Oxford University's computer centre embraces PostgreSQL

The main computing centre at Oxford University has announced plans to drop its last commercial database and to move entirely to open-source database software
Written by Ingrid Marson, Contributor
Oxford University Computing Services (OUCS), which provides services to staff and students around the university, will complete its move to open-source PostgreSQL as the back-end database for most of its systems over the next year.

Ray Miller, the systems development and support manager at OUCS, told ZDNet UK that the OUCS has been using PostgreSQL since 1998 and has at least eight PostgreSQL databases. At present it is running PostgreSQL 7.2 on Debian, the free Linux distribution. The OUCS uses Ingres as the back-end of a user registration system, but is due to migrate this to PostgreSQL in the next 12 to 18 months, said Miller.

The main delay in migrating to PostgreSQL is because of a user management application which is dependant on Ingres. Once this is rewritten the move should be straightforward, according to Miller. "Developers have been working for the last sixth months migrating the [user management] tools to Perl," said Miller. "It should be quite simple to move to PostgreSQL once this is done."

One of biggest uses of PostgreSQL at OUCS is to store data about users for the University's main email system, which currently has around 32,000 active users, said Miller. The email system, which runs off a Perl-based mail server written in-house, known as Webmail, was one of the first systems at OUCS to use the open-source database, and grew from an initial user base of 5,000 to its current level.

PostgreSQL has also been chosen to run as the back-end of an email-forwarding service for Oxford University alumni, which went live this summer, said Miller. The service allows graduates to forward emails from a university account to any other email address, allowing them to keep the same email address for life.

This service has been offered to this year's graduates, and the OUCS hopes to eventually add historical data so that graduates from previous years can also use this service.

"The system will grow very big," said Miller, "PostgreSQL will eventually store data on tens, if not hundreds of thousands of ex-students."

PostgreSQL is also used as the back-end for other systems including a virtual learning environment, a Web-based portal, a course-booking system that allows students to select OUCS courses, and an IT helpdesk system, which has already processed 600,000 helpdesk tickets, according to Miller.

Miller said the choice of open-source rather than proprietary software was not just a matter of cost -- the large community of developers willing to provide support and the ability to access the source code were also an important deciding factor.

"We have definitely saved money, but I couldn't put a figure on it," said Miller. "A commercial database wasn't something we considered. We prefer working with the open-source community -- the support is excellent and you can modify the code."

Open-source software has sometimes been criticised for being difficult to use, but Miller said PostgreSQL is easier to use than Ingres -- the commercial database produced by Computer Associates that was recently open-sourced -- which is the only commercial database in use at the computing centre.

"PostgreSQL works out of box -- the administration overhead is very small," said Miller. "It is easier to set up and administrate than Ingres."

The computing centre did not just make a choice of open-source over proprietary, but also had to choose between the two popular open-source databases, MySQL and PostgreSQL, But Miller claims that this was a simple choice. "When we first started using PostgreSQL it is was the only open-source database that was fully featured," said Miller.

Miller said MySQL has become more feature-rich in the past few years, but claimed it is still lagging behind PostgreSQL. This may change in the future as Brian Aker, director of architecture at MySQL, told ZDNet UK two weeks ago that MySQL will be reaching parity with commercial databases in its next release.

The only additional feature which Miller said is needed in PostgreSQL is a recommended or integrated replication tool. OUCS is currently running numerous PostgreSQL databases off one server, and would like to implement a replication tool in case the primary server fails. Miller said there are various replication tools available for PostgreSQL including eRServer and Slony-I, but he has not yet evaluated which one he will use.

Simon Riggs, a developer on PostgreSQL, said that he was not sure whether PostgreSQL would provide a recommended version, as there are a few competing versions available, of which Slony-I is his choice. "I, personally, would choose to use Slony-I as it appears to have the greatest community support."

Although OUCS is a heavy-user of PostgreSQL, Miller says that in many other university departments, administrators are paying consultants "large amounts of money" to use proprietary database solutions, such as Oracle.

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