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November 1999


Linux and the DBMS

By Craig S. Mullins

The day of the Linux DBMS is upon us. Unless you have had your head in the ground over the past year, you will have at least heard of Linux. For those unenlightened few, Linux is the open source version of Unix available for free over the Internet. A few pioneering companies also have packaged the Linux operating system on CD-ROM and offer it with a customer support option (for example, Red Hat and Caldera). The computer industry’s desire to have an alternative to Microsoft, coupled with Linux’s strong reputation for reliability, have created an apparently strong market for Linux. But just how strong is it?

All but one of the leading DBMS vendors either already have shipped a version that runs on Linux or are working on Linux support. Of course, the one missing DBMS vendor is Microsoft. Microsoft SQL Server runs on Windows NT, period. And Microsoft will never develop a Linux version of SQL Server because it would eat into Microsoft’s Windows NT revenue.

But what of the other leaders, Oracle and IBM? In July both began offering Linux versions of their stalwart products: Oracle8I and DB2 Universal Database. You can get a free trial of the Linux version of either via the web at:

Informix and Sybase also offer Linux versions of their DBMS products. But with all of the hoopla, who is actually using these products? Most Linux users deploy the operating system to run web servers, file servers, or e-mail servers. Relatively few production Linux servers are configured as database servers. Why is this? Well, the first reason is obvious: Linux-compatible DBMS offerings have only recently become available. However, there are other concerns that may limit Linux’s popularity for database servers.

One such concern is purely economic. Ask any of the DBMS vendors how they hope to make money on the Linux version of their product and then sit back and wait for the doubletalk. Just how do you price a product for a free operating system? If the user is unwilling to pay a vendor for an operating system, arguably the most important piece of software in their shop, then how will you convince them to shell out the big bucks for a DBMS?  Answer: you probably won’t, at least not in the near term.

The Linux hype needs to clear and reality needs to set in. The reason to implement a Linux database server is not to save money on the operating system, but to have a reliable, scalable platform for your DBMS, today. According to IDC, 40% of Linux users in the United States use it because they believe it is more reliable than either Unix or Windows NT; only 13% implement it because of its perceived lower price.

Linux is a good alternative to Windows NT when purchased with customer support. No DBA worth his pay should ever implement a production database on a Linux platform without a support contract from a Linux provider such as Red Hat (

Why Linux?

So why should DBMS vendors support Linux versions of their products? Supporting Linux is a wise course of action for the DBMS vendors for the following reasons:

  • To build support for their products in the universities where Linux is used religiously.
  • To build support with the Linux hackers who eventually get hired at big IT shops.
  • For the PR benefits – just mention Linux in a press release and your announcements is sure to be covered in all of the major industry publications.
  • To support those big IT shops that have chosen Linux not for cost saving, but for its reliability (or because the CIO read about Linux in that airline magazine on his last cross Atlantic trip)
  • To be prepared as Linux becomes more widely adopted in large and medium-sized corporations.

This article has mostly concentrated on the pros of Linux. Are there any weaknesses? Yes, of course there are. First and foremost is its current public perception. Linux has garnered a lot of publicity lately, but it almost always concentrates on the fact that Linux is freely downloadable and that it is a Microsoft competitor. So, Linux needs to have more “real world” coverage that indicates how it performs, instead of why it is getting popular. Other possible negatives might include:

·        How will IT shops keep Linux up-to-date with current maintenance? This is especially problematic if the shop did not purchase support from one of the Linux “vendors.”

·        Everyone knows that there is no such thing as a free lunch, or a free operating system. Linux is free only if your time is worthless.

·        There is a lack of systems management tools available for Linux. When, if ever, will systems management tool vendors provide Linux tools for problem resolution, job scheduling, performance management, etc.

Bottom Line

Linux, although new to the world of the DBMS, is beginning to make its mark on corporate IT. Although not widely deployed for databases today, Linux will increasingly be used in that capacity once its benefits in terms of reliability and scalability are more widely understood and recognized. Today, Linux is still thought of as “that free operating system” by the vast majority of IT professionals. But as more and more IT professionals must daily face the NT “blue screen of death,” Linux will become an attractive alternative.

From Database Trends, November 1999.
© 1999 Craig S. Mullins,  All rights reserved.