Oracle still top dog in tough database market

The relational database market is a lot less crowded than it used to be, and it's no surprise, considering the players have to contend with a massive software juggernaut like Oracle. According to the latest numbers from research firm IDC, Oracle still rules the roost in databases, capturing in excess of 44 percent of the overall market for 2007.

Not even Oracle can afford to rest on its laurels, however; not in a market this competitive. In addition to pressure from the other two top vendors -- IBM and Microsoft -- Oracle must contend with increasing competition from open source software. For example, last week Sun Microsystems, which acquired MySQL in January, announced an aggressive new pricing structure that allows customers to install as many instances of the open source database as they want, including enterprise-class service and support, for a single, flat rate.

Included in the deal is Sun's GlassFish Java application server, which can be used to host custom enterprise applications that store their data in the database. Pricing reportedly begins at US$65,000 per year and scales up based on the number of employees in the organization. (Sun already uses similar, headcount-based pricing for much of its software portfolio.)

If that sounds like a lot of money, consider that the latest pricing for the Oracle 11g database starts at around $47,500 per CPU, following a price hike that took effect earlier this month. By comparison, Sun is offering site-license pricing -- you can install MySQL on as many CPUs as you want for the one rate.

MySQL can't compete with Oracle on a feature-for-feature basis, especially when it comes to the advanced capabilities needed by heavy enterprise users, such as data integrity and replication. But many applications don't need the high-end features offered by top-tier database. For example, many Web applications need nothing more than simple data storage, which MySQL offers in spades.

It can be difficult to properly analyze MySQL's true market share, because you don't have to be a Sun Microsystems customer to use it. MySQL is open source, so you can generally download and use the database for free (although some licensing restrictions may apply). Even if it were possible to count every single instance of MySQL that is currently in use, there's no way of knowing how many of those users represent potential business for Sun.

As a rule, however, users who have extensive experience using open source software for prototype or "off the record" projects are good candidates to become paying customers of open source vendors in the future. What they get for their money is commercial-grade support, which can be invaluable when open source software is used to power mission-critical applications. Open source support contracts usually come at much lower price tags than equivalent offerings from proprietary software vendors, such as Oracle.

MySQL isn't the only low-cost contender on the market, either. PostgreSQL is similarly open source, and offers a feature set that's more comparable to Oracle, IBM DB2, or Microsoft SQL Server. Given how easy it has become to install and use a database for free, it's entirely possible that relational databases may soon become a commodity market, especially among those mid-tier customers who don't need the most advanced capabilities.

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