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Oracle Embraces NoSQL with its Big Data Appliance

The annual Oracle OpenWorld conference got underway this week, and I was among thousands of attendees swarming into San Francisco's Moscone Center to hear Larry Ellison's keynote opener on Sunday night, and then again this morning for the early a.m. presentations.

So far, it's been kind of a pitchfest on the keynote stage, with Oracle execs flogging existing product lines, announcing some new ones and pounding on its conference theme: "Hardware and Software: Engineered to Work together."

But one announcement -- the company's planned Big Data Appliance -- was generating rumor-buzz a couple of weeks ago, largely from the NoSQL community. The BD Appliance is an "engineered system" that combines Apache Hadoop, the framework for working with data-intensive distributed applications that's based on Google's MapReduce; the R software environment for statistical computing and graphics; and Oracle's version of the NoSQL database.

It's the NoSQL news that generated the buzz.

NoSQL, the non-relational, distributed, schema-free, open-source, horizontally scalable DBs that emerged around 2009, have been getting attention as the most effect DB for the Web, the cloud, and mobile computing. There are quite a few of them out there: Google, Amazon, Facebook, and LinkedIn all have NoSQL databases.

Oracle was short on details about its NoSQL database. A company Web page offers only a couple of paragraphs, in which it's described as "a commercial grade, general-purpose NoSQL database using a key/value paradigm," which "allows you to manage massive quantities of data, cope with changing data formats, and submit simple queries." There was no indication that it would be open source, and Oracle has not commented about that.

I heard from two NoSQL vendors before the show when the rumors were circulating about Oracle's plans. The first, Couchbase, a Mountain View, CA-based provider of DBMSs built with the Apache CouchDB document-oriented database that can be queried and indexed in a MapReduce fashion using JavaScript, sent me an e-mail. In the message, the company's CEO, Bob Wiederhold, offered an opinion that slaps Big O on the back with one hand, and (gently) in the face with the other.

"To date, Oracle has told their customers that NoSQL is useless or, at best, should be used only for a very limited set of use cases, Phillips wrote. "Despite this, over the past two years, we are unaware of a single, Internet application for which Oracle was picked as the database. If Oracle is now ready to join the party on the scalability, performance and data-model-flexibility advantages of NoSQL, we welcome them. We know firsthand that NoSQL is a huge market opportunity, and Oracle would be missing the boat on a major disruptive force in the database market were they to ignore it."

Couchbase co-founder and SVP of products James Phillips noted that Oracle has been, historically, cautious about touting new technologies "that could be viewed as disruptive to their core business model."

"The unveiling of their NoSQL and Big Data technology next week indicates that Oracle is now validating what we at Couchbase have long accepted as the new market reality," he wrote, "[that] there is a fundamental shift in how modern applications are being built, and what those applications need from a data management system. Customers are investing time and money across the 'big three' themes in data management: Big Data, NoSQL, and mobile. And Oracle clearly doesn't want to miss yet another market shift."

I also talked on the phone with Max Schireson, president of 10gen (and a former Oracle employee). 10gen is the creator and chief commercial sponsor of MongoDB, another open source, document-oriented database, written in C++, and first released in 2009.

"I think the interesting question is around the distribution model," Shireson said. "Is it going to be open source? If it's traditional expensive enterprise software, my guess is there won't be a ton of interest. But open source is a disruptive business model that's challenging for a company like Oracle. I can't imagine it would be very attractive to them. But the database space is growing rapidly, and the question becomes, how much of that growth is going to be syphoned off by new players."

Shireson says that his company -- a relatively new player -- is seeing customers moving off Oracle and onto alternative databases. He points to photo-sharing site Shutterfly's recent move from Oracle to MongoDB for the storage of that site's considerable photo metadata. "They did it for the flexibility primarily," he said. "But they got great benefits in terms of scalability and price performance. When that happens often enough, it makes you want to play in that new space."

Schireson blogged about Oracle's then-rumor NoSQL announcement last month. It's worth a look.

Stay tuned for ongoing Oracle OpenWorld/JavaOne rants in this space.

Posted by John K. Waters on October 3, 2011