MariaDB Foundation CEO claims 'sanity' has returned to MariaDB plc

Kaj Arnö mulls cash crisis, de-listing threat, job cuts, and strategy rewrite at MySQL fork vendor

Exclusive "We saw the dark clouds for a long, long while," MariaDB Foundation CEO Kaj Arnö told The Register.

Arnö was reflecting on the last couple of years dealing with MariaDB plc, the commercial company that provides services, SaaS products, and other software around the core open source database the foundation oversees.

An ill-fated SPAC-enabled IPO, lay-offs and going concern warnings, sub-dollar share price warning, and a new management team are among the recent ups and downs experienced by the company, which decided earlier this month to ditch flagship products that headlined its New York conference in May.

Despite the rocky ride, Arnö sees positive signs under the new management. "There had not been any sensible cooperation beyond the absolute minimum for several years, but now that is changing," he said.

While the foundation and plc might have different goals and missions, they could align on some topics. For instance, the adoption of MariaDB Server – the free and open source software licensed under GPL v2, which the foundation helps manage – does not harm the plc, Arnö argued. The foundation wants to expand the use of the software, but that also gives the plc a large user base, some of which can be converted into customers, so there should be no conflict between the pair's ambitions, he said.

"But there was not any kind of cooperation on this topic," Arnö said. Instead, the plc was focusing on proprietary extensions on its database service SkySQL and distributed back end Xpand, both of which are now defunct.

In the absence of sufficient cooperation from the plc, the MariaDB Foundation was forced to take "measures in order to survive and thrive," including engaging AWS to join the foundation as its first Diamond sponsor to aid "openness, adoption, and continuity for the MariaDB open source project," according to an announcement in early October.

With the deal amounting to €500,000 ($527,932) per year, it would help the foundation take a step toward making MariaDB Server a multi-vendor product, "not in name only but in practice so that we have independence of MariaDB PLC," Arnö said.

The aim is to address one of the main criticisms of the MariaDB database, which argues that it is an open source database too closely linked to the contributions of a single commercial vendor. Even though the code for MariaDB server is open and free to use, critics say the plc gets to control the future direction and priorities ahead of other contributors and users in the community.

Currently, the plc contributes about 80 percent of the code for MariaDB Server. "Our goal is to get that down, not by the plc contributing less but by others contributing more," Arnö said. "What we need to do in the foundation for that to happen is to have a governance process that not just encourages contributions but offers power sharing so … there is a level playing field for all the contributors to decide about the road map. We are now formalizing the governance aspects of the Server code so that it becomes truly neutral. It's a meritocracy, not [just de facto decided] based on plc people only."

MariaDB was forked out of MySQL, the open source relational database created in 1995. MySQL was bought by Sun Microsystems in 2008, but when Oracle bought Sun in 2010, MySQL co-founder Michael Widenius forked the code to a new open source database, MariaDB. "Monty" Widenius is no longer CTO of the plc, but still advises the company. Arnö has worked closely with Widenius for decades, both on MySQL and MariaDB. He was one of the co-founders of the plc before leaving in 2019 to become CEO of the foundation.

MariaDB Enterprise Server is available under the GPL v2 license, but the plc-produced MaxScale is available on the Business Sources License, which allows users and developers to view the code and make contributions, but not to use it as part of a commercial product. MariaDB MaxScale is a database proxy that the plc says extends the high availability, scalability, and security of MariaDB Server while at the same time simplifying application development by decoupling it from underlying database infrastructure.

Despite the plc's decision to ditch SkySQL, Arnö said users of the MariaDB DBaaS would not struggle to find a new home as AWS Relational Database Service offers a MariaDB service, as do other cloud providers. He said the plc was likely to have another attempt at providing its own database service.

"It's so evident that all databases need a cloud version. You're not the proper database if you don't have a cloud version," he said.

Earlier this month, the plc also announced a new finance package in which RP Ventures agreed to a $26.5 million "senior secured promissory note" (a form of credit agreement) at an interest rate of 10 percent a year. The facility will be used to pay off a European Investment Bank loan, with a maturity date of October 11, 2023.

Although the plc may have to delist from the New York Stock Exchange, Arnö sees a brighter future for the company given the cash injection.

"Sanity has returned to MariaDB plc. They have new management, and the management is sane," he told us. "They have a new CTO, and he seems like he knows what he's doing. I see them surviving and able to breathe freely again. We see new work with them opening up to jointly contribute to the future of MariaDB Server," he added. ®

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