RDBMS license costs and Open Source

When Sybase wants me to buy eight processor licenses at about $38K each for a Sun T5120, my natural reaction is to reach for MySQL instead because I'd rather spend my $300K on people than licensing.
Written by Paul Murphy, Contributor

A comment by frequent contributor JesperFrimann last week caused me to take a closer look at licensing practices among major commercial database vendors other than Microsoft.

All three of the big guys (Oracle, IBM, and Sybase) follow the same basic sales model:

  1. publish nominal list pricing only;
  2. obfuscate package names, functionality, discounts, and prerequisites to the point that no customer can reasonably understand what's where;
  3. frown severely on anyone who even thinks about publishing pricing, performance, and/or functional information; and,
  4. give the sales crew lots of leeway in dealing with customers who pass credit check.

Thus Oracle, for example, publishes its commercial price list and from that you can discover that licensing for Oracle's Enterprise Edition Plus Business Intelligence Suite lists at $295,000 per processor - but if you want to know what's in it or what it really costs, you'll be doing some serious reading, and lots of guessing, before eventually sitting down with a sales guy.

I don't mention that particular package here to pick on Oracle but to illustrate the impact licensing has on hardware choices:

  1. first, the ratio of hardware to software pricing used to make some rough sense: when a processor cost half a million bucks, paying $100K for a license for the software on it didn't seem unreasonable - but now paying $300K for a Sybase license to run on a $22K T2 seems absurd.
  2. and, second, if you really had to pay $295,000 per core for an Oracle BI license, you'd feel a lot of pressure to run it on the fastest single processor box you could find - even if that machine wasn't remotely competitive on its own.

Put these two things together and paying $260K for a pretty basic p570 running $600K in Oracle licensing on two cores doesn't seem so absurd - and is nearly half a million cheaper than looking for the same delivered performance on a four license AMD machine.

On the other hand this kind of license pricing is about to hit two rocks: one a new processor from Sun, and the other Open Source.

Sun's Rock processors will come with LDOM and hardware scout technology that should make a license purchased for operation on a single processor more productive than multiple licenses purchased for Power6 or Niagara gear - and that's going to leave these RDBMS companies facing a lot of pressure from customers and hardware partners alike: all trying to leverage more realistic pricing on their gear by threatening migrations to Rock.

Once customers start to think in terms of possible change, however, change to open source may seem much less emotionally charged than hardware change - because people identify with their hardware suppliers but, except for wintel bigots, typically much less so with software suppliers.

In other words, most people who start by considering the cost of saving half a million bucks on licensing by switching from IBM to Sun on hardware, will soon jump to considering keeping their IBM stuff but saving all of the licensing cost by switching to open source - and most will find that sticking with IBM while abandoning DB2 for MySQL feels much more comfortable than switching to Sun hardware.

Equally importantly, the entry barriers to change are lower too. If you're facing a $338K charge to put Sybase ASE on a T5120 and some consultant or blogger tells you that MySQl (or PostGresSQL) can do the job just about as well for free, your cost of finding out whether that's true or not is largely going to consist of some staff time because all the tools you need for the experiment are free - and once the test system demonstrates feasibility you're going to understand that the real bottom line here is simply that spending that $338K on staffing and support is a lot better than spending it on licensing.

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