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Sleepycat Software Marketing VP Mike Olson at The Bazaar

Dec 19, 1999, 14:31 (2 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Emmett Plant)

By Emmett Plant
Editor, LinuxToday

During The Bazaar, I had the opportunity to speak with a lot of really interesting people about very interesting companies and projects. One of these companies is Sleepycat Software, the developers of Berkeley DB. With ten employees in three different states, Sleepycat brings down the Open Source ideology to a small-business level, and they've been growing ever since. I got the opportunity to speak to Michael Olson, Sleepycat's Vice President of Marketing after the show, and we discussed Open Source license strategy, as well as Sleepycat's focus on the embedded market.

So, Mike; Tell me about Sleepycat.

"The product line was launched as an academic project in 1991 at UC Berkeley, and Berkeley DB (the database engine) was distributed with 4.4BSD. The people who did the work on that were myself, Margo Seltzer and Oz Yigit. By 1996, it was being used in lots of Open Source and commercial projects and products. In 1996, the ones that made a difference to us were sendmail, OpenLDAP (the LDAP server from University of Michigan) and Kerberos. In 1996, Netscape was about to launch a commercial version of an LDAP server based on the University of Michigan code, and approached us for new features and commercial support. That was the genesis of the company. Netscape was our first customer. We did the 2.0 release as a result of that contract, and began distributing it commercially immediately. Since then, we've done about three commercial releases of the software a year. The current release version is 3.0. Basically, we're growing fast. Lots of paying commercial customers use Berkeley DB in their products, and lots of Open Source customers distribute Berkeley DB for free."

Berkeley DB is Open Source, isn't it?

"Yes. There are lots of different open source licenses. Sleepycat's license permits free use of the software if the application is Open Source. We use a modified BSD license. Proprietary applications need to buy a commercial license to distribute Berkeley DB."

How did you come up with the name Sleepycat?

"The first year that we were working on the code for NS, we didn't have office space, so we were working from home. Keith and Margo have lots of cats, so they were programming long hard hours. The cats would sleep on top of the monitors, so they whimsically decided to name the company Sleeycat Software. We also figure if Yahoo! can get away with that name, it should be okay for us to get away with Sleepycat."

What's the direction of the company?

"We are right now privately held with the 10 employees we have. On all the measures that businesses look at, we're growing well. We're going to continue doing what we've been doing for embedded database customers. We're also real excited about a new market that we're working in; real embedded systems. People who ship products for your cellphone or your palmtop computer write on OS'es like VXworxs from Wind River and eCos from Cygnus. We believe there is a huge maket for databases on those platforms, and that big SQL servers are the wrong answer. We're investing engineering and marketing dollars in getting Berkeley DB into that market."

So, this means that anyone doing Open Source development for the embedded market can use Berkeley DB for free.

"Yes, we'll have the same license terms for the server market we currently service."

A lot of companies, especially in the Open Source world, have preconceived notions about their company that they would rather not have. Do you fight against any of this 'conventional wisdom?'

"The one thing that we struggle against is that we shipped Berkeley DB 1.85 from the university. That code is very well-known and widely used. When people hear the name Berkeley DB, they often think of the academic software. The commercial version does transactions, supports lots of users, and very large databases, and many people don't realize that it's different from 1.85."

What's the best part about working for Sleepycat Software?

"I love working for a small company where we control our own destiny. We have an absolutely A-team of people. We're small, but we've got really great employees. The product is very popular and so good that in many ways it sells itself. We get a lot of business by word-of-mouth."

What's the worst part?

"Being a small company means that there is a ton of stuff to do, and there aren't enough people to do all of the work, so we have to be careful in what we sign up for and what we agree to do. We stay brutally focused on what we do, we can't afford to lose our focus."

What do you guys do in your offtime?

"Margo Seltzer, who's the CTO, is a Harvard Professor and black belt, so that's what she does with her spare time. Keith Bostic (CEO) develops the nvi editor, and runs a mailing list called /dev/null. I mountain bike, and I like skiing, and I have a couple kids, so I make lunches and wipe noses."

What did you think of The Bazaar?

"We were disappointed at the turnout. We expected a lot more people than showed up. The total attendance was a lot different than what we were told. For us, it was a successful show, because we met up with you and analysts and other members of the press. We got the word out about Sleepycat. We had several very interesting strategic meetings with people we may work with in the future, so it was nice everyone was in one place."

Thank you Mike, and I look forward to seeing Berkeley DB in the embedded market, as well as a regular cowboy on the Open Source frontier.