Oracle does an about-face on NoSQL

Oracle’s introduction of its Big Data Appliance at the OpenWorld conference here this week is an indication of the attention it is being forced to pay to NoSQL database technology.

Oracle ‘s appliance is based on Apache Hadoop software, a new Oracle NoSQL database and an open source distribution of R, a programming language for statistical analysis.

The product is being positioned by Oracle largely as something that companies can use to acquire and organize unstructured data before passing it on to its Exadata appliance. Oracle also has tools that will allow companies to run analytics applications directly on the big Data Appliance if they choose to.

The product represents a change of direction for Oracle considering that just five months ago the company was playing down NoSQL. In a 15-page whitepaper released in May titled Debunking the NoSQL Hype, Oracle went into considerable detail to explain why it thought that NoSQL was not ready for primetime.

The paper concludes with a warning to companies to stay away from the technology. “Go for the tried and true path. Don’t be risking your data on NoSQL databases,” the Oracle whitepaper stated.

Not surprisingly, Oracle’s about-face this week elicited some wry comments from at least one vendor of NoSQL database technology. In a blog post, Billy Bosworth, the CEO of DataStax, a company that supports the Cassandra NoSQL database, noted that it’s hard to imagine that Oracle genuinely believed NoSQL databases were not viable for the enterprise.

“Well, if that was the case, I’ll give Oracle this much — they are fast learners!” Bosworth wrote after Oracle’s announcement Monday. “Based on their announcements at OpenWorld, it seems that somehow, in the last four months, they have figured out that databases like Cassandra represent an amazing opportunity,” for enterprises, he said.

Oracle’s entry, in a sense, validates the NoSQL space in a manner that nothing else can, Bosworth noted. “When someone of their caliber releases a NoSQL solution, it takes us beyond the era of speculation and ‘niche’ and squarely into the mainstream.”

NoSQL database technologies are designed to overcome some of the inherent scalability limitations of conventional relational database management products which use indexing for speedy data retrieval and complex query support. They are very different from the RDBMS products sold by companies such as Oracle and IBM and are designed to help enterprises tap and analyze very large amounts of unstructured and structured data.
Unlike conventional RDBMS products, NoSQL databases scale out horizontally instead of scaling up. That makes them ideal for cloud computing environments, said Max Schireson, president of 10Gen, a company that provides commercial support services for the open source NoSQL MongoDB database.
Over the past year or so, companies such as 10Gen, DataStax and Couchbase have begun to attract investor and customer interest. 10Gen for instance, has raised more than $30 million so far, including $20 million last month from investors such as Sequoia Capital. Couchbase and DataStax have also managed to attract similar funding from the same kind of companies that invested on Oracle and other RDBMS vendors.

Importantly, NoSQL technology vendors have also managed to snag a growing number of marquee customers over the past few months. 10Gen, for instance, claims companies such as Viacom, Disney, SAP , FourSquare, Shutterfly and NetFlix as its customers.
Much of what’s happening is similar to what happened with relational databases, Schireson said. Demand for RDBMS technologies first started growing when companies began moving off traditional mainframes and proprietary systems to more open client-server computing models, Schireson said. As enterprises began adopting the new style of computing, they couldn’t run their old databases on it and needed an alternative.

“We are seeing a very similar transformation with cloud computing,” Schireson said. “The traditional scale-up deployment style is changing to a scale-out deployment model.” Applications and databases are increasingly running on commodity hardware infrastructures in the cloud.

There’s no doubt that traditional relational database management products will continue to be around for many years, Schireson said. Companies have invested ten of billions of dollars in database technologies from companies such as Oracle and it is highly unlikely that they will walk away from it anytime in the near future. But expect to see many new deployments based on NoSQL technologies, he said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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