10 February 2006

Scrying an Oracle

This story has so many interesting elements in it that it's just got to be true.

According to Business Week, Oracle is poised to snap up no less than three open source companies: JBoss, Zend and Sleepycat Software. JBoss - which calls itself the "professional open source company", making everyone else unprofessional, I suppose - is one of the highest-profile players in this sector. Not least because its founder, the Frenchman Marc Fleury, has a tongue as sharp as his mind (you can sample his blog with this fab riff on genomics, Intelligent Design and much else).

His controversial remarks and claims in the past have not always endeared him to others in the free software world. Take, for example, the "disruptive Professional Open Source model" he proudly professes, "which combines the best of the open source and proprietary software worlds to make open source a safe choice for the enterprise and give CIOs peace of mind." Hmm, I wonder what Richard Stallman has to say about that.

JBoss has been highly successful in the middleware market: if you believe the market research, JBoss is the leader in the Java application server sector. Oracle's acquisition would make a lot of sense, since databases on their own aren't much fun these days: you need middleware to hook them up to the Internet, and JBoss fits the bill nicely. It should certainly bolster Oracle in its battle against IBM and Microsoft in the fiercely-fought database sector.

While many might regard the swallowing up of an ambivalent JBoss by the proprietary behemoth Oracle as just desserts of some kind, few will be happy to see Zend suffer the same fate. Zend is the company behind the PHP scripting language - one of the most successful examples of free software. (If you're wondering, PHP stands for "PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor" - employing your standard hacker recursive acronym naming convention).

Where JBoss is mostly key for companies running e-commerce Web sites, say, PHP is a core technology of the entire open source movement. Its centrality is indicated by the fact that it is one of the options for the ubiquitous LAMP software stack: Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP or Perl or Python. The fact that Oracle will own the engine that powers PHP will be worrying for many in the free software world.

About Sleepycat, I can only say: er, who? - but that's just ignorance on my part. This article explains that Sleepycat's product, Berkeley DB, is actually the "B" in LAMP. Got that? The Sleepycat blog may throw some more light on this strange state of affairs - or maybe not.

Whatever the reason that Oracle wants to get its mitts on Sleepycat as well as Zend and JBoss, one thing is abundantly clear if these rumours prove true: Oracle is getting very serious about open source.

In the past, the company has had just about the most tortuous relationship with open source of any of the big software houses. As I wrote in Rebel Code, in early July 1998, an Oracle representative said "we're not seeing a big demand from our customer that we support it" - "it" being GNU/Linux. And yet just two weeks later, Oracle announced that it was porting Oracle8 to precisely that platform. This was one of the key milestones in the acceptance of free software by business: no less a person than Eric Raymond told me that "the Oracle port announcement...made the open source concept unkillable by mere PR" - PR from a certain company being a big threat in the early days of corporate adoption.

Open source has come on by leaps and bounds since then, and these moves by Oracle are not nearly so momentous - at least for free software. But I wonder whether the otherwise canny Larry Ellison really knows what he's getting into.

Until now, Oracle has mainly interacted with open source through GNU/Linux - that is, at arm's length. If it takes these three companies on board - especially if it acquires Zend - it will find itself thrown into the maelstrom of open source culture. Here's a hint for Mr Ellison: you don't get to assimilate that culture, whatever you might be thinking of doing with the companies. You either work with it, or it simply routes around you.

Yes, I'm talking about forks here: if Oracle misplays this, and tries to impose itself on the PHP or JBoss communities, I think it will be in for a rude surprise. To its credit, IBM really got this, which is why its embrace of open source has been so successful. Whether Oracle can follow in its footsteps, only time will tell.

But the rumoured acquisitions, if they go ahead, will have one other extremely significant effect. They will instantly add credibility, viability and desirability to a host of other second-generation open source companies that have grown up in the last few years. Free software will gain an immediate boost, and hackers will suddenly find themselves in great demand again.

Given the astonishing lift-off of Google's share price, and the palpable excitement surrounding Web 2.0 technologies (and the start-ups that are working on them), the hefty price-tags on open source companies being bandied around in the context of Oracle have a feeling of déjà-vu all over again: didn't we go through all this with Red Hat and VA Linux a few years back?

You don't have to be clairvoyant - or an oracle - to see that if these deals go through, the stage is well and truly set for Dotcom Delirium 2.0.

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