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Interview: How the co-creator

of MySQL came to love



Monty Widenius, the co-creator of the MySQL database, became a multimillionaire when MySQL was sold to Sun Microsystems in 2008. But Monty subsequently left MySQL just before Sun was acquired by Oracle, and hired many of the original developers to work on his fork, MariaDB.

We met up with him in Portland to discover why the free software philosophy matters, what went wrong at Sun and why the history of MySQL contains more drama and intrigue than season one of Dallas.

Linux Format: We've always found databases the hardest subject to engage with.

Monty Widenius: I know, I had exactly the same thing the first time I engaged with databases. I hated it.

LXF: What changed? And how has it kept your interest for so long?

MW: It actually started in '81, when I was employed by a company, and it used a version of BASIC that had a way that you could access data. They asked me to move these to TRS-80 with TRS-80 BASIC, and you had no database whatsoever, and nothing to store data.

This was just before I went to college, and I was wondering one day how to store data on a disc so that you can retrieve it. Then I came up with a way to do that, which I later in college found out to be called hashing, but I didn't know that. And, actually, we based the whole payment system program on that.

LXF: So you were teaching yourself?

MW: Yeah, everything. When I went to college I did study computer science, and basically I learned one or two algorithms; then I learned what I'd found out myself was called hashing. But I mostly researched it.

LXF: When did the free software philosophy become part of it?

MW: When I went to UNIX - that was in '84, I think. In '85 there were cruises between Sweden and Finland where Minix was announced, and I was on one of these cruises together with David Axmark, the other founder of MySQL. We had already started to use Emacs and looked at GCC, then we kind of got more involved and started to use it more and more.

I started to work with companies who were using Solaris. Finding all the Solaris shells was quite awkward. So we replaced all of that with Bash and GCC and everything else. That was kind of when I got really involved using open source, and because we started to go more and more to open source conferences, almost once a year, and we wanted to give something back, me and David.

However, we never had something that we thought would be useful enough so that we'd get lots of users, and we also didn't think that we'd be able to support it. Just giving out software that you can't support, that would just be adding to the pile that wouldn't be useful, and there are lots of companies that do that; and so we were searching for something that we could work on full-time, and afford to work on full-time.

So, when I created MySQL in '94, on top of the old project that was basically still rubbish, we noticed that it could be useful for us. Then we released it; then it took off.

LXF: Was that the first time you recognised that an open source licence would be beneficial for the project?

MW: We were a consulting firm, and our main thought was that the decision for doing the release was that we would not lose money compared to what we were doing by releasing this. If someone takes the software, it's still big and complex, and they'd hire us as consultants anyway. So really, we wouldn't lose money.

LXF: Lots of people would think you would, though.

MW: But back then people were really scared about releasing code, because anyone could just take it. But we released MySQL under a dual licence, so that we could be sure that if somebody wanted to use it free, and in-house, it was perfectly fine. We didn't care. But nobody could make money with it without having to involve us.

LXF: You didn't use the GPL?

MW: The GPL did exist, but we weren't using it, because that would be a big risk for a small company; so we had a licence that basically said 'you can use the source code, you can use it for anything, but if you make money with it please contact us and then we'll figure out how to do it'. And you could also buy a commercial version to do whatever you want.

LXF: So you did get people calling and saying they'd like to use it commercially?

MW: Yes. We made the licence more free in the middle of '98. We had a Windows version and then we said the Windows version - that Linux would be more free. The Windows version, we said that this is shareware licence. A shareware program. You should pay us $200 after one month if you use it, or get a very bad conscience. Your choice.

Then we had a web page on which people could register, and then they could send in a fax to pay $200, and the fax machine went continuously. So we were able to grow on that strategy from two people to 15 in 2000 by just the Windows version.

Then in '99 I got so many complaints from people: asking why we weren't using the GPL. By then we thought that we had so much money in the bank we could afford to take a hit.

LXF: You still saw the GPL as taking a hit?

MW: Yes, because as before, if you made money with our software you had to come to us. We didn't know that if we released MySQL under the GPL that people would be able to use it without coming to us. And our income did drop for two months to more than half, but within two months we were up to where we were originally. That's because we had such a big user base, and people were so happy with the GPL, so we kinda got more customers because of that. But in the initial start-up phase, we could never have had that.

LXF: Would you do the same now?

MW: We would do it again now with a dual licence, which we call a business source, which means that you say that for the next three years, here are the rules under which you can use the software. You can have any rules, it's not open source. After three years, this becomes BSD and then you can use it freely. And that means people can use it. You get the same trust as with open source.

LXF: Like a mental investment?

MW: They are not going away, you can still fix bugs and everything else. You just know that if you use it for the next three years, then you have to kind of give something back. And then the agreement can be something that makes sense for a business, because then you are committing to open source, but you are also telling your users that you need money to be able to pull it off. And I think that is a reasonable mix.

LXF: How long have you been investing in open source projects?

MW: Investing, or working with it? I mean, with MySQL I have been investing my time since '94. When I got money from Sun, I created an investment company, so we are now investing in community-driven technical projects, which can be open source or not; and I've been doing that since 2008.

LXF: How has that worked over the years? Are you seeing better ideas? Are you seeing a consistent movement of people wanting to get funding for community-driven projects?

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