Ten Questions with Marten Mickos, CEO of MySQL
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ().
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!