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Open-Source Database Revolution in the Public Sector

By Sascha Giese, Head Geek at SolarWinds

For years, it has been broadly accepted that the profile of open-source software as ‘higher risk’ goes against the principles of public sector technology procurement. Being free, not reputedly as safe, and via smaller vendors than the big players, has blinkered this industry to finding solutions which could be a better fit for the organisation.

Yet the digital age has done tech pros a favour by making open-source databases more widely accessible, which means it’s too good an opportunity not to explore. Public sector IT pros find themselves in the unenviable position of calculating the total cost of ownership and comparing open-source databases with commercial solutions.

Challenges for Database Managers

The realities of adapting to flexible workspaces and hybrid working introduces a new element of complexity for database managers, along with compliance and governance issues, ever-increasing data volumes and the need to process this data. Add to this the hybrid IT reality and the growing number of databases tech pros must manage. The scale of these pressures is evident in the latest SolarWinds Query Report, in which almost one-third of tech pros surveyed say they manage more than 300 databases at their organisations. And for most respondents, at least half of their organisation’s databases are in business-critical use.

Another factor driving public sector organisations towards being more broad-minded on open source is the increased need to work with various types of database platforms. This relaxation in brand loyalties has been a by-product of the digitalisation of the pandemic and is a result of the need for speed in deploying applications.

To move forwards at pace, many technology teams now typically buy their applications instead of building their own. The type of database is often dictated by a preferred database from the vendor, which is either relational or non-relational (the so-called NoSQL data platforms), and it can be open-source or commercial.

Commercial platforms still dominate—especially for business-critical applications—but open-source databases are absolutely on the rise. We’re at the beginning of a new era of mix-and-match data platforms, but there are some key considerations before investing in an open-source platform.

Does Being Free Have to Come at a Cost?

If open-source databases are free, should this raise concerns that something else has to give? When compared against the price tag of commercial software licensing fees, this subscription is a significant cost saving for IT budgets. It frees up budget spend for experimentation and increases the speed for IT projects to progress.

The open-source free license model levels the playing field for small organisations to access equally innovative features as their larger counterparts. With the added advantage of being smaller, less bureaucratic, and nimbler in decision-making, smaller public sector organisations aren’t at a disadvantage to improve their technology at speed.

Until recently, government and public sector organisations have been preoccupied with the legal implications and consequences and accountability, despite its free and accessible up-sides. Ongoing tech support is a concern open-source database manufacturers have addressed, due to patch-fixing and other historical concerns.

As any IT investment, weighing up cost versus value of open source is the biggest dilemma. A commercial tool may potentially save thousands of pounds a year in efficiencies and ongoing support, in which case the licence fee pays for itself. And when it doesn’t deliver, your contract will ensure maintenance fixes and professional support.

In contrast, the low-cost database platform may not be as sophisticated, but the clear cost savings make it an option for the organisation. To take a middle ground, technology specifiers can select the most common and well-vetted features of an open-source database platform to minimise risk while taking the financial perks. Commercial enterprises such as Red Hat, Debian, and Percona can be contracted with to navigate the minefield of issues and bugs which can come up in an open-source database platform.

The increasing popularity of open source is undeniable and snowballing. Forty-three percent of tech pros surveyed in the aforementioned report say they run MySQL or MariaDB. A further 18% say they plan to adopt MySQL, MariaDB, or another open-source database platform in the next three years.

There are some potential issues to be aware of before rushing headfirst into open source. The tooling isn’t always as sophisticated, and open-source platforms require insider knowledge to make them work as you need them to, beyond a basic level. For a business-critical application, it may be advisable to wait for better tooling.

Moving Forward With Choosing Open-Source Databases

Typically, the first question to address when selecting an open-source database is the required performance and workload capabilities of the platform. This must factor in the wider issues of security and compliance, which must run through technology in public sector organisations, and the cost or licensing on occasion.

It’s vital to ensure a dedicated team is in place to scope out the project, backed by the most senior database professionals in the organisation and the CTO. However, time to commit to this process is often an issue, as database managers are always busy with perhaps over 300 databases. This makes it a challenge to prioritise, but a vital one for innovation and development.

Our report shows the pressure tech pros are under to find time to investigate open-source databases or analyse potential productivity gains and cost savings. One-third of those surveyed said database maintenance takes up the majority of their daily tasks.

Benefits of Automated Monitoring

A key solution for freeing up tech pros’ valuable maintenance time and tech budget is to implement optimised automation using database monitoring tools. Monitoring tools run in the background, flagging issues before they become critical, perhaps even in real time, and quick fixes can be made to avert wider problems. Automation of database monitoring allows database professionals to focus on proactive database performance management, to include innovation, training, and scoping out open-source options. It’s the most effective way to manage hundreds of databases.

Just as for any private company, adopting a database monitoring mindset will be the key success factor for any public sector organisation IT strategy. Monitoring methods are a given when procuring a database platform, to ensure it can’t break without them knowing about it. Monitoring ensures all the processing cycles on a particular server and acts as insurance against bigger issues.

Lining up the team and creating time to scope out open-source databases will open options for what’s suitable for a public sector organisation. But before deploying one, it’s important to consider all options and potential risks, as well as the functionality versus the priority level of business application. And when installing the new database platform, remember automation and monitoring provide excellent support.

For those starting out or in early stages with an open-source database platform, the landscape is improving, and proper tooling will follow. If you’re still thinking about it, jump on the open-source train before you get left behind.

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