Ann Harrison :: Sharing is 'in' so get used to it!

Open Software?
The Most Exciting Thing in Years!

Report from Doug Chamberlin
Boston, 1 May 2000

When Ann Harrison addressed a database users' group here today, she proclaimed the open software model the most exciting thing in years.

"Open software provides an inspiration to do a better job. Most everyone has been enthusiastic, supportive, and friendly if they think you are doing the right thing."

"The typical paranoia of proprietary systems is gone", Ann commented. "Sharing is 'in' so get used to it!" She said she really liked the people who are involved, really liked the product very much and really thought ISC had a strong market opportunity. She has great hopes for the company's prospects!

Why Open Source?
Ann described three basic reasons for opening the Interbase sources. First, historically the product had been consistently undervalued. She described a situation where the value of the Interbase company (or company unit) had remained roughly the same for the past 10 years or longer. Clearly, past strategies had not been working to advance the product.

Secondly, the condition of the database market was that database systems were becoming a commodity, with each OS platform having one or more databases available which were roughly equivalent at providing the basic operations. (Insert, delete, update with multi-user coordination through transactions, reliability, and reasonable speed.) Since there were not many alternatives to databases for storing complex data and database systems eliminate a lot of hassles, they continued to be used a lot.

The DBMS market, Ann explained, is only expected to grow 10 per cent per year, at most. It is a market dominated by Oracle (55 per cent), Microsoft (10 per cent) and IBM (10 per cent). It is essentially, therefore, a stagnant market. Rather than butt heads against these giants, InterBase needs a market which is growing.

A member of the audience pointed out that you can zip up an Interbase database file and send it to someone else for help and it will actually be usable - not something you could do with the big competitor products.

The third reason was opportunity. The growth of the Linux market and the accompanying growth of the open software market provide a wide open playing field. The open software phenomenon had progressed through several waves. Originally, there were open software games. Then came compilers and tools. Linux brought an open software OS. Now we are getting into open software applications which need database systems to support them.

Cross-Platform Advantage
Ann stressed the importance of its multi-platform capability in distinguishing Interbase's potential to become the standard open source database. It would be very important for the user community to recognize that, unlike many open source efforts which focused on Linux, Interbase would be available on many OS platforms from the beginning

In response to questions, she observed that InterBase generally performed much better than competitor products when they were not tuned but not usually as well if they were well-tuned. The beauty of Interbase, she added, was good performance without undue effort. With a little attention you could even get great performance.

Ann noted that alternative open databases each had their shortcomings, although these would be likely to be addressed in the open source environment. MySQL currently did not have transaction support and PostgreSQL did not do outer joins or support all sub-selects.

Company Revenue
On sources of revenue for the ISC company, Ann explained the strong role of support services in the new company's business model. It would be offered at several levels, each with different prices. The working target was to make it cheaper for developers and customers to get support through the company than to work on a problem for more than a day, or a substantial portion of a day.

The company also wanted very much to avoid the common situation where customers call and are handled by an inappropriate support person. You know the situation - it's when the customer knows more than the support person.

In response to a question about high-priority support requests, Ann replied that ISC would aim to handle all problems quickly and effectively, but recognized that VARs and consultants who worked with the product daily should be able to get quicker access to senior people. Advanced levels of support would be offered to those who required it.

Training was the second area of potential revenues. Initially Interbase training would be outsourced to consultants but company plans allowed for building up its own staff of trainers over time.

The company planned also to draw revenue from selling certified Interbase kits, including CDs, manuals, books, etc.

Ann had been in touch with several companies which distribute Linux and they had expressed interest in including Interbase in their distributions.

When asked if ISC was considering anything along the lines of delivering a box with the database pre-configured - the Plug-and play-database appliance - as some of the big competitors were starting to do, Ann replied "Yes. Cannot say much more yet."

Open Source Licensing
On licensing, Ann spoke about the main reasons for deciding to use the modified Mozilla license. She said she was acutely aware of the need for general acceptance of the licensing terms by the greater open source community. She stressed the difference between free software (as exemplified in the GPL license) and open software. Interbase licensing terms, she said, must allow VARs who use Interbase to be able to control the licensing of their own software themselves. Without that, they would not use it.

The other strong sentiment was the need to strongly encourage changes to the source code to be shared for the benefit of all. If there were no requirement to contribute (as there is not, with the BSD license), a major benefit of using open source would be lost.

Commenting on the size of the user base, Ann estimated that there were probably 20-30,000 exisitng licensed users and about 2,000 registered developers. The version 6 beta code was being downloaded about 3,000 times each week. She noted that the major proportion of licenses (and therefore, presumably, usage) was outside the United States.

ISC as an Open Source Company
Ann described how the ISC company would participate in the open software effort. They would maintain the source version control tree. They would provide strong leadership in arbitrating discussion of additions and changes. Forking of the tree would be strongly discouraged but she conceded it was, of course, possible, in accord with the open software principles.

Charlie Caro
Charlie Caro, senior R & D engineer, welcomed the new, open era for InterBase. He hoped it would make the turnaround of bug fixes and enhancement requests much faster than in the past. He expressed frustration at the past experience of having to wait for the next release cycle to get fixes out to users.

He thought having the source available would be a big plus in many bug cases because it meant more people could get involved in pinpointing problems.

What did Ann see as goals for the open source product beyond Release 6.0?
  • Addressing security issues would be big, Ann said. Anywhere there was "security by obscurity" InterBase would have to do better since that did not work in an open source environment.

  • Reliability would be increased as problems which can lead to server crashes were addressed.

  • A plug-in architecture for some features was under discussion.

  • Enhancement of SQL rights was needed to enable additional operations to be controlled by SQL rights settings.
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