper. But, he acknowledged, "We're worried about it from a marketing standpoint."

PostgreSQL is good for Oracle-type database uses involving many computers conducting transactions with the database such as placing orders, Cooper said, "but it doesn't have the raw performance for blasting (Web) pages that MySQL has."

One major difference separates Red Hat from the likes of NuSphere, Great Bridge and Oracle, though. Like Microsoft, Red Hat has an operating system business to protect. The other companies' database products run on numerous operating systems, including Sun Microsystems' Solaris, the various versions of BSD Unix and in some cases Windows.

Red Hat has sought Linux-specific improvements to PostgreSQL such as improved integration with the Red Hat Package Manager (RPM) software-updating service, Momjian said.

"I haven't been able to justify a lot of work in that area," Momjian said. "We can't put a lot of resources into a one-operating system problem. We've got to be cross-platform."

But even just with Linux, Red Hat can profit from the database market, Claybrook said: "There's potentially a lot of money to be made here."