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Sun floats open-source database idea

Such a move could trigger displeasure at Oracle but curry favor with open-source advocates. Image: A Sun database?

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--Sun Microsystems has raised the possibility that it might offer customers its own database, a move that could trigger displeasure at Oracle but curry favor with open-source advocates.

Chief Executive Scott McNealy offered the provocative idea Wednesday at a meeting of influential financial analysts at Sun's headquarters here. During a speech, he showed a slide that placed the words "Sun DB" next to a list of existing database products.

McNealy offered no details besides "stay tuned," but Sun President Jonathan Schwartz indicated in an interview that database software is one possible way Sun plans to extend into new open-source software realms.


What's new:
Sun has hinted it may offer its own database to flesh out its server software suite. A Sun DB could anger partner Oracle, but it could curry favor with advocates of open-source software, which is at the center of Sun's strategy to attract more programmers to its technology.

Bottom line:
Starting a DB project from scratch would be tough, but there are potential partners in the increasingly mainstream open-source realm. And though offering an open-source DB that competes directly with Oracle's cash cow might irk a major business partner, Sun has shown a willingness lately to tussle with the giant.

More stories on Sun and open source

"I think it's clear the market has spoken that open source is the path that the developer community and the customer community wants to drive down, and I think we're going to do what we can to try to give customers as big a set of options as we can," Schwartz said. "I don't think it's going to be limited to simply operating systems. Maybe it will extend to file systems, maybe it will extend to databases, maybe it will extend to middleware."

William Hurley, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, believes Sun will eventually offer a database to flesh out its server software suite. But a direct fight with Oracle CEO Larry Ellison would be foolhardy and unlikely.

"I would counsel strongly against them acquiring database technology to go head-to-head with Oracle," Hurley said.

If Sun chooses a partnership for a database, one company stands out from the alternatives: Computer Associates International, which is working to bring more attention to its 30-year-old and now open-source Ingres database. "We have ongoing efforts with Sun, and some of those efforts include Ingres," said Tony Gaughan, senior vice president of development at CA.

Unlike rivals IBM and Microsoft, Sun has no database software to sell in a $13.5 billion market that Oracle leads, according to IDC.

Lacking a database is significant given Sun's argument that customers want to buy a package of integrated technology rather than parts that must be assembled. Instead, Sun relies on a tight partnership with database giant Oracle.

Offering an open-source database that competes directly with Oracle's cash cow might not sit well with a major business partner that also has strong partnerships with Dell and Hewlett-Packard. But Sun has shown a willingness recently to tussle with Oracle.

First of all, Sun promotes with increasing aggression its Java Enterprise System, server software with several components that compete with Oracle's products. Second, McNealy has criticized Oracle more than once for not updating its pricing method for new processor designs that employ multiple processing engines, or cores, on each chip.

In December, McNealy knocked Oracle for charging a license fee for each core rather than for each chip, as Sun would prefer. On Wednesday, McNealy added that the move effectively doubles the price for customers upgrading to Sun's dual-core UltraSparc IV chip and would put a $50,000 price tag on Oracle running on Sun's forthcoming eight-core Niagara processor.

"You have to be careful when you create that kind of pricing umbrella," McNealy said Wednesday. "Open-source alternatives start to look very, very interesting."

Although asked to comment for this article, Oracle didn't on Thursday.

Open-source software, in contrast to proprietary software such as Oracle's database, may be freely seen, modified and redistributed by anyone. The fact that it's available for free has made it popular with customers in many cases, despite the absence sometimes of companies that provide certification, technical support and other hand-holding.

Sun has placed open-source software squarely at the center of its strategy to attract more programmers to its technology--chiefly its prized Solaris operating system, a move it hopes will attract more experimentation, customers and alliances with other computing companies.

It's one of many bold moves from the company, which is trying a wide variety of new initiatives to reclaim its visionary status, attract new customers and avoid further revenue declines. The company also is betting heavily on Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron processor, novel software pricing and selling discrete amounts of computing power.

Open-source options
Starting a database project from scratch would be difficult, but there are potential partners in the increasingly mainstream open-source database realm. McNealy's slide listed MySQL, a prominent and widely used product that's gaining higher-end features, and PostgreSQL, which was employed in the short-lived Red Hat Database product.

Asked whether Sun planned a partnership with an open-source database supplier, Schwartz said, "We'll certainly be talking about that going forward. Right now we don't have anything concrete to talk about."

A MySQL representative said MySQL runs on Solaris but found no evidence of a deeper Sun alliance. PostgreSQL core team member Josh Berkus said he hasn't heard of any plans for Sun to rebrand his database, but he did start talking this week about better support for Solaris now that it's open-source software.

There are other open-source databases, such as IBM's Cloudscape and Sleepycat's BerkeleyDB, but those aren't general-purpose products. In fact, Sleepycat's product already is embedded within some Sun server software.

CA's Ingres has several features to recommend it, though.

For one thing, even though MySQL is the most widely used open-source database, Ingres is the most technologically mature, said Forrester analyst Noel Yuhanna. And CA could use a partner to help advance Ingres.

"MySQL has got a lot of visibility, and I think Ingres wants to catch up in terms of the adoption," Yuhanna said.

One license to rule them all?
Legal complications of open-source software could help align Sun and CA. Sun has begun releasing its Solaris as open-source software, choosing the Community Development and Distribution License, or CDDL, to govern the software.

CA crafted its own license for Ingres, the CA Trusted Open Source License, which received its official open-source stamp of approval the same day in January that Sun's CDDL did.

Having multiple licenses means more headaches for programmers, lawyers and customers, and it raises barriers for swapping source code from one project to another. But Sun and CA are working to unify licenses, said Sam Greenblatt, a senior vice president and senior technical adviser to CA.

"We are absolutely working on it with Sun lawyers. My lawyer working on it has informed me that we've made great progress," Greenblatt said.

Having a database released under the CDDL license would be handy for Sun--especially if it chooses to release its Java Enterprise System as open-source software, as Sun hinted last week it might.

Some of CA's partnership work with Sun comes via an Ingres-based product called MDB that is used to capture a wide variety of corporate information--everything from lists of which data files a given employee is permitted to use to a list of when a server's memory was last upgraded. That product dovetails nicely with Sun's N1 technology to make a large collection of server, storage and network equipment into a fluid, powerful computing foundation, Gaughan said.

"As part of our ongoing relationship, we are evaluating where it would make sense for our applications to be sold jointly or positioned jointly," Gaughan said.

Partnerships or not, entering the database market isn't easy. And Sun will have learning to do.

"They never have done databases ever before," Yuhanna said. "It's certainly going to be a challenge for Sun to go into this area."