MySQL: Open source should learn from Linux, not MySQL

MySQL: Open source should learn from Linux, not MySQL

When one vendor owns an open-source project, expect the community to seem for alternatives

There have been tons of mention open-source sustainability over the past few years, and permanently reason. Open source now powers much of the world’s most crucial new technologies, from programming languages and application platforms to machine learning and data infrastructure. As such, we'd like more, not less, open-source innovation. However, the foremost innovative and sustainable open source rarely depends exclusively upon one individual or company.

Don’t believe me? check out a number of the foremost foundational open-source projects of the past few decades. Linux? Scads of companies contribute. Or consider PostgreSQL, which has boomed in popularity over the past decade—it’s a real community effort, with contributors from a good array of companies. Or how about the newer Kubernetes? Though Google founded the project, more companies contribute thereto today.

This is how open source was always meant to work—open source founded on an abundance mindset, instead of one among scarcity.

Learning from Linux

Way back in 2007 I used to be writing about this concept of abundance-driven business models. Speaking of Red Hat, I wrote, “The bits are free or abundant, but the service around them isn't. Red Hat, therefore, wins the more that it et al. give the software away for free of charge, because this results in a greater need for its role as a gatekeeper on quality and stability.”

Red Hat’s model was (and is) to supply a licensed “distribution” of that open-source software that was freely available, but somewhat unwieldy without Red Hat’s efforts to harden and test the code during a certain configuration (along with all of the software and hardware certifications that accompany it).

Importantly, Red Hat’s model doesn’t really work if Red Hat were to magically own all of Linux development. Red Hat’s model depends on open source abundance. As of the Linux Foundation’s 2017 report on contributions to the Linux kernel, Red Hat accounted for just 7.2% of all Linux development (for the later Linux 5.5 kernel, the amount is 6.6%). In Red Hat’s last full financial year before being acquired by IBM, that 6.6% contribution translated into $3.4 billion in revenue.

But it’s also not exclusive. IBM, HPE, and a variety of other enterprise vendors derive their own billions from selling hardware, services, or software around Linux, as do cloud vendors like Microsoft, Alibaba, AWS, and Google. At an equivalent time, many other companies repose on Linux and generate their own billions in customer value. Critically, those billions would likely evaporate if one company owned Linux. That company would capture all the worth, which value would be substantially less.

The era of one company owning an OS and exclusively profiting therefrom is over. this is often partially because we’ve discovered, for instance, that it’s better and more profitable for all to possess a Linux community that makes an outsized and growing pie shared by many, instead of a relatively small, zero-sum pie consumed by one. It’s a lesson we’re learning again from Kubernetes.

Which brings us to single-vendor open source projects.

The MySQL example

MySQL may be a popular database but it's always been something of a closed community. Initially, the overwhelming majority of contributions came from MySQL AB, and this seemed okay to many because MySQL was deemed to possess good intentions. In 2008, however, Sun Microsystems acquired MySQL for $1 billion. Those with MySQL stock (VCs and executives, primarily) rejoiced, but worries began to erode the MySQL community. Still, Sun was earnestly trying to be an honest open-source citizen, therefore the community mostly breathed easily.

Until Oracle acquired Sun in 2009, that is, then the community began to urge nervous.

The best thanks to measuring that nervousness wasn’t with ranting tweets (there were many) or angsty blogs (also many). No, the simplest evidence for just what proportion MySQL lost by persisting as a single-vendor project was the increase of open-source alternatives like PostgreSQL and MariaDB (a successful fork of MySQL).

Customers tend to be slow to vary databases, but enterprises like ServiceNow and Google began migrating thousands of MySQL servers to MariaDB, thanks to worries about Oracle’s stewardship of MySQL. Other companies accelerated their migrations to PostgreSQL or other options. Yes, MySQL remains very fashionable, but open-source alternatives are thriving within the shadow of Oracle’s stewardship.

Who can blame developers for watching alternatives? Despite owning MySQL Oracle founder Larry Ellison has repeatedly trashed it. As Ellison told analysts in 2018, “[Y]ou’ve needed to be willing to offer up plenty of reliability, plenty of security, plenty of performance to [use MySQL rather than Oracle because].... we have an enormous technological advantage.”

When one vendor controls a project, the community is usually one bad financial year or one bad acquisition faraway from potentially problematic project changes.

Abundance, not scarcity

Again, consider Red Hat and Linux. Red Hat could own Linux and it might be left to hoard a comparatively small “pie.” But because Linux may be a truly open community, with contributions coming from a good array of companies and individual developers, it's outpaced Windows, Unix, and each other server OS for many years. This has benefited Red Hat while also benefiting many others.

Indeed, when open source communities are large, and adoption for a specific project grows, it creates a massive opportunity for all. this is often the promise of open source: abundance, not scarcity. It’s also the key to generating customer value, and therefore the revenue that derives from it.


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