SQL Server Comes to Linux

SQL Server Comes to Linux

Article from Issue 203/2017

If you can't exterminate, assimilate

Another database has been released for Linux. Yes, I realize that this is the standard state of affairs in Free Software, and one where a text editor can fork MariaDB, change the logo, and call it something egotistical like, ooh, AndrewDB.

But this is different. This server is from a company best known for its proprietary software offerings, which has over the years displayed a very negative attitude towards cooperating with the Free Folk. I'm talking, of course, about Microsoft, and the software in question is SQL Server.

This move would never have happened under Steve Ballmer or Bill Gates, Microsoft's former big kahunas, but Satya Nadella, who has been Microsoft's CEO for the last three years, has a more enlightened attitude to Free Software, in that he recognizes that it exists and that it isn't going away. Smart man.

The version of SQL Server being offered for Linux is available in the Ubuntu Store (Splitters! Traitors! etc.), but it isn't quite the full-fat version that Microsoft executive web infrastructure engineers are used to: There's no spiffy graphical front end like there is on Windows. This begs the question: Why not? My first guess was that Microsoft simply didn't see the need to rewrite the GUI to an application that would be running on Linux, as every Linux user has an engrained knowledge of the command line. However, I was wrong, because SQL Server for Linux runs on an abstraction layer; it hasn't been rewritten at all, just cut down.

Microsoft presumably hopes that Ubuntu users will try SQL Server for Linux, wish there were a graphical interface, learn that there is, and then pay for Windows in order to get access to the GUI version. This is an example of what's known as "binning." It's a form of price discrimination where it costs a service provider more money to make the cheap (for the consumer) version than it does to make the expensive version, but it's worth providing the less good version because it drums up demand for the full-price version. Budget airlines are very good at this. Printer and chip manufacturers perfected it in the 90s, and the 19th century economist Jules Dupuit wrote at length on the subject. It's a tale as old as time, and the moral is that the company could afford to give you a good service and make a profit, but it wants to give you worse service and make more profit. Yay capitalism!

In a truly free market, this wouldn't work. In an oligopoly (such as chip manufacturers or 19th century railway companies), it works just fine. If Microsoft wins with this move, it would indicate that we haven't moved on from the days of top-hatted industrialists. However, it won't win: What they don't understand is that the world of Free Software is closer to a pure free market economy than Microsoft will ever be, despite the fact that comparatively little money changes hands. Microsoft has derided Free Software as communistic for decades. But the paradox is that it's thanks to users' freedom to choose that Microsoft, despite its share price and market capitalization, can't compete against Nginx, MariaDB, or MySQL. It's deliciously ironic, but the one-time biggest company in the world can't win against Free Software in a battle of free markets. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

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