Teo Wan Ping, IBM Singapore's brand manager for information management, told ZDNet Asia that IBM could "potentially offer" a free starter edition of DB2, as part of the company's strategy to gain mindshare for its database product.
Although Big Blue's existing entry-level DB2 database--the DB2 Universal Database Express Edition--is not free, Teo pointed out that IBM already has a free product in its veins: the Java-based Cloudscape database, which the company contributed to the open-source community last year.
While Teo acknowledged that the database engine used by Cloudscape is different from the one used by DB2, businesses can migrate to the DB2 easily, he claimed.
Commenting on IBM's impending move, Gartner vice president Donald Feinberg told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview that it was a matter of time before IBM released a free version of DB2.
Like rivals Microsoft and Oracle, IBM would want to boost its footprint in the database market, as open-source databases like MySQL gain traction, especially among SMB developers, he noted.
With more than 1 million downloads recorded so far for MySQL 5.0, Feinberg noted, database vendors are putting the open-source rival on their radars. "Although there are people using MySQL for 'religious' reasons, my guess is at least half of them do so because it's free," he said.
Feinberg added that the "free" lure of MySQL is attractive to SMB developers, compared to paying for a proprietary database used in development work. "A small [proprietary] database with a single CPU license would cost more than US$2,000. It's still a lot of money."
Teo, however, pointed out that the cost of acquiring a database product should not overshadow the cost of maintaining one. "It could be the cost of personnel [to administer the database], or the cost of ongoing support from vendors."
In any IT project, the software acquisition costs make up about 10 percent of the total implementation costs, he noted. "The cost of maintenance is always neglected by most organizations," he pointed out.
Teo added that while it may be easy for vendors to scale down their databases and put out an Express edition quickly, they should also include features in entry-level products that address the needs of the target audience, such as SMBs with limited IT manpower.
"It should be easy to use, with simple user interfaces and management tools--these are the things to consider in an Express Edition product," Teo said.
According to Gartner, Oracle led last year's relational database market with 34.1 percent share, followed by IBM and Microsoft with 33.7 percent and 20 percent respectively.
Database vendors also see free versions of their products as a way to attract independent software vendors and small companies to their platforms, especially when they are just starting out, said Nick Evered, senior vice president for database and middleware business unit at Oracle Asia-Pacific.
"With Oracle XE, we provide a piece of freeware and people will be able to develop an application with the same code base used throughout Oracle's database product line," he said.
Similarly, Simon Piff, regional solutions manager at Microsoft Asia-Pacific, said Microsoft's SQL Server 2005 Express Edition is suited for beginners who are learning how to build SQL applications. "Those who want more (database) management features can move up to the Workgroup Edition," he added.
Another interesting target market of low-end databases is Microsoft Access, which is bundled with the Microsoft Office productivity suit, Feinberg noted. "There are thousands of Microsoft Access databases that contain personal and departmental data, which IT departments want control of, as part of compliance regulations."
Feinberg said the Microsoft Access market is "huge", adding that there are companies claiming to have up to 50,000 Access databases running on user desktops.
"The Express editions would help IT departments move their Access databases to something more reliable and scaleable," he said.