The MySQL Community: Beleaguered or Better than Ever?

The  MariaDB Foundation announcement spawned some interesting commentary about the state of open source databases.  One recent headline cited the "beleaguered MySQL community." Beleaguered is a delightful adjective.  The OED tells us that it means beset, invested, or besieged.  Much as I like the word, I do not think it is an accurate or useful description of the MySQL community.  This article and others like it miss the point of what is happening to MySQL and its users.

Let's start by disproving that the notion that the MySQL community is beleaguered.  I don't know everyone who uses MySQL, but in my job I talk to numerous companies that have made sizable investments in MySQL and stand to lose big if they are wrong.  They do not seem especially nervous.

1.  Nobody seriously questions MySQL viability.  I have yet to meet a manager with a substantial business on MySQL who is deeply worried about it disappearing or being ruined by Oracle.  They are too busy working on software upgrades or keeping their sites running.  The future of MySQL is well down the list of problems keeping them awake at night.  
2.  MySQL meets or beats the immediate alternatives.  There is of course discussion about dropping MySQL for PostgreSQL but it is mostly idle talk.  I'm sure some companies have switched (actually in both directions), but I not seen a single customer migrate a working business app from MySQL to PostgreSQL.  Once you get past the religion, it's clear MySQL and PostgreSQL are just too similar to supplant each other easily:  reliable, row-based stores with single threaded SQL query engines that handle a few terabytes of data at most.  Companies need far stronger reasons to switch to something new, especially given the large ecosystem and deep pool of MySQL expertise. 
3. MySQL is not the only game in town.  Virtually every large web site I know uses at least one NoSQL store alongside MySQL.  Column stores are increasingly common for data warehouses.  Production Hadoop clusters are no longer a novelty.  On the surface this might look like a failure of MySQL.  What's really happening in many cases is that small businesses that started on MySQL are now large, profitable enterprises that require more than just economical OLTP.  This is a mark of success, not a deficiency.

If this is what beleaguered looks like I can't wait to see something that's actually successful.

Turning the argument around, can we say that the MySQL community is better than it was?  In at least one important way, yes.  The community is now multi-polar.  MySQL long benefitted from having a large community of open source users to find bugs, help focus development direction, and construct a wide range of robust tools like language bindings.  However, innovation on MySQL itself was largely gated by a single company:  MySQL AB.  Multiple groups are now competing to improve MySQL, and it's a very good thing for users.  Let me count the ways.

There are three major versions of MySQL:  Oracle, Percona, and MariaDB, not to mention cloud-only versions like Amazon RDS.  There are at least four companies working directly on major upgrades to replication:  Continuent, Oracle, Codership, and Monty Program.  Oracle is continuing to make improvements in InnoDB like online schema change and multi-core scaling, efforts that are complemented by Percona's persistent focus on all aspect of performance.  Aside from Amazon RDS, all of this work is available in open source, and there is an unusual degree of sharing across otherwise competitive groups.  I could keep going for a while but to be frank there's so much it's hard to track all the improvements or give them their proper due.

The MySQL community is therefore competitive in a way that did not exist a few years ago. That's good, because innovation in data management is no longer centered around the web-facing applications that MySQL helped enable. Businesses are grappling with massive data volumes that far exceed the capacity of single DBMS servers while simultaneously moving to Amazon or VMWare. There is a whole new set of problems such as deploying in unstable cloud environments, adjusting to polyglot persistence, managing sharded data effectively, distributing data across multiple regions, and enabling real-time analytics on MySQL transactions. As a group, the MySQL community is well-positioned to address them.

If there is a problem, it is how to keep a strong multi-polar community going for as long as possible.   Competition creates uncertainty for users, because change is a given.  Pointy-haired bosses have to make decisions with incomplete information or even reverse them later. Competition is hard for vendors, because it is more difficult to make money in efficient markets.  Competition even strikes against the vanity of community contributors, who have to try harder to get recognition.  It is clear there will be pressures to make the community less competitive.  They won't necessarily be from Oracle, which thrives on competition.

This gets back to the MariaDB Foundation reference that started this article. Anything that ensures long-term competitiveness and vitality of MySQL is good.   Foundations in general seem well suited to this task.  At Continuent we have already had some discussions about joining. So far we are undecided, for reasons that are somewhat similar to Peter Zaitsev's comments on this subject.  If the MariaDB Foundation helps maintain a stable multi-polar community, we're in.