What is the total cost of owning a database?

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For some products, it is easy to determine the cost: it is the total amount on the invoice. For other products, such as databases, this number is just the beginning. The total cost should include all other expenses that come after the initial purchase, such as training, maintenance, and conservation. Each of these add up over time, making it difficult to calculate the true price.

Open source options complicate this calculation. Databases such as MySQL and PostgreSQL are freely shared, and good developers can usually get them working without paying a dime. While many tools started out as experiments or skunk work projects, they have evolved into feature-rich products that can handle many tasks for some of the most sophisticated companies.

Although open source projects cost nothing upfront, they require care, often more than proprietary software. Finding support is not always easy. Creators give their work and their attitude towards support can vary. Many want to help others, but some have lost interest and their attitude is simply, “I gave you a gift. Now go.” Many features may have been added by another contributor, further complicating the question of who should provide support.

For businesses, the ability to revise and extend the code to add the functionality they need is another cost. Taking the open source route takes time – not just to install but to customize, review and extend. Some companies expect their developers to actively contribute open source tools as part of their job. This is often a fruitful collaboration, but their salaries should be considered part of the costs.

Typically, proprietary companies spend time making sure there are fewer rough edges.

What Established Players Do

Older and more established databases tend to be proprietary platforms that expect users to pay a fee to cover the cost of maintaining the software. Companies like Microsoft, Oracle, and IBM all market top-notch databases with a proprietary model.

In the past, these prices were often paid up front, but companies have started to adopt a service model. All of these tools can be found, in one form or another, as services. While the license fees were fairly straightforward, the service fees vary depending on what is actually being used. Some providers aggregate the database with server time, while others charge based on the amount of data coming in and going out of the systems.

Microsoft, for example, lists a “license included” price for SQL Server in its Azure cloud environment. A SQL Server instance with two cores and 10.2 GB of RAM costs $0.5044 per hour at the time of writing. Bigger machines with more horsepower would cost more, but Microsoft offers discounts for long-term commitments. There is also a “serverless” price, which charges per transaction at $0.0001450 per second of virtual core time. This is a much simpler pricing model, as the hardware and license cost is buried.

This serverless approach can help some companies calculate the total cost of ownership because it is directly tied to each event storing data. Good accountants can break down the number of different events a customer can generate and then calculate the cost of storing that customer’s data. This works well for companies with a good customer behavior model, but it may not be as useful for companies that cannot predict how much can be stored in the future.

Proprietary databases also emphasize features to simplify management. Oracle markets a so-called “standalone” version because many of the jobs normally done by a database administrator can be handled by code.

“It’s the difference between doing everything manually,” explained Steve Zivanic, global vice president of databases and autonomous services. “You had to manually tune the databases. You had to do manual backups. You basically had to make sure you had enough processing power. It’s all taken care of so you can focus on the business at hand.

In a recent study, Oracle suggested that average users could reduce the size of database administrative staff by 68% by using its tool.

How Upstarts Invade

In recent years, many of the newer databases have been distributed for free as open source tools. Pioneers like MySQL, PostgreSQL, and SQLite proved the open source model to be a viable strategy for databases and spurred the development of other types of databases. Some, like Cassandra, started as internal projects by the companies — in this case, Facebook — and were later released to the public. Others, like MongoDB, Neo4J, and CouchDB, were created by companies specifically interested in supporting open source databases.

Many of these companies paid their bills by charging for “support,” which included training and problem-solving sessions with engineers. Some companies bought the support contracts because they needed help, but others just wanted to pay something to maintain the product. The “support” was really financial, and it went from the so-called client to the development team. In these cases, determining the total cost of ownership simply meant including the cost of such a support contract.

The issue has become more controversial lately as cloud providers have started installing open source databases on running machines and then charging a premium for that bundle. The database software was still technically free and available under an open source license, but the price was justified as it included a lot of the work of setting up and maintaining servers.

These services have proven popular with users, in part because they simplify the process of estimating total cost of ownership. Digital Ocean, for example, charges $15 per hour for a “managed database,” essentially one of their standard instances already configured to run MySQL, PostgreSQL, or Redis. Businesses can spend less time on maintenance and get a more predictable estimate of database operating costs. The teams developing the software may not be so happy. While some open source developers have recognized that non-paying users are part of the equation and allowing these free riders can be cheaper than maintaining a marketing team, others feel taken advantage of. The most publicized case happened recently when Elastic decided to stop releasing new versions under a license that allowed cloud companies like Amazon to sell managed machines. They felt that cloud companies were not contributing enough to support developers.

While many recently developed databases have adopted an open source model, some newer offerings deliberately avoid it. EraDB is a time series database fully integrated with machine learning and statistical methods to drive complex analyses. CEO Todd Persen said the company had to choose between nurturing a large community of developers and focusing on wowing a few paying customers.

“What’s the value of putting the source code out there?” he asked rhetorically. “We can still deliver compiled versions.” Most users never read source code and most commits come from inside companies.

Self-hosted versions are priced, and the company also runs a cloud service that starts at 65 cents per gigabyte per month.

Thinking about governance

The value of control is one of the trickiest questions in the equation. Open source models offer not only their low price but also a deep partnership. Licenses are designed to give ownership power to all users. For some projects, this freedom can be valuable, especially for long projects.

At first glance, proprietary tools rarely offer so much partnership. The company remains in control and customers are kept at a distance. But in general, good companies listen carefully to good customers and reward them. The sales and license renewal process is a good feedback loop that delivers.

And many of the biggest issues will arise regardless of the licensing model. After a while, some users will want changes – often small ones – while owners may want to go in another direction. Maybe they don’t want to support a small customer, or maybe they want to devote resources to another growth path. The same friction over management can arise with open source projects. Sometimes creators are not interested in solving the problem or going down a particular path chosen by a few users.

Some creators offer their customers the option of paying for certain enhancements directly, an arrangement found in both open source and proprietary companies. Open source projects simplify this because it’s always possible to do the work in-house or hire a third-party team.

Proprietary companies are trying to allay fears by offering source code escrow agreements that offer some of the assurance of open source. If the business fails, the source code is released to customers.

There’s no one way to calculate total cost of ownership

There is no guaranteed equation for calculating the costs of a database, but the new service models provide a reliable way to relate data size and number of transactions to the cost of storage for a month.

These prices, however, must support a profit for the company running the service. Teams with the right mix of talents who are willing to put energy into building and supporting open source tools can often achieve significant cost savings. Much of the cost comes from paying salaries and covering overhead for these teams. Translating numbers into total cost of ownership is tricky, especially when some team members do more than just support open source tools. But at best, working on open source software makes in-house development easier.

This article is part of a series on enterprise database technology trends.

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Maria H. Underwood