Sybase trial is a masquerade

The company's implication - that an open-source licence subjects licensees to intolerable restrictions that a commercial licence does not - is an invitation to apply additional scrutiny. So we did

In a press release issued last week, with the headline "Sybase First to Provide Free Linux Enterprise-Class Database for Production Use", Sybase noted that it has "deepened its commitment to the Linux community with the availability of the first free deployment version of an enterprise-class Linux database -- Sybase Adaptive Server Enterprise (ASE) Express Edition for Linux."

Given the growing popularity of Linux as an unbloated host to server-based applications like Web, database and application servers), a freely deployable, enterprise-class database server can be a good thing. At first, open-source databases such as MySQL come to mind. But, in a subsequent email exchange with a Sybase spokesperson, I was also advised that going the open-source route would not only fail to provide me with enterprise-class solutions, but that "other 'free' databases have General Public License restrictions or complex open-source licensing issues that limit developers' ability to deploy their applications."

The company's implication -- that an open-source licence subjects licensees to intolerable restrictions that a commercial licence does not -- is an invitation to apply additional scrutiny to the entire Sybase campaign.

First, regarding the freely deployable nature of ASE for Linux, the fact is that there are some limitations. Users are free to deploy ASE for Linux as long as the systems on which they're deploying it are not very enterprisey. They can only have one CPU, no more than 5GB of data storage, and a maximum 2GB of memory. In other words, ASE for Linux is free only in specific configurations.

According to an InfoWorld report regarding the news, Forrester Research analyst Noel Yuhanna complained about the storage limitation, saying "For most customers, 5GB isn't enough -- projects using free, open-source databases tend to average 10GB to 20GB."

But there's another catch. The freely deployable nature of ASE for Linux only applies to the current 12.5.2 version of ASE, the 15.0 beta version, and the shipping version of 15.0 when it ships next year. What's wrong with this picture? Suppose you're a user with modest database needs who bought into Sybase's "free deployment" and "commitment to the Linux community" language. And suppose that three years from now, you want to upgrade to version 16.0. Right now, perhaps drawing into question the spirit of Sybase's "commitment to the Linux community" statement, the company isn't guaranteeing perpetual upgrades.

This brings us to the supposedly unpalatable restrictions attached to open-source software versus the supposedly more palatable restrictions on commercially licensed software like ASE for Linux.

Unless a patent claim comes along and is upheld by a court of law, once the open-source cat is out of the bag for a particular piece of software, it can't be put back in so easily, if at all. This means that as long as a particular open-source offering has the backing it needs to sustain itself, users of that offering are assured not merely a perpetual licence, but also the likelihood of zero-cost perpetual upgrades.

This is much more reassuring than Sybase's one year commitment. Additionally, open-source offerings have no restrictions on the number of CPUs, the amount of storage, or the amount of RAM -- as ASE for Linux does.

Then there's the open-source biggie -- users are free to modify the code. Sybase notes that modified code must be shared with the rest of the open-source world. True enough. But, with open-source software, at least you can modify the code, which is far less restrictive than the licence for commercial software like ASE that forbids any such changes/derivatives and subsequent distribution. After hearing that argument, Sybase said they'd get back to me.

Next, consider the definition of "enterprise class". Make no mistake: I'm a big Sybase fan. ASE is undoubtedly an enterprise-class product with some unique selling propositions. In my tests, I've been particularly impressed by the strength of Sybase's database offerings, especially when it comes to the way the company's iAnyWhere division can power mobile applications. In the world of mobility, synch is king. So far, however, no other database that I've found runs on handhelds, desktops, and servers (and replicates data between all three) yet does not tie you to a single vendor's operating systems on each of those platforms (the way Microsoft's SQL Server does with Windows and PocketPC). Sybase has the only such portfolio that doesn't tie you to a particular OS. But, setting aside the fact that you can't really configure ASE for Linux in an enterprise-class system because of the licensing restrictions, I'm unconvinced by Sybase's claim that there are no enterprise-class open source databases.

Equally unconvinced is Sam Greenblatt, senior vice president and chief architect for Computer Associates' Linux Technology Group. Computer Associates recently open-sourced its Ingres database, a technology that Greenblatt claims is being used to run giant corporations and entire governments. Ingres is available under CA's Trusted Open Source License (CATOSL) which, according Greenblatt, means that it is freely and perpetually deployable, shippable, and can be embedded with nothing but the typical open-source restrictions (that modifications to Ingres' source go back into the community).

Said Greenblatt of Ingres' enterprise-class qualifications: "I think it's better than ASE. With its clustering, view capabilities, parallelism, and ability to handle XML out of the box, it far exceeds any other database in the market." As proof of CA's faith in Ingres, Greenblatt noted that by next year, every product CA ships that requires a database will have Ingres under the hood. Regarding Sybase's move to allow for the free deployment of ASE for Linux in limited configurations and the company's commitment to the Linux community, Greenblatt told me: "If you're going to work with the open community and make your database available to it, you can't do it in this form. You can't dip your toe into the water by not making it fully available as open source. To bring value to an open-source community and customer, you fully participate in the market [by open sourcing the product]."

For Sybase, I don't think open sourcing ASE is an option. Given that the source code behind ASE can be found in some of the company's other database products, open sourcing it would thrust this public company's licensing revenues into uncertainty.

And as long as Sybase doesn't open-source ASE, as long as it places arbitrary restrictions on its usage, and as long as there's no long-term commitment to making future versions freely deployable, IT buyers should recognise Sybase's offering for what it is: a try-before-you-buy programme. Caveat emptor er, downloader.


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