What Does Open Source Mean?

Posted in: MySQL, Technical Track

At last night’s event, a lot of the questions were really implicitly asking, “Is open source better? Why?”

The first answer everyone comes up with is that it’s free, and that’s better.

However, that is neither necessary nor sufficient to deem it “better”.

If MySQL did exactly the same tasks Oracle did, but was free, there’s still a huge amount of money involved when migrating. Merely staffing the migration costs a lot of money.

Companies using open source technologies because they are free are (probably) making the right software choice for the wrong reason.

Firstly, open source does not have to be free — MySQL proves that. Their Enterprise source code is free to paying customers (and whoever paying customers distribute to, but that is not the issue).

Secondly, open source’s benefits far outweigh mere license costs, though the license cost is definitely the most tangible benefit.

I realized while the benefits of open source were being touched upon that the benefits are not lacking in the closed software world, they are simply much harder to come by. For instance, there are companies that reverse engineer solutions, develop their own in-house solutions without being able to read a line of original code. Surely it is easier to build a home-grown solution when the code is readable to begin with.

As well, the talent pool for open source is greater, because there is a lower barrier to entry. It’s still just as difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff as it is in a closed source world, however if your company is willing to hire the top 10%, I’d rather try to find the top 10% from a pool of tens of thousands of people than from a pool of thousands.

The oft-quoted “you can hack it yourself if you want” still applies, and moreso the idea that “even if the company goes out of business, or the core developers stop developing, others can pick up where the previous developers left off.”

One issue we did not touch upon was that open source tends to follow a popular concept in “extreme programming” — the idea that the software is always working. It may not have all the features, maybe it’s not much more than “hello world”, but it works. A feature is added, the code integrated, and it still works, now with +1 feature.

I think the issue is that in general, it is *easier* to reap these benefits from open source than from closed. It makes the argument more difficult, because it’s *possible* to reap similar (or the same) benefits from closed source, but it’s easier with open source.

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2 Comments. Leave new

“it’s free, and that’s better.”
As you said, open source isn’t always free, and even if there’s no licence fees, there can be support costs and the cost of your own staff and the hardware to run it.

“As well, the talent pool for open source is greater, because there is a lower barrier to entry.”
That’s a big assumption.
Firstly, most ‘closed source’ software companies (Microsoft, Oracle etc) have either a free limited functionality product or a full featured ‘non production’ licence for their stuff. It is (almost) as easy to access the software as Open Source, at least for the software user.
Secondly, at least in the DB world, the closed source offerings have a couple of decades head start on the market, so there’s already experienced staff out there who have used the software in real-world applications.
It would be interesting to see how easy it is to find experienced Oracle or SQL Server developers/DBAs compared with the open-source Postgres, MySQL and Ingres.

“hire the top 10%”
Most companies don’t hire the top 10%, but the top 5 (or 10) INDIVIDUALS. And ploughing through 1000 resumes will be harder than 100 resumes. While I don’t agree with the logic presented, I agree that it is easier to hire out of a large talent pool than a small one.

One benefit of Open Source you didn’t touch on is that closed-source vendors try to partition their market, charging more to large corporations than small businesses, normally using the idea of ‘Enterprise level functionality’ and/or charge per CPU/Gb… As a result, as businesses get bigger (or their data requirements do), their costs will rise, and small businesses suffer from lock-out of the costlier functionality.
Open source makes the same functionality available irrespective of the size of the business, data volumes, hardware or its bank balance.


I would not mention MySQL Enterprise as a working example of OSS. Its a prime example of how not to approach OSS. Basically the Enterprise server just tries to live off the positive vibe of the Community server. So at most its using OSS as a marketing vehicle. It does not use the Community for development or even testing, which to me are the more critical pieces, especially since the Enterprise server is not free beer.

I was at a little business lunch here in Zurich yesterday, where a Sun guy was explaining the implications of the Sub-MySQL deal. While he was busy portraying Sun as a company that gets OSS, I feel that form his explanations that Sun also sees OSS as a distribution mechanism and not as a development model. I hope that this guy was just overwhelmed with my questions and that Sun indeed understands that the power of OSS is in collaborative development and massive parallel testing and not so much in just building a large user base with cheap licensing fees for _some_ version o the software.


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