Weighing the costs of open source

Figuring the costs of the popular MySQL open source software is more complicated than you might think -- especially since it's free.

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With nearly 30 DBAs on staff, Columbus, Ga.-based TSYS had a deep enough talent pool to spend time testing whether MySQL, the popular open source database management software, would be a viable option for the company.

TSYS had been running Microsoft SQL Server 2000 for years. Hearing about the success of MySQL as a low-cost DBMS alternative, the company decided to investigate its potential.

While MySQL passed performance tests, the IT staff at the credit card processing company became concerned that MySQL didn't have enough formal support backing it up. What if the credit card processing company's databases failed, asked Tim Kelly, who serves as technical director of technology at TSYS.

"We were not prepared to deal with new support contracts and rely on an alternative database with our customer data."
Tim Kelly,
director of technologyTSYS

"We have a procedure on how to roll back transactions when something goes wrong, but in the event that everything you try doesn't work and you look for support, there area million comments out there on the Web -- and newsgroup articles on MySQL -- but in production scenarios, you can't really rely on that," Kelly said.

Figuring out the total cost of ownership for a DBMS can be more complex than many companies expect at the outset, said Mike Schiff, vice president of data warehousing and business intelligence at Sterling, Va.-based Current Analysis.

"The cost of ownership isn't just the cost of acquisition or maintenance; it's also the vendor responsiveness when you've got a critical issue and downtime," Schiff said. "The cost of dollars to a company that has a database down can be staggering."

Open source support is common concern

Support is often the biggest concern among companies considering MySQL, said Zack Urlocker, vice president of marketing at MySQL. The company is currently testing more flexible support packages with existing customers and plans to roll out revamped support plans in July, Urlocker said.

"Right now we only offer two levels of support, so we're planning to expand with additional support programs by taking more of a tiered approach," Urlocker said. " Often education is required, and it's one of the questions many people have about open source, because it's still pretty new to a lot of organizations."

For Kelly, the price of MySQL support was a stopping point. "The up-front cost savings for open source products didn't even out the long-running support costs," Kelly said. "Implementing the open source binaries is a little cheaper on the initial purchase, but now you have to engage support contracts at levels that seem quite high."

At TSYS, the cost of database downtime has the potential to be enormous. The company has the capacity to run over 11 billion instructions per second, according to Kelly. With over 70 terabytes of storage capacity, the company processes more than a million credit card authorizations per hour, Kelly said.

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In the end, TSYS managers were not prepared to jump to the unknown, said Kelly, who praised Microsoft's support and overall vision for its DBMS.

With security enhancements planned for SQL Server 2005, as well as new tools to improve automation, Kelly said he is optimistic about the future of SQL Server.

"We were not prepared to deal with new support contracts and rely on an alternative database with our customer data," Kelly said. "Obviously, security is one of our major concerns, and Microsoft has always moved in that direction."

Measuring factors other than cost can be difficult, but companies should compare the database literature and best practices to their own environment and ideally find something that matches their requirements, Schiff said.

"If you're buying something for a mission critical application, it's getting that application going that is of primary importance," Schiff said. "Most people don't buy a database based on price alone. "

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