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Dutch greetings card firm goes open source to cut database licensing costs

Jessica Twentyman Profile picture for user jtwentyman March 12, 2014
When the board of directors at the Dutch online greetings card company balked at investing in yet another Oracle database license, development manager Jan van der Veen went in search of an entirely fresh approach.

If you’re looking for a database to support a thriving online greetings card business, then Oracle is a pretty sure bet in terms of performance. But if you also need replica databases to support testing and development, disaster recovery and business intelligence, then Oracle licensing costs can quickly stack up. That’s the view of Jan van der Veen, development management at Dutch online greetings card company, Greetz.

Last year, the board of directors at Greetz put their collective foot down when asked to fund yet another Oracle license, needed to set up a disaster recovery instance at the company’s offices in Amsterdam. (Its primary production system is located in a hosted data centre.) Risk mitigation, the board of directors argued, adds nothing to the bottom line, nor to the customer experience. Their point-blank refusal to pay up led to a closer examination of the company’s database requirements, says van der Veen, and prompted a wholesale migration to open-source MySQL fork, MariaDB, developed as an enhanced, drop-in replacement for MySQL. “The big question for us was, how can we do what we already do today, but at a more competitive price?” he says.

The company’s team of developers roll out upgrades at a brisk rate of every four to six weeks, requiring test and development databases. Disaster recovery is a must-have for a company that processes some 6 million transactions each year. And Greetz also needs a data platform for its Tableau business intelligence environment, which it uses to better understand its customers and their purchase histories. Before the MariaDB implementation, says van der Veen, the Greetz IT team was forced to pull data nightly from its Oracle operational data store and import it into MySQL for analysis.

Open options

The cost issue that Greetz faced made an open-source approach very attractive to van der Veen and his team, but they still faced a difficult choice. Should they go with MySQL, which Greetz had previously used, before it implemented Oracle five years ago? After all, as van der Veen points out, his team still boasts a great deal of experience and knowledge with that database - but for him, Oracle’s ownership of MySQL (since its acquisition of Sun Microsystems in 2009) raised questions in his mind about the database’s future.

Jan van der Veen

Or should it go with Postgres instead? This approach had its advantages, says van der Veen, since it’s generally considered easier to port an application running on Oracle over to Postgres, than it is to port it to MySQL, but this option was discounted pretty quickly.

Greetz already has in place an ORM [object relational mapping] layer that previously allowed its production application to ‘talk’ to Oracle. This abstraction layer could easily enable that application to integrate with any other database, so the advantages of Postgres didn’t really matter to Greetz, plus there were concerns about the availability of Postgres tools.

Sky high

In the end, at a seminar session held by SkySQL, a distributor of MariaDB led by MySQL and MariaDB creator Michael ‘Monty’ Widenius, van der Veen became convinced that MariaDB offered the best of both worlds for Greetz - the chance to leverage its MySQL experience and, at the same time, to tap into a rich and growing ecosystem of related tools. “This was a move towards an open source platform that we knew would remain open source - and, we felt, a move in the same direction as the rest of the open-source database community was going,” he says. “That gave us the confidence to make MariaDB feel like a safe bet for us.”

The migration of the 300GB Greetz database to MariaDB took a day and a half and was completed in September 2013, in plenty of time for the company’s peak periods of Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Both have been good tests for the new infrastructure, says van der Veen: Christmas shopping for online greetings cards is intense, but spread over a period of weeks; for Valentine’s Day, there is a distinct peak over just a couple of days. “Stability has been great, performance has been exceptional - and, for a team with plenty of developers but no specialist database administrators, MariaDB has proved very low maintenance.” And the costs? “Much better,” says van der Veen. “Much, much better.”

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