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Dumping Microsoft SQL Server: MySQL, PostgreSQL attract big users

Using open source databases doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing decision. Most will work just fine alongside SQL Server.

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So, you're a Microsoft SQL Server administrator flirting with open source, but you're not sure how far you should go on the first migration? Don't worry, there won't be much peer pressure to go "all the way." Look around and you'll find that most businesses making the switch are going only as far as their Web applications.

"The open source database is no less efficient or reliable [than proprietary options], but unless that is understood by managers or decision makers, it matters little," said Bob Field, a Phoenix-based database consultant and MySQL fan. "There may be a slow increase over time, the occasional rogue department that switches over, but it's counter to the corporate culture of volume license deals with large software vendors."

Those who dare to go all the way to open source tend to work for Web-centric companies that never used a proprietary database in the first place, like San Francisco-based online community superstar and shopping service of Los Angeles. Both use MySQL; and, a San Mateo-based company uses PostgreSQL to post its travel-related reviews, blogs and ads.

There are exceptions to that rule. abandoned a back-end SQL Server database that was connected to a Windows executable client. The company replaced SQL Server with a vertical application called PharmacyWire that runs on a LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP/Python/Perl) stack for its entire operation.

MeteoNews GmbH, a Zurich-based service that provides meteorological reports in multiple media formats, completely migrated to MySQL from SQL Server.

"When I joined the company [in the summer of 2002], most of the tasks generating data feeds for our customers accessed the MS SQL Server," said Beat Vontobel, systems administrator of MeteoNews' IT research and development department. "We didn't have a MySQL installation in-house, only on the externally hosted Web server for our own Web page. There were some scripts copying data from MS SQL to this MySQL instance on the Web server."

Some companies are migrating to open source, but slowly. "The open source database market is really just emerging," said Andy Astor, president and CEO of Iselin, N.J.-based EnterpriseDB. "There's no question that companies are migrating -- they're just doing it over time. I haven't seen any companies that are just shutting off their proprietary databases and going open source all at once."

In March, San Diego-based Sony Online Entertainment began a two-year process of migrating its Oracle databases to EnterpriseDB, which is based on the open source database PostgreSQL. Astor also reports that other large companies are starting to migrate from Microsoft SQL Server to EnterpriseDB.

The issue for most enterprises that are diffident about how far to go is the maturity of PostgreSQL, MySQL and other open source databases.

"Earlier versions of MySQL, like 4.1, were severely lacking in features, and supposedly the 5.0 version has addressed a number of those. But the 5.0 version is simply too immature of a product for me to trust it in an enterprise environment," said one systems administrator, who asked not to be named.

MeteoNews' Vontobel disagrees, insisting that the weaknesses widely cited in MySQL version 4.1 have been addressed. "We're using a lot of the new features of MySQL 5.0: views, triggers, stored procedures and functions," he said. "The use of databases at our company has actually matured with MySQL."

Vontobel is not alone in his bullish outlook. "We couldn't do what we do with any of the proprietary databases, certainly not with MS SQL!" said Jim Buckmaster, CEO of Craigslist, whose nearly five billion monthly page views make it the seventh most trafficked Web site in the English-speaking world. "All of our Web pages, including search, are served out of MySQL, and we run a very healthy paid business using only MySQL. And we do not employ so much as a single DBA. Is there another database in the world that can meet these criteria?"

Indeed, the corporate success of open source databases, most notably MySQL and PostgreSQL, is remarkable. MySQL added 2,000 new enterprise customers in 2005 -- high-profile users such as Caterpiller Inc. and Cardinal Health Inc. PostgreSQL counts several federal agencies among its users, including the U.S. State Department and high-tech firms, such as Cisco Systems Inc. and Skype Ltd. Those successes are likely to grow in number since Microsoft in June issued its latest imprimatur of the open source community by signing MySQL as a member of its Visual Studio Industry Partner program. MySQL is developing a downloadable plug-in for Visual Studio 2005 that will allow Windows developers to quickly build MySQL data-driven applications with Visual Studio. The Windows version of MySQL Server accounts for more than 40% of MySQL's 50,000 or so daily downloads, according to MySQL.

That leaves database administrators two queries to process: First, write apps that are Windows- and .NET-friendly. And second, tell the CEO they want to go all the way.

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