Database Wars 2.0 – Innovate or Fail

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In this special guest feature, Sundar Nathan, Director of Product Marketing at Couchbase, points out the fundamental disruption happening in the $40B database industry and offers a point of view on how the ongoing database wars will shake out. Between legacy relational vendors that represent about 1% of transactions and the NoSQL database companies who have been designed to handle the other 99% of modern workloads (including mobile and IoT data), learn what companies need to think about to continuously revolutionize their businesses in the digital era to avoid becoming obsolete. Sundar has lived and breathed databases and enterprise software for over 25 years, with a focus on technical consulting, solution architectures and messaging with both Fortune 500 businesses and fast-growing startups in silicon valley. His technical interests include distributed databases, digital health and AI.

For those of us who started our careers in enterprise software in the late 80s and early 90s, Silicon Valley was the epicenter of the relational database management systems (RDBMS) wars. Billboards along U.S. Highway 101 in the San Francisco Bay Area looked like this one, with a message from then stalwart, Informix, taunting its chief rival, Oracle:

The big four – Oracle, IBM, Informix and Sybase – lived and died by the Transaction Processing Council’s (TPC-C) benchmark, which simulated a computing environment where a population of users execute order-entry transactions against a database. One week, Oracle was #1 in the TPC-C benchmark, the next week, it was Sybase. And so on.

Until the late 1980s, pretty much all computing was backend enterprise computing because enterprises were the only ones that could afford an IBM mainframe or midrange computer from Hewlett-Packard, Data General or Digital. ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) applications such as SAP and MRP (Manufacturing Resource Planning) applications such as Baan ran on RDBMS systems such as those from Oracle, Sybase, Informix and IBM. On the applications side, what started out with financial systems added HR, Payroll, Accounts Payable, Accounts Receivable and then Supply Chain, Order Processing and finally Customer Relationship Management (CRM).

Database vendors had to innovate their offerings based on market demand for these backend enterprise applications. Enter the 1990s, and the client-server revolution happened. PCs were hooked up into the back-office ERP systems over local-area networks. Employees and teams within the enterprise were finally able to use their PCs to manage and manipulate applications like SAP, Baan, and J.D. Edwards. Many enterprises started building custom applications on their RDBMSs. These became known as client-server applications. And they were followed very quickly by web applications (n-tier applications), powered by new web application server technology from the likes of BEA WebLogic, Websphere and Oracle application server.

Flash forward to today, where the database industry has blossomed to a $40 billion industry and is experiencing another wave of disruption. While legacy relational systems were built to manage basic backend transactions, there’s an increasing emphasis on delivering extraordinary customer experiences with web, mobile and IoT applications. Relational databases were simply not designed to handle the agility, performance and manageability needs of today’s internet-scale applications. Modern databases, such as NoSQL platforms, are revolutionizing the industry with a design built to handle modern workloads and consumer-facing applications to deliver outstanding interactions and engagement. It takes many of these interactions–sometimes thousands– to turn into a single transaction.

To avoid becoming obsolete, businesses must embrace the digital economy and consider the following priorities when managing their data systems:

  • Scalability to overcome peaks and valleys -Life is unpredictable – especially the life of consumer-facing applications. Whether a gaming application catches on as the latest fad or a retailer needs to handle increased demand from an online sale, applications need to be built to handle both high and low traffic extremes. Legacy relational systems were not built to handle these types of situations and require users to plan ahead and buy memory ahead of time. NoSQL databases help solve this issue in a cost-effective way through scalability that can be easily adjusted at any time.
  • Avoiding downtime through always-on solutions – One of the biggest challenges of supporting consumer-facing applications is ensuring continuous availability. When a business’ application experiences downtime the effects can extend to loss of money and sales in addition to business productivity. Therefore, there’s an increasing need for fault-tolerant solutions that are also accessible and functional during failure conditions.
  • Enhanced Mobility – As the digital revolution continues to gain force, people are relying more on mobile technologies. U.S. consumers spend about five hours a day on mobile devices, making mobile an essential location for businesses to engage customers. To adapt, businesses must be able to sync data and provide secure, low-latency and personalized mobile solutions.
  • Democratization of Technology – Today, technology is deployed across all lines of business and IT professionals are no longer the only ones managing and using big data. Therefore, businesses want to employ database systems with simplified implementation processes and user-friendly interfaces.

As the enterprise continues on a rapid path toward digital transformation, CIOs and CTOs need to reconsider their database solutions to be more agile and able to handle modern workloads. Overall, the stakes are high as customers who have a bad experience are more likely to never do business with a company again. The solution isn’t to start from square one, but for businesses to build on top of their legacy systems and bring in modern technology that helps power applications for customer engagement.


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