Andy on Enterprise Software

The surprisingly fertile world of database innovation

July 24, 2007

I came across a thought-provoking article, an interview with Michael Stonebraker. As the inventor of Ingres this is someone who knows a thing or two about databases, and I thought that some interesting points were raised. He essentially argues that advances in hardware have meant that specialist databases can out-perform the traditional ones in a series of particular situations, and that these situations are in themselves substantial markets that start-up database companies could attack. He singles out text, where relational databases have never prospered, fast streaming data feeds of the type seen on Wall Street, data warehouses and specialist OLTP. With Streambase he clearly has some first-hand experience of streaming data, and OLTP is what he is working on right now.

I must admit that with my background in enterprise architecture at Shell I underestimated how much of a market there has been for specialist databases, assuming that the innate conservatism of corporate buyers would make it very hard for specialsit database vendors. Initially I was proved right, with attempts like Red Brick flickering but quickly becoming subsumed, while object databases were clearly not going to take off. With such false starts it was easy to extrapolate and assume that the relational vendors would simply win out and leave no room for innovation. However to take the area of data warehousing, this has clearly not been the case. Teradata blazed the trail of a proprietary database superior in data warehouse performance to Oracle etc, and now Netezza and a host of smaller start-ups are themselves snapping at Teradata’s heels. The in-memory crowd are also doing well, with for example Qliktech now being the fastest growing BI vendors by a long way, thanks to its in-memory database approach. Certainly Stonebraker is right about text – companies like Fast and their competitors would not dream of using relational databases to build their text search applications, an area where Oracle et al never really got it right at all.

Overall there seems to be a surprising amount of innovation in what at first glance looks like an area which is essentially mature, dominated by three big vendors: Oracle, IBM, Microsoft. Teradata has shown that you can build a billion dollar revenue company in the teeth of such entrenched competition, and the recent developments mentioned above suggest that this area is far from being done and dusted from an innovation viewpoint.