What to Make of Sun Buying MySQL

Analysis: Most analysts agree it all depends on what Sun does with MySQL, the leading open-source database management system.

The rumors had been flying for a while that MySQL was looking for a buyer and Sun Microsystems was interested in purchasing the open-source DBMS powerhouse. Why? Because Sun has wanted to offer its enterprise customers a compelling end-to-end software stack for their needs.

It's a truism in enterprise-level software buying decisions that at the end of the day what matters isn't the operating system or any individual program. No, what determines who gets the big contract is either 1) who has the best DBMS for the company's purposes or 2) who has the best top-to-bottom software stack.

So when Dan Kusnetzky, chief analyst for the Kusnetzky Group, looks at the deal, he sees Sun trying to hit both those sweet spots for IT sales. "A while ago, system supplies would offer a completely integrated (and highly proprietary) portfolio of hardware and software that would meet just about any organization's requirements. If they needed a payroll system, it was just one phone call away. If the need was an accounts receivable system, general ledger system or something else, the phone call would solve the problem," Kusnetzky said.

But that was then. This is now. "The market took a turn from integrated, proprietary solutions to a number of independent software and hardware companies. While that led to the availability of a number of 'best of breed' solutions, integration and management of all of these resources has been a problem since this trend started," he said.

What Kusnetzky believes Sun is doing, he said, is trying to combine the old ways with the new trend. "The pendulum appears to be moving back the other way, and hardware and software suppliers have each been building more complete solutions. Sun's acquiring MySQL could be seen as a response to IBM's having DB2 and assets from their acquisition of Informix, Microsoft having SQL Server and Oracle's continued growth as both an applications company and a system software company."

Raven Zachary, research director of open source for The 451 Group, also said he sees Sun trying to become a one-stop shop for enterprise customers. "MySQL is the most popular open-source database technology in the market, and is the 'M' in the LAMP [Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP/Python/Perl] stack. Sun's $1 billion acquisition of MySQL AB puts Sun into a leadership position in the LAMP stack. We're likely to see more moves [from] Sun in the future to move its open-source strategy to the next level. Up to this point, Sun's database strategy has been ... partnering with companies such as Oracle, and supporting the PostgreSQL open-source community. This is a major shift in Sun's database strategy as a technology supplier," Zachary said.

Josh M. Farina, an analyst for TBR (Technology Business Research), also said he sees it this way, but he's not sure Sun is currently capable of offering enough to enterprise customers. Farina wrote in a statement, "While increased engagement with enterprises as a solutions provider will benefit Sun, and possibly drive increased sales of hardware, the firm lacks the breadth and depth of offerings from IBM and HP [Hewlett-Packard]-who also offer a complete hardware, software and services portfolio."

Zachary also said he thinks, "This is a great move for Sun." He went on to say, "Sun has pursued a PostgreSQL strategy in the open-source space, and this raises a whole bunch of issues concerning Sun's close ties to Oracle, as well as their investment in PostgreSQL. Sun has been struggling to build a recurring software maintenance revenue stream with its open-source software releases, and this acquisition should help considerably in building out this business."

This shift isn't going to go unnoticed by Sun's rivals. Stephen O'Grady, co-founder of and analyst at RedMonk, said, "Obviously it [Sun's acquisition of MySQL] changes the dynamics of the relationship with Oracle, as the deal has the potential to make MySQL an even more formidable threat. As for Red Hat, the most important consequence to me is this: They are now denied a potential weapon in their competition with Oracle."

Rumor has it that before Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik resigned for family reasons, Red Hat had considered buying MySQL. Zachary noted, "There were a number of potential pre-IPO suitors for MySQL AB. Sun [was only] one of them."

Gordon Haff, senior analyst for Illuminata, however, said he isn't sure that Red Hat could have managed such a deal. Buying MySQL was "Probably too big a bit for Red Hat-and they have admitted that the JBoss integration hasn't gone as well as they would have liked. Adding yet another big piece of middleware would have been a bad move," Haff said.

Of course, whether Sun can manage the MySQL acquisition is also a question. Farina said he believes Sun faces two challenges: The first is to compete against Microsoft in the small and midsize business space and the second "will be to address the conflict with Oracle in the small percentage of enterprise vendors who use MySQL. In February 2006, Oracle acquired Finnish developer InnoDB, who provided an enterprise-grade database engine option for MySQL. Oracle's ownership of InnoDB took much of the wind out of the advance of MySQL, and the firm has not developed an alternative."

Kusnetzky expressed concern over whether Sun will be able to avoid tinkering with MySQL in a way that could hurt the DBMS with its large user base. "The key question is, Will MySQL continue to be an independent, cross-platform product, or will it become a Sun-only tool?" Kusnetzky said. "If the latter is true, it will just about destroy the market's interest in the software and help other open-source database products such as PostgreSQL."

So will this move give Sun the software stack its customers need? Will it prove an expensive, badly managed merger? The ultimate answer lies in Sun's hands.