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Databases rise from ashes as open source

Firebird Imagine a chilly hotel meeting room 15 years ago, across the river from New York City. Databases of the day are having a showdown in there, where the communication technology is type from flimsy plastic slides, foils projected on a wall. Oracle has sent a representative, along with Sybase and Ingres -- the Big Three of databases, although a complete count would include IBM's DB2, to comprise a Big Four. But IBM isn't at this showdown. The HP 3000's IMAGE is, however, touted by Adager's Alfredo Rego.

HP didn't feel the need to attend this meeting of the Greater New York HP Users Group and represent IMAGE. Rego asks a question of all assembled: What happens if a plug is kicked out of a Big DB database server? Will the database survive? They scratch their heads and offer no answer. Built-in recovery is as much a mystery outside the 3000 world in 1994 as the price for 100 seats of Oracle. I was there in that room and heard no answers.

The amount of swagger from the Big Three in the room and in the market was palpable, thick as the icy fog outside on that day. No one could see a future where a database might be offered without a license fee and be suited for enterprise computing. IMAGE sat closest to such a proposal back then, because HP includes the database with every 3000 it sells.

Shoot the clock forward to this hot summer and a database free of fees is common as a dog at a junkyard. Earlier this week we talked of Postgres as a potential open source solution, now bolstered by add-on engineering to become commercial open source. But there's a handful of other candidates for data management that don't require any relationship with a Big Vendor. Among the now-free alternatives are Firebird (tip of the hat to Bruce Hobbs), and one of those Big DBs, Ingres. Both these open source databases collected license fees 15 years ago. Firebird was created out of the ashes of Interbase.

In the economy of today, a database never goes away, whether it's IMAGE being supported by a 3000 homestead community or a Big DB solution that now steps with a lot less swagger. Open source offers a second life for databases with closing markets.

Oracle's fate in those 15 years is best known, unbridled growth that let the company swell enough to buy up open source competitor MySQL. The purchase was part of the Sun acquisition that Oracle wrangled this spring, a clever move to add a free entry to the Oracle lineup. MySQL, Firebird, Ingres and Postgres all line up on the open source side of the database menu today. Standing in a center column is Sybase, still holding on to the dream of an independent database solution -- one not controlled by any vendor of servers or operating systems. Another notable independent entry for HP 3000 customers: Eloquence, created by Marxmeier Software.

Sybase has been around long enough to spin off its own competition. Today the most popular databases in the non-3000 world are Oracle, DB2 and SQL Server. But when that showdown took place in that chilly hotel, Sybase had just licensed its technology to Microsoft, which rebranded the product as SQL Server. Oops. Sybase still sells enough to host a TechWave training conference, and its technology licenses run beyond SQL Server. For example, Sybase now owns PowerBuilder, the application development system for Windows clients. Among the 3000 community's experts, Pivital Solutions can consult in PowerBuilder development. PowerBuilder was popular among HP 3000 manufacturing customers.

HP 3000 ties wrap around Sybase in other ways. Within the Sybase community, database management vendor Bradmark Technologies sells tools such as Surveillance for Sybase IQ 15. While Bradmark made its bones selling TurboIMAGE management solutions, management of many databases is the company's current mission. Surveillance identifies and eliminates problems with Sybase databases.

And Ingres? The database that lost its place to Informix was purchased a few months after that icy meeting by ASK, which created the venerable MANMAN ERP software still running in the 3000 community. After a decade of stumbles running up against SQL Server, DB2 and Oracle, Ingres entered its open source life in 2004. Now the commerce for the new Ingres Corporation flows from support and services for the database and its OpenRoad development tool.

Support and consulting, after all, are the most durable of solutions in computing: the know-how companies need to continue to rely on what they purchased long ago. So long as a company such as British Rail deploys the rebirth of Interbase as Firebird, or IBM purchases Informix to offer it alongside DB2, or Sybase spins itself out to Microsoft and somehow survives, there's no reason to believe any enterprise-grade database will ever see its life end. There's always the fall-back to a new solution for an old problem of "we're out of money." Ingres tells customers that "Ingres is driving the New Economics of IT, where open source technology is delivering better, new ways of doing business in tough economic times." Free software is an attractive starting point whose value gets calculated, in the end, by the cost of hiring the know-how to use it.