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August 24, 2006

Ten Questions with Marten Mickos, CEO of MySQL

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Marten Mickos joined MySQL AB as CEO in 2001. Under his leadership, the company has grown from a startup to the second largest open source company and the fastest-growing database vendor in the world. Prior to MySQL, Mickos held multi-national CEO and senior executive positions in his native Finland. He holds a masters of science in technical physics from Helsinki University of Technology.

  1. Question: How do you make money with an Open Source product?

    Answer: We start by not making money at all— but by making users. The vast community of MySQL users and developers is what drives our business.

    Then we sell an enterprise offering to those who need to scale and cannot afford to fail. The enterprise offering consists of certified binaries, updates and upgrades, automated DBA services, 7x24 error resolution, etc. You pay by service level and the number of servers. No nonsense, no special math. Enterprise software buyers are tired of complex pricing models (per core, per cpu, per power unit, per user, per whatever the vendor feels like that day)—models that are still in use by the incumbents.

    At MySQL we LOVE users who never pay us money. They are our evangelists. No marketing could do for us what a passionate MySQL user does when he tells his friends and colleagues about MySQL. Our success is based on having millions of evangelists around the world. Of course, they also help us develop the product and fix bugs.

    And the few times that they say that they hate MySQL, that helps us too because complaints usually contain some good suggestion for improvement.

  2. Question: What changes in the Open Source community’s attitude have you encountered since you decided “to build a company” around MySQL?

    Answer: Interestingly, MySQL always was a company. When Monty and David started it in 1995 they made a commitment to open source and a commitment to commercial success at the same time. Monty and David didn’t build out the business themselves, but they did set the ambition.

    So we have always been focused on marrying the best of business with the best of free and open source software. It is not an easy line to walk, but it is highly rewarding. A few times we have erred to one or the other side, and then we have corrected our course.

    The great thing is that many open source supporters think it is fine that we make money. It makes them proud that open source can penetrate the corporate world.

  3. Question: Do you compete head to head with Oracle or do you have different customers?

    Most new companies and new projects within existing companies are choosing open source infrastructure such as the LAMP stack. We don’t see competition there.

    We focus on the new applications and services that are being built for the online world: Web2.0, SaaS, and SOA but also new forms of datawarehouses and business apps. Our customers look for reliability, performance, scalability, and ease of deployment. They don’t look for overly complex products that take days or weeks to get going and cost thereafter.

    That’s why YouTube, Craigslist, Flickr, Habbo Hotel, LiveJournal, Technorati, Second Life, Trulia, FeedBurner, and Right Now are our customers and not Oracle’s. We believe the market we have chosen is the fastest growing part of the DBMS market.

  4. Question: What’s the biggest MySQL DB?

    That’s like asking what’s the biggest Ferrari! What counts is performance and scalability. Omniture runs over 250 billion transactions per quarter on a farm of MySQL servers. Google uses MySQL for AdSense and AdWords. Other large installations include Wikipedia, Travelocity, Weather.com, etc. The databases can be hundreds of gigabytes. Sites run on hundreds of servers, some on thousands.

  5. Question: What’s the weirdest use of MySQL?

    I wish I knew! We were used in the earth unit for the Mars rover. The special effects of The Lord of the Rings were based on MySQL. HotorNot runs on MySQL. Even the Oracle FAQ runs on MySQL ().

  6. Question: What’s the most “mission critical” use of MySQL?

    Answer: I hope it doesn’t sound like megalomania, but so much of today’s online world runs on MySQL that it is difficult to pinpoint just one. Google and Yahoo run mission critical applications on MySQL. Nokia and Alcatel build mobile phone networks that run on MySQL. MySQL was used in various emergency systems during the tsunami in South East Asia and during hurricane Katrina.

  7. Question: How does a company controls what’s happening to its product when the Open Source community is doing the programming and testing?

