It’s a long, long road to Open Source nirvana

Don MacAskill calls himself a “huge fan” of open-source software in general, and the MySQL database in particular. MySQL is one of the core technologies used at SmugMug Inc., an online photo-sharing service, where MacAskill is CEO.

But now MacAskill finds himself hoping that MySQL can be rescued and righted by Sun Microsystems Inc. — a traditional IT vendor, albeit one that has fully embraced the open-source process in recent years.

Sun’s acquisition of MySQL AB last month is the biggest in a series of steps that vendors have taken to try to improve the open-source experience for corporate users. That’s becoming a pressing need as more companies adopt open-source software — and as vendors push hard to increase the adoption rate even further.

But there’s still a long way to go to soothe user concerns over issues such as the timely delivery of new features and bug fixes, the need for more predictable product road maps, and the lack of IT workers with open-source skills and experience.

At SmugMug, for example, MacAskill is still waiting for fixes to a scalability problem that led him to write in a January blog post that he was “seriously considering” not renewing the company’s MySQL Enterprise support contract when it expires later this year.

As SmugMug adds more processor cores to its MySQL servers, performance isn’t increasing like it should, MacAskill said. The problem stems from concurrency problems between MySQL and InnoDB, the most widely used storage engine for the database.

MacAskill said he and other users tried for years to get MySQL to address the glitches, “and all we got back was radio silence.” Eventually, users such as Google Inc. developed their own patches in an effort to fix the performance problem, but MySQL has been slow to incorporate the patches into the database. Zack Urlocker, MySQL’s executive vice president of products, said in a response to MacAskill’s January blog post that MySQL had added some fixes to new database releases and was reviewing Google’s patches. MySQL was also looking forward to tapping into Sun’s “great expertise in scaling performance,” Urlocker wrote.

MacAskill said he hopes that Sun, which he viewed as an IT dinosaur a few years ago, can solve the scalability problem. And despite the nature of open source, he would prefer that the fix come as part of the vendor’s support of the database. “We have our own product to build here,” he noted.

The uncertainties of the open-source development model continue to drive some corporate users away. For example, Dale Frantz, CIO at Auto Warehousing Co., considered desktop Linux before deciding last year to replace the new-car processing company’s PCs with Macintosh systems.

The problem, Frantz said at Computerworld ‘s Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference this month, was that when he talked to people in the open-source community, they mostly “wanted to know what we could do for them.” In the end, he added, “we had to do what was best for Auto Warehousing Co.”

Another big issue is the split development model that many open-source vendors have adopted for the enterprise and community versions of their products.

Jeremy Cole, a former MySQL user at Yahoo Inc. who is now a consultant at Proven Scaling LLC, said that MySQL has been updating its enterprise database release more often than the community version. As a result, he said, “while enterprise users are getting fixes faster, they’re essentially running untested code.”

In addition, Cole said, users such as Google and Yahoo have long had to either live with a variety of shortcomings in MySQL’s software or do the development work themselves.

Cole wrote in a blog post in January that he thinks Sun “has a very good chance of leading MySQL better than MySQL” did. As of last week, though, he had yet to hear of any planned changes to MySQL’s development model or release schedule.

Bill Parducci, chief technology officer at Think Passenger Inc., which builds online communities for companies and their customers, noted that Linux vendor Red Hat Inc. doubled the length of its new-release cycles several years ago because of pressure from users who were having trouble keeping up with its updates. In addition to Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Think Passenger uses open-source technologies such as the CentOS version of Linux, the Jetty Web server and Iona Technologies PLC’s Fuse Message Broker.

Parducci is satisfied with most of his open-source vendors but sees room for improvement, particularly among the smaller ones. They need to cultivate their communities and ensure that they have timely feedback loops so that business users can get the technical help they require, he said.

More comprehensive and reliable product road maps would help as well, according to Gautam Guliani, executive director of software architecture at Kaplan Test Prep & Admissions.

The division of Kaplan Inc. uses a small assortment of open-source software, including Red Hat Linux and Red Hat’s JBoss middleware. Getting timely support from the open-source vendors hasn’t been a problem for Guliani. But in some cases, he said, “the development road map isn’t thought out as much as we’d like.” Jonathan Schwartz, Sun’s CEO and president, said after the announcement of the MySQL acquisition in January that the open-source vendor’s inability “to give peace of mind to a global company that wants to put MySQL into mission-critical deployment” had been a big impediment to its growth. To try to rectify that, Sun plans to offer new MySQL support services worldwide.

Red Hat is also pushing to make it easier for corporate users to deploy its JBoss middleware. Last month, the company said it was setting up new performance-tuning, application certification and technology migration centers for prospective JBoss users. And on March 13, Red Hat said it had bought open-source systems integrator Amentra Inc. specifically to work with JBoss users.

Also, Novell Inc. and SAP AG last week said they’re working to optimize Novell’s SUSE Linux Enterprise operating system for users of SAP’s ERP applications. Baldor Electric Co. in Fort Smith, Ark., has been running its SAP applications on an IBM mainframe with SUSE Linux for the past three years. Mark Shackelford, Baldor’s vice president of information services, was skeptical at first about moving the SAP applications to Linux. “But it’s more stable than any proprietary Unix that we had,” he said.

SmugMug’s MacAskill is counting on Sun to bring some stability and better scalability to MySQL, even though he hasn’t seen any changes yet. “I think it’s a new phase of MySQL’s life,” he said. “It’s fascinating watching this, really.”

Craig Stedman contributed to this story.

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