SAP, open-ness and moving to Oracle?

There have been a couple of different posts in various SAP related blogs recently, as well as some responses by non-SAP(?) folks, dealing with Java technology (especially in light of the ongoing acquisition of Sun Microsoystems by Oracle), open standards and “open-ness” in general, it seems. Looking at this through the eyes of someone who is professionally using a dedicated piece of SAP technology (its database environment SAP MaxDB), a few thoughts come to my mind here…

Open-ness and uncertainty

We, as a company, migrated to SAP MaxDB back in 2005 after finally dumping an old installation of MS SQL Server 97 on top of MS Windows NT 4.0 in favor of, well, an SAP MaxDB 7.5 installation on top of a Debian GNU/Linux operating system. Reasons for this decision:

  • Comparing initial installation, configuration and maintaineance effort, we had to figure out that in many respects SAP MaxDB was the most simple RDBMS we could get our hands on: Straightforward installation, deployment, backup, migration, a set of rather well thought-out, well-working tools, extensive documentation and a friendly user group – what else would you expect?
  • Of course, compared to Oracle 9i or a more up-to-date MSSQL, these days SAP MaxDB simply was an affordable solution, given then and now it was provided free-of-charge for use along with open-source and/or non-SAP technology.
  • Wearing the label SAP, we thought that eventually there might be some way of getting “high-value” support by SAP on that given we offer some sort of MaxDB use case that justifies doing so without being into any other SAP technologies / products (as so far we simply haven’t found one in there to suit our use cases).

Getting into MaxDB, we quickly came to a rather stable and reliable environment. Subsequently, we spent a couple of money to have the manufacturer of our “old” system infrastructure to add support for MaxDB to their product for our specific environment. And we’ve been working on top of a heterogenous system built on top of SAP MaxDB for a couple of years, evaluating to buy professional support and licensing right from mySQL AB (who, by then, did offer SAP MaxDB along with mySQL as a “professional, enterprise-grade RDBMS”), until eventually: “MaxDB back under the SAP roof!” So no more licensing by mySQL AB, and a little later, there also happened to be a change in licensing, basically coming down to a construction like this, as far as I understand it:

  • SAP customers to get professional, paid support for SAP MaxDB used along with any other SAP applications according to a given licensing model.
  • SAP customers using SAP MaxDB along with non-SAP applications may order some sort of support contract addition to their SAP software contract specially made up for this kind of purpose.
  • Non-SAP customers may use SAP MaxDB for free according to the terms of the Community License. No commercial support offerings are available to those it seems.

More uncertainty
In the end, after the licensing scheme (proprietary -> GPL/proprietary dual-licensing -> “proprietary community license”) has changed a couple of times and, now, an extensive FAQ collection outlining that the core strategy of SAP obviously is making MaxDB more suitable, more well-integrated, more “usable” along with other SAP applications (which is an obvious thing to do, no doubt about that), we are evaluating migrating our database backend to a recent Oracle release altogether. Why?

Even while we tried so, we failed managing to become an SAP customer with SAP MaxDB being the only SAP product we use. So, looking at our relation to SAP, we always will end up being the “community user” using something we get free-of-charge in an environment unknown to SAP.

Consequently, as we do not use any other SAP applications, I don’t really see where things are heading in near future. Where will SAP MaxDB development go? Could it be that, eventually, one day the “community license” will be terminated as well, making SAP MaxDB (and patches/updates) completely unavailable to anyone outside SAP again? Could it be that, in course of making the database more suitable for use with other SAP applications, one day it simply won’t be a feasible solution for our environment anymore as, this way, it is obviously not aiming at being a “general purpose RDBMS” anymore? In the past, it seems a lot of features we thought of as being pretty interesting (WebDAV/WebSQL, Synchronization tools) have either been removed altogether or aren’t maintained anymore – can we be sure this is not eventually, one day, to hit some other part of database administration tooling?

There used to be an Open MaxDB Group a while ago which, it seems, has quietly come to a halt. This makes me think that, for a “community license” user, there is next to no way of having ones interests related to MaxDB tooling, development, stragety, … represented to and eventually being recognized by SAP. Looking back at some discussions in the (kind and very helpful) MaxDB users forum, I once read a message outlining SAP not wanting to be a “general purpose DBMS seller”, which surely seems true here. But given in our situation a “general purpose DBMS” is right what we want / need, maybe SAP MaxDB is not the right strategy anymore, at least at the moment…

… and this is where, somehow, I’ll get back to the initial thoughts on open-ness and open source: In my opinion, the current state of “MaxDB open-ness” is, rudely speaking, next to useless to most customers not using SAP applications but looking for a long-term RDMBS strategy as there simply seem too many questions relating to development, long-term availability of updates, … unanswered. Having a “commercial database license” option provided by SAP would help easing these problems. If this is not possible / unwanted, having an “open-source” MaxDB at hand, along with support by external providers (so far we get MaxDB support by infolytics AG which is pretty good) would ease the pain of strategy uncertainties. Maybe the “new open-ness”(?) at SAP might change this thing for the better, somehow – I still hope for this as SAP MaxDB, after all, still is a really good database platform and really fun working with…

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