    Answer: All successful open source products are governed by fairly small groups of long-term developers. That’s the case with Apache, Linux, JBoss, and others. The same applies to us, and in our case the majority of the developers are full-time employees of MySQL. This is the group that decides on the roadmap. In doing so, we need to listen very carefully to the broad community, because if we do not serve them well, they may fork our product or they may move over to some other database.

  8. Question: Is Open Source hindering innovation because it’s one thing to debug an existing product but it’s another to design a new one?

    Answer: On the contrary. I think the architecture of participation that is embedded in the open source philosophy is a superior innovation method. And it is not limited to software—look at Wikipedia. It just so happens that software developers were the first ones to adopt it in the modern world.

    The simple fact that everything you create is open for scrutiny by anyone else is a strong incentive to produce good stuff from the start. And the meritocracy of open source leads to faster innovation and thereby better innovations. It is a Darwinian system where over time the best solutions will emerge.

    Think about the market-leading DBMS company. They have 50,000 paid employees who are working hard to keep their product competitive. We have 50,000 product downloads per day. This means that 50,000 human beings who tinker with our product every day. These people have ideas, suggestions, praises, complaints and although not all of them send us emails every day, the good stuff tends to find its way to the core MySQL team. That’s how an open source project is more innovative and faster moving than a closed source team.

  9. Question: Who fixes the most bugs?

    Answer: Our own team. You can actually see the stats by going here where we completely openly list all our bugs and the people who work on them. We get bug fixes from commercial partners and from users and my hope is that they will one day fix more bugs than our own team. It just takes a long time to learn the internals.

    As important as fixing bugs is to report them with sufficient detail. Because our code is open, users can file very specific bug reports where they point at the places where the bug is likely to be found. The value of this is enormous. Here is an example of a very useful bug report from a user.

  10. Question: If MySQL ceased to exist as an organization, would MySQL the product continue?

    Answer: Software continues to exist long after companies fall by the wayside. In the past, customers had to demand source code to be place in escrow. Today with open source, users are not locked into a single vendor or platform.

    The MySQL source code is licensed under GPL so anyone can create a fork or pick up the torch at any time. Forking is very very rare, but it serves as a perfect method of keeping vendors honest. If MySQL were to develop the product in a stupid direction or not keep it competitive, the community could take over.

    The big questions is what happens if a closed source company fails. I think users are going to increasingly demand that their vendors open source their products. Just look at Solaris. That’s why I expect that all DBMSs will eventually be open sourced.

  11. Question: What keeps you awake at night?

    Answer: I worry that we get caught in our own success and forget to reinvent ourselves. We have such a strong culture in the company that without realizing it we are sometimes saying “but that’s not our way of doing things” and then we miss out on some new opportunity.

    I also worry about software patents. It was a big mistake by society to believe that patents would have as favourable an effect on software as they had on various physical goods. Software patents stifle innovation, and one day we may see a nasty conflict here.

    But, in case you’re wondering, I am not worried about the current gorillas of the DBMS market. They are taking all kinds of actions like zero pricing, buying open source companies, moving up the stack, locking up customers even more, but these are not really working. I believe that over time all markets are rational.

    Also, I stay awake at night because I am doing conference calls with Europe and Asia!


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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Ten Questions with Marten Mickos, CEO of MySQL:

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Comments

MySQL AB holds the copyright to most of the codebase. This is similar to the JBoss model and how the Free Software Foundation handles copyright in its projects. This is different from how Apache does it, where the software is developed by a public community and the copyright to the codebase is owned by its individual authors.

Julius Alba,
The reason he mentioned "At MySQL we LOVE users who never pay us money." is because the Open Source paradigm has shown that many users pay in kind out of self interest--making the product do what _they_ need by providing superior feedback. The MySQL CEO outlines how some of this works. The irony is that it does work, and creates entire operating systems, platforms, database systems, office programs, graphics programs, and so forth. The amount of open source software out there is astounding.

So while he might not get money from many of his clients, he gets some other things of far greater value: free advertising, code contributions that reduce his cost of development, etc.

Articles and books have been written describing how it has worked, not whether it will.

"Even the Oracle FAQ runs on MySQL".

