MySQL vs. the Lite Databases: A Fair Comparison?

By Lisa Vaas  |  Posted 2005-12-29

MySQL vs. the Lite Databases: A Fair Comparison?

Not to pick on MySQL—Im glad to see they were picked to be editors choice in Builder AUs recent road test of databases, which compared MySQL, SQL Server Express, DB2 Express and Oracle 10g Standard Edition.

"Release 5.0 of MySQL is really taking it to…Oracle and DB2 with advanced features such as cluster support and fault tolerance, and in most other departments the features run head to head with the competition," the review reads. "MySQL V5.0 is a compelling product and it is hard to argue against its nomination for the Editors Choice award."

But is the premise of the review actually sound? For the purpose of comparing MySQL to the "lite" versions of the proprietary databases, Builder AU created a hypothetical online business, relatively small, that sells books and DVDs.

The business needs to grow, so it needs a database that can scale from a dual processor or four-way server on up to a small server farm.

As a colleague pointed out to me, the premise appears wobbly, given that the express database versions are meant to be marketing tools or to be used as embedded databases for certain applications.

The databases are hobbled for a purpose: Theyre just there to give people a taste, in hopes that theyll go on to upgrade to full-scale versions.

A Microsoft spokesperson put it this way. There are three target audiences for SQL Server Express: nonprofessionals, including students and enthusiasts, whom Redmond hopes to hook early and often and to infuse with SQL Server 2005-compatible skills theyll take into the job marketplace; ISVs, for use in light applications, trial versions, desktop applications, and/or distributed applications with many low-scale databases replicating back to a central hub (hub and spoke) such as retail/branch scenarios; and within companies, for the same types of situations as the ISVs face.

"In general, it would not be a product that an enterprise would run its whole business on," the spokesperson told me.

It certainly makes sense for an ISV to base an application on lite versions of Microsoft or Oracle or IBM databases, since it helps to get their foot in the door at larger companies.

But Microsoft isnt aware of any ISVs that are entirely based on SQL Server Express. Some may exist, given that Microsoft has had over 500 ISVs sign the redistribution agreement for Express (to distribute it free), but none came to mind when I asked.

So I asked some MySQL users and Bell Micro—which packages the Linux stack onto servers—if they had or would ever consider using one of the "lite" proprietary databases instead of MySQL.

Most of them were befuddled by the question. Its easy to answer the question of why theyd choose MySQL to run a business on—"Its fast, its cheap, its simple to develop for, and it has low administration overhead," said Ian Wilkes, operations director for Linden Lab, in an e-mail exchange.

And as far as ISVs go, companies like ActiveGrid and Bell Micro are built around the LAMP stack, so the question is similar to asking if theyd consider Windows instead of Linux. Its just not in their DNA to ever have considered going with a proprietary database.

And then there are the labor costs. Wilkes warned me not to underestimate the importance of developer costs and of ease of development.

"Good DBAs are very expensive, but with MySQL, they are often unnecessary," he wrote.

Click here to read more about MySQL 5.

And, even though its common to point to MySQLs slower performance and fewer capabilities when compared to the commercial databases, Wilkes pointed out that the truth of performance really boils down to workload and developer habits.

Besides, for many of the highly interactive, Web-based applications out there, MySQL performs just fine, he noted. Linden Labs is the creator of the online world Second Life, so Wilkes certainly knows of what he speaks.

So its easy to see why MySQL would fit the online book and DVD seller scenario. But the limited user, limited CPU versions of the proprietary databases? Would anybody really consider those for such a venture, in spite of what the vendors themselves intend?

Its a holiday week. Neither Microsoft nor IBM nor Oracle could turn up people who use their lite versions, else Id have asked them if they considered MySQL for whatever theyre doing.

MySQL users are apparently all at work, though, and a few were happy to talk about why they dont find the premise of running a business on a lite version preposterous at all.

Next Page: Users delighted.

Users Delighted

Yaakov Menken, CEO of Capalon Internet Solutions, has been using MySQL since 2000, when he migrated from Microsoft Access.

He told me his company had made the "grave error" of building a database on top of Access and having a situation where multiple people were trying to update the database, if not down to the second, at very close times, thereby resulting in data corruption.

Its not surprising, given that bad experience, that MySQLs master/slave database replication is his favorite feature. It gives users a live backup copy of any database, already having given him his database back up in a matter of minutes, as opposed to what would have been hours.

His company moved off of Windows not just because of the database, however, but because Linux and Apache were more stable than Windows and IIS (Internet Information Services) 4.

"Certainly the fact that you could add the pieces together and move from [Windows] to … LAMP [Linux/Apache/MySQL/Perl, Python, PHP], and do so with no software costs, was a powerful motivation to go in that particular direction," he told me.

Hes "delighted" with MySQL and has never seen any reason to go back, nor to ponder using a lite version of a proprietary database. Going over to Oracle, for example, would introduce an arduous learning curve. But he finds a side-by-side comparison of MySQL to the lite databases to be relevant because theyre both aimed for low-budget situations.

"Theres a lot of small businesses for whom the full versions are not financially viable at this point," he told me. "Theyre going to go with an express version."

Wilkes backed him up on this one, with cost again being a big part of the equation. "Why choose a light commercial database for a business? Cost is one, since companies that once had one database now have dozens," he said.

Beyond that, Wilkes said, feature bloat is another good reason why a small business might want to go with a lite database.

"…Modern Enterprise databases have become bloated with so many extended features that the simple task of storing data is almost an afterthought. If you compare the feature sets of a light vs. enterprise database, youll find things like internal security and encryption, back-end compression, OLAP workspaces, etc. I dont need those things. A lot of other companies dont either, or if they do, they dont need them for all their data. I think the question for everything but the largest monolithic deployments is, why not choose the standard edition and save a bundle?"

So after listening to users, at least on the MySQL side, I can see why there might be some good reasons to compare MySQL with the light databases. Theyre closer in pricing and feature set.

Plus, as Wilkes pointed out, the light databases arguably came into being in great part because the proprietary vendors had to respond to MySQL and the pressure its putting on the lower end of the market.

So, funky premise or no, congratulations, MySQL—it was a nice recognition of how far youve come to get the editors choice.

Are you plugging into the light database versions? Tell me why they appeal: Write to me at

Lisa Vaas is Ziff Davis Internets news editor in charge of operations. She is also the editor of eWEEK.coms Database and Business Intelligence topic center. She has been with eWEEK and since 1995, most recently covering enterprise applications and database technology.

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