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MariaDB CEO: People who want things free also want to have very nice vacations

Former MySQL fork launches attack on hyperscaler database services with support for multiple front ends

MariaDB is facing up to the reality of becoming a grown-up software company. Following its stock market debut late last year, it must strike a balance between the demands of investors and its heritage in the open source software movement, CEO Michael Howard told The Register.

The day before its technology conference last week, the database company used by Samsung to support 1 billion Android users posted financials to give it cause for some optimism. It recorded a 26 percent year-over-year increase in revenue to reach $13.5 million, although it was still making a net loss of $11.9 million, partly owing to the cost of going public.

It will come as a relief to MariaDB following a difficult period since its IPO, some aspects of which disappointed the company and left it unable to raise cash on public warrants it had issued.

This contributed to a mandatory regulatory warning [PDF] that the company was "seeking additional capital to meet our projected working capital, operating, and debt repayment needs for periods after September 30, 2023."

Stock market warnings are far from unusual owing to the regulated environment. Meanwhile, there were signs that the continuing search for capital was bearing fruit. In an investor call accompanying the financial news, CFO Conor McCarthy said MariaDB was "in advanced discussions with a large commercial bank about a loan facility that includes both a term loan and a revolving credit facility."

Whatever it does to raise more cash, it will come with certain expectations in terms of debt repayments or investment returns.

MariaDB was sharded out of MySQL, the open source relational database created by Michael "Monty" Widenius in 1995. MySQL had been part of Sun Microsystems since 2008, but when Oracle bought Sun in 2010, Widenius forked the code to a new open source database, MariaDB. MariaDB has adopted the Business Source License (BSL) for commercial products such as MaxScale database proxy. Meanwhile, other software, like the MariaDB Enterprise Server, is available on the MariaDB Enterprise Server is also GPL v2. Critics contend MariaDB's approach is not truly open source because it does not allow users or developers to do what they want with the code.

Widenius continues to work for MariaDB on a contract basis and is involved with the open source community surrounding it, but is no longer the company's CTO.

Speaking to The Register at MariaDB's OpenWorks conference in New York last week, CEO Howard said the company was now faced with finding the balance between its open source roots and the needs of investors and lenders.

"Any company and open source that has ideological roots like MariaDB is always going to have issues with the commercialization strategy. Monty has it; other programmers in our own group – they're never going to be comfortable when you move away from free, open source software with no pricing. This is the type of friction and challenges you have in moving from an ideological-bound to a commercial-bound enterprise. I think we've struck an incredible balance.

"We have commercial objectives. We have shareholders. We want pension funds to buy into stock. That's where the slight contradiction is – that the same people who want things free also want to have very nice vacations."

The successive rounds of investment – which have included Alibaba and the European Investment Bank – have driven engineering efforts to strengthen deployment and applications designed for other databases with its system.

"We were the first to be a persistent technology using Kubernetes [allowing deployment of the same database, whether in AWS, Azure, GCP or on-premises]. No one had done it before. We took a big chance on that right? That's a coalescence of using open source, our ideology and a commercial strategy," Howard said.

"Always there's a balancing, and sometimes you go a little bit too much this way or sometimes you go a little bit [the other]. It's always a learning process. We're doing something that no one has ever done before."

The commercialization strategy includes offering its SkySQL database service offers Apache Spark and Postgres as front ends to MariaDB technology including Xpand. MariaDB also functions as a backend to MongoDB clients.

At MariaDB's OpenWorks conference last week, the company announced a PostgreSQL-compatible front end to its globally distributed RDBMS on the back end as part of a package dubbed Xpand.

As well as forming a commercial offer to PostgreSQL users, the move will see MariaDB increase its contributions to the PostgreSQL open source community, Howard said.

"We have a whole team of Postgres engineers, but the difference is we're trying to define a second-generation cloud [database service]. We don't believe in just being another hoster. We're not going to live by just having a commodity server. That's not our business. We believe that we could make things better, whether it be performance, resilience, cost factors, or usage of compute and storage. With Xpand, we have that fortitude and the backbone to do that."

He also left open the possibility that a MySQL-compatible services is in the works. "That is the trajectory," he said.

All this makes MariaDB a valid competitor to Oracle in the cloud, Howard said, but only on the database side.

"With Oracle, you don't really have to be explicitly competitive to them because they kind of shoot themselves in the foot by their own culture and behavior, whether that's manifested through pricing aggressivity or the closed-source, proprietary nature of their products," he said.

However, on the application side, MariaDB sees itself supporting a new generation of internet applications with a global reach. For example, ServiceNow uses a MariaDB back end to support petabytes of data and billions of queries required for its workflow tools. Others include Betty Blocks and Appian.

"We support the application builders that might go after Oracle," Howard said.

In this sense, the MariaDB game plan is to go after workloads from AWS, Google Cloud or Microsoft Azure database services, or be the first choice database services for application builders when starting out.

To that end, MariaDB made much of its superior technical availability to AWS Aurora at its conference, while Howard underscored its dedication to customers.

"You're in a gaggle of customers in Amazon. God knows how many they have. Even the largest companies that work with Amazon don't necessarily have a voice. If you have a critical workload, and you want to make sure you're in sync with the [vendor] company, and that they're going to be there for you when things go rough, we're there. Yeah. You could say that's not completely scalable for millions of customers, but that's not what our game is: we're trying to be a white glove experience for mission-critical workloads," Howard said.

Despite the optimism surrounding the conference, MariaDB's challenges remain. One database industry commentator told The Register he thought the company sounded like a "hot mess," but no matter the outcome, the database would survive through its non-profit foundation backing development.

Carl Olofson, research vice president at IDC, said: "It's a small company, and it's in a tank full of sharks. They have to be very, very quick and sharp in order to avoid getting eaten. If the product starts to look good enough, somebody will just acquire. They're at a price point where that wouldn't be a big stretch.

"The technology, I'm not worried about because they have some of the smartest guys on the planet working for them. But they have to get the word out, and raise market awareness because it's not the first thing people think of."

MariaDB might have "come a long way, baby," as Howard is often inclined to repeat. The question is, do enough people know how far it has come to give it a long road ahead? ®

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