This one is ugly. It's shame!

Oracle FAQ is nothing related to Oracle Company. It is just a forum site created by oracle's users. He uses this example for what purpose??

MySQL guys always "attack" Oracle by using this way of marketing. It's ugly!

"Even the Oracle FAQ runs on MySQL".

Truth in advertising: He probably meant even a FAQ created by someone on the topic of Oracle database runs on a MySQL database.

I don't think this is an example of a large enterprise-grade mission-critical database. In fact, it is exactly the kind of non-critical databases people tend to use MySQL for.

I am biased since I work for Oracle. The opinions expressed here are my own and not necessarily of my employer.

Great interview, both answers and questions. MySQL is a great database that we use in all our products.

I had the pleasure of working with Måde a few years before he went to MySQL. I'll admit that he is one of the very rare few people I would glady work for again, anytime, mostly because he knows how to keep his troops focused on the goal and cares enough about them to ensure that they remain genuinely motivated.

good site!

Fast conversion engine (10MB MySQL database - in 1 minute on average P-III system).

that is MySQL-to-Excel

Ugly One... I noted that the "theoretical things" were important for entrenched apps, e.g. your bank managing accounts. No argument there at all. These niceties are not as necessary for managing an online recipe database or a photo album -- new Internet age apps where MySQL carved its niche.

Trust me. I get the value of the theoretical stuff. But I also had to be a sales bridge between brilliant engineers who got hung up on that stuff and customers who just wanted their app to work and really didn't care about that. MySQL came to prominence focussing on those who didn't need that stuff. And with time, they've added the niceties so that people who need it could use them too. In the late 1990s, there were college kids doing cool stuff with MySQL. There were no college kids doing anything with Oracle. Make sense?

What draws my interest in MySQL is that they bought the company of the Firebird creator! Although I prefer and use Firebird, now we should see some "wonderful" things improve whatever MySQL needed to have improved.

"At MySQL we LOVE users who never pay us money."...is such as cliche about open source software. We are all in the business of developing software for the money. It's what pay's the employee salary and allows us to hire more people so that we can innovate and come up with better products.

People don't buy software for the goods or services. They buy it because it provides a solution to their problems.

Julius Alba
Founder, Newbie Labs.

"For example, while all the other small database wannabes touted transactions and referential integrity and SQL92 compliance and other theoretical things, MySQL focussed on fast."

I'm sorry but transactions and referential integrity are NOT "theoretical things".

for your best, I also hope that the bank managing your savings does not consider these as theoretical and does not focus on "fast" only - otherwise you can lose your money soooooooo fast

Great interview, Guy. Marten, thanks for your answers here. I am very close on being sold on MySQL now. I will definitely take a very serious look at MySQL when I am advising clients in the future.

Cheers,
Kempton

Hi Brad!

We're interested to hear from you regarding ways that we can improve our client libraries to make them better suitable for desktop clients. Feel free to email either myself at jay at mysql dot com, or also to the internals mailing list: internals@lists.mysql.com to share your thoughts.

Cheers!

Jay Pipes
Community Relations Manager, North America
MySQL, Inc.

Open source probably drove passion and reputation for MySQL, but until someone comes up with a way to pay users, you can't beat free. I especially like Mr. Mikos' point about free users being an asset. If you can't give it away for free to tens of thousands of people, you don't have a worthy product. And if you can't find some business to then do with tens of thousands (or millions) of free users, you don't have any business sense.

Oh, there is another great lesson about MySQL... They focussed on features their users needed. For example, while all the other small database wannabes touted transactions and referential integrity and SQL92 compliance and other theoretical things, MySQL focussed on fast. The people who needed the theoretical things were experienced users with entrenched apps. The people who could make do with MySQL were new users with new, interesting apps that just needed tables to throw there data in and a bridge to PHP or Perl. I'd still say MySQL's client libraries are totally unsuitable for desktop apps, but there are easy workarounds, and it's very expensive to make client libraries that don't suck. Been there, done that. Lost my @$$ in that game...

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