Ingres’ open source rebirth unlocks value for AAH Pharmaceuticals

The Ingres database, first developed at Berkeley University in 1973, was one of the earliest examples of a relational database system, which allows data to be grouped according to common characteristics.

But unlike the Oracle relational database that was developed six years later, Ingres has played only a minor role in the IT industry since its heyday in the 1980s. Ingres Corporation, the commercial organisation behind the software, was acquired by Computer Associates in 1994, and while CA continued to provide support for Ingres’ sizeable install base it was not a strategic product for the company.

In 2005, two years after it had made the software available under an open source license, CA sold a majority stake in Ingres Corp to a private equity firm.

Many saw the move as an ignoble end to a once pioneering technology. “It looks like CA’s open-sourcing of Ingres was a failure," said one open source luminary at the time. “Open-sourcing a database is a gracious way of killing a non-profitable database”.

Ingres Corp is still privately held today, and it is therefore not clear whether the company is enjoying the same success as commercial open source supplier Red Hat, although a dedicated marketing effort has certainly made it more visible than in the past.

And according to one database administrator (and confessed Ingres enthusiast) at least, Ingres Corp’s independence has given the database software new life.

AAH Pharmaceuticals is the UK’s largest distributor of healthcare products, and with over 15 million items delivered each week its databases play a pivotal role in its business operations.

The company’s use of Ingres dates back to 1990s, and was originally based on hardware from UK supplier ICL (now part of Fujitsu). AAH moved its Ingres implementation to Sun Microsystems hardware just before the year 2000, where it remained until 2006 when the company’s Ingres license expired.

According to database administrator Richard David, this coincided with a decision by AAH to move away from proprietary systems in favour of commodity hardware, driven by a need to cut infrastructure cost. “There was a time when the Sun hardware required to push our system along cost many hundreds of thousands of pounds,” he recalls.

Because many of AAH’s legacy systems were based on the Unix operating system, it made sense to adopt Linux, the open source alternative. The company chose Red Hat’s Enterprise Linux operating system, David explains, because of its high-availability clustering functionality.

Having taken the decision to move its database infrastructure to an open source platform, refreshing its Ingres implementation with the newly-independent, commercial open source Ingres Corp was for AAH a “no-brainer”, says David. “Not only did it allow us to move to cheaper and faster hardware, but our software costs actually went down too.”

“Our costs to support all the functionality we were using in 2006 are about half today what they were back then,” he explains. In fact, the company spends more on Ingres, because the lower price means it can afford both more capacity and a redundant ‘as live’ system with which to test new software developments.

Both of these have delivered value to the business, says David. The ‘as live’ system reduces the chance of system disruption when adding new functionality, while the extra capacity allows AAH to perform data operations that were previously impossible.

“For example, the marketing department can now run queries on historical data that we didn’t have the horsepower for previously,” he says. “We can provide answers to the business that they never had before.”

According to David, who has worked with the Ingres database for two decades, the product has seen more development in the last few years than it has for some time. He credits this both to the dedicated investment of Ingres Corp. and to the external contribution to the code base made possible by the open source model.

Indeed, David’s experience with Ingres and open source software in general has lead to some strong feelings on the future of the software industry. “I think proprietary software licensing is unsustainable,” he says. “Open source, where you can mix and match technologies because vendors have agreed on open standards; that’s the future.”

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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