By Maureen O'Gara

As featured in Client Server NEWS 2000
The Independent Observer of Microsoft Windows NT and Other Phenomena
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Rebel forces are making off with InterBase, the old-line database that belongs to Inprise/Borland. Disgruntled InterBase developers have forked the code, now that it's gone open source, and a couple of ex- InterBase managers are setting up a firm around the rogue code. The new wannabe-a-company is called IBPhoenix and hopes to breath new life into the old girl.

An invigorated InterBase could easily compete against open source newcomers like MySQL and Great Bridge's anticipated PostgresSQL, they say, and given its 15-year commercial heritage might in some cases - like on Linux - take on Oracle and Microsoft.

When last calculated by IDC two years ago, InterBase held a mere 0.5% of the worldwide database market but it's possible the numbers were underreported. InterBase's stronghold is overseas in Europe, including Eastern Europe, Russia, Australia and Latin America. It has its share of mission-critical accounts. Motorola, for instance, runs the 911 systems it sells the police on it. There are perhaps hundreds of thousands of users; millions of units are out there because it's bundled with Delphi.

Anyway, Inprise open sourced InterBase at the end of July after it aborted prolonged negotiation with Paul Beach, former general manager of its InterBase business unit, and Ann Harrison, acting general manager, to set up an Inprise spin-out called InterBase Systems (ISC) to maintain the code. It was Inprise's second turnabout. In December it was going to kill InterBase, then demurred.

Harrison, one of InterBase original developers and the person who would have led ISC, thinks Inprise closed down negotiations because of what happened on Wall Street in March and April. She figures Inprise didn't kill InterBase off because of the bubble. That it took it into its head that it could make a different kind of killing by taking a spin-off to a buy-anything stock market. But then the bubble burst. She says Inprise has never explained to her why after seven months of agonizing negotiations it pulled the plug on the talks. Publicly Inprise has only said that it wasn't in the best interests of its stockholders.

By many lights, Inprise, which got the database off Ashton Tate, which in turn bought the original InterBase company, has been a lousy landlord. So Inprise's latest gyrations didn't go down at all well. When the database went open source, developers basically kidnapped it and set up a rival site at SourceForge, VA Linux' open source development host site. The kidnappers call it Firebird, a name evocative of IBPhoenix, that is regarded as the "real" open source project.

Harrison says she and her colleagues would prefer that the code not fork, but Inprise has not been responsive. She was supposed to talk with an Inprise executive Thursday after our interview. Developers are already rebuilding or replacing key pieces of the database that Inprise did not release such as cross-platform tests, build scripts and bug lists. The InterBase 6.0 documentation is a problem though; the aborted ISC worked on it in anticipation of successful negotiations and it is partly owned by what was or would have been ISC and partly by Inprise.

Harrison and Beach, who's responsible for sales and marketing, say they are going to start small and try to sell InterBase support contracts. There are already nibbles on the line, she said. VCs are waiting in the wings. Harrison, the technical chief, thinks the best pockets to tap belong to big InterBase users with mission-critical applications. She and Beach and Matt Larsen, who's business development, expect to expand by building kits (people will prefer them to the raw code) and peddling install CDs, documentation and other people's add-ons. They've already set up a portal, Inprise, whose contractual terms changed several times during the negotiations, Harrison alleges, could be left out in the cold. It reportedly has only a few InterBase people left since the bludgeoning and departures in December. There are no ties between it and IBPhoenix, Harrison said.

InterBase, which has a quasi-Unix origin going back to Apollo, works on all the Windows, Linux, Solaris, VMS, HP-UX, AIX and FreeBSD. Most users are on NT or 2000. Harrison describes the latest 6.0 rev as "very, very ugly." After struggling to get the code ready for open source and working at the last minute, the wrong version with the wrong utilities was accidentally put up. "There needs to be a new 6.1 release," she said.

By comparison to InterBase, the brand new day-old IBPhoenix folk claim MySQL is not transaction-based - "you can't be a database without that" - and doesn't support multiple platforms. Postgres, she said, doesn't have a lot of the SQL language in it. Oracle has several products, a huge number of tools, complete solutions and caters to very large databases that need daily care and feeding. Usually companies running Oracle databases have dedicated people minding the software. With InterBase, she said, "you put it in a closet and forget it." Obviously she feels that if IBPhoenix is going to take off it'll be on the back of open source and cater to the price-sensitive Linux and BSD crowds. The Windows world was never mentioned.

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Maureen O'Gara