Billy Bosworth

Are NoSQL databases now mainstream?

By Billy BosworthOctober 19, 2011

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question because it’s been asked to me about half a dozen times since Oracle announced their “big data appliance.”

Answering it is not as easy as it seems.  It’s not like asking, “Are you pregnant?” which has a binary response.  Being mainstream does not come with a set of metrics that define when you arrive.  No, asking if something is mainstream is like the somewhat famous legal question of how you define pornography vs art—it’s difficult, but you know it when you see it.

How I answer the question depends on what you mean by “mainstream”, so I think here an analogy would be useful.  Let me ask you this question:

Are electric cars and hybrids now “mainstream”?

If you believe they are, then by that measure, I would say that NoSQL databases have arrived in the mainstream.  If you believe they are not, then I would tell you that NoSQL databases are NOT mainstream.

Let’s press the analogy further…

My personal answer to the electric car question would be “yes, they are mainstream” and here’s why.  I have a friend who is very conservative and who has owned large, fuel-guzzling cars for the last 15 years.  In talking to him a few months ago he said, “Yeah, my next purchase is likely gonna be an electric car.”  I almost dropped the phone before asking him to repeat what he just said.

He replied, “I just cannot stand the price of gas anymore.  It’s out of control and I don’t like being at their mercy.”  Interesting.  Here we have a cost constraint that is driving him WAY out of his comfort zone.  We can call it a “need”, if you will.

When someone like my friend hits that kind of decision point, I can tell you that electric cars have made it into the mainstream consciousness—if not into actual garages—and that is a huge step forward.  Now, to win over my friend, the electric cars will have to deliver in terms of making it a no-brainer decision for him, and that means doing a lot of little things right along the way.

But there is another group of people who are fans of electric cars where you’ll find the monetary savings are part of the equation, but not the biggest part.  For them, it is their desire to help the macro cause of saving energy and/or using more “clean” energy.  Again, interesting.  This part of the decision process is a “want” as much as a need, and it’s a powerful motivator to make the switch.

Let’s now bring it back to databases.  Database changes are not taken lightly in an organization and occur because of two primal motivating factors: need and want.  With NoSQL databases, I firmly believe we have both in place.

On the need side….

  • Cost.  Companies are faced with increasing demands and ever-shrinking budgets.
  • Scale.  The volume and velocity of data are more than an RDBMS was built to handle at scale – at least in any way that is remotely cost effective.
  • Different Data.  Everyone wants to get at unstructured and semi-structured data, which does not work well at all in a relational system.
  • Infrastructure.  More people want to leverage the cloud and use multiple-datacenters, but traditional databases make this virtually impossible at scale.

On the want side…

  • Flexibility.  Developers want to be unfettered from the world of rigid schemas.
  • New Paradigms.  Developers must think about problems in entirely new ways to arrive at the most elegant solutions and relational databases (rightly or wrongly) limit your thinking.
  • Relevancy.  “Soft” as this one may be, I can tell you as a former developer that it’s real.  People want their careers to go where the hot new technologies are, and that drives a lot of interest in NoSQL databases.

There are currently people using these databases in very mission-critical ways.  But relatively speaking, nobody can say that in terms of pure numbers, they are “mainstream.”  Nobody knows what the installation numbers actually are yet, largely because companies see NoSQL as a competitive advantage and often are not eager to share what they’re doing with the rest of the world.  I suspect it’s in the low-to-mid thousands of actual production installations, but that’s just a guess.

What we can say is that, like electric cars, NoSQL databases have arrived in the mainstream consciousness.  Needs and wants are driving them there.  For large volume adoption to happen, these databases will have to take on more mainstream characteristics around their core technology.   I changed careers to deliver precisely that and it’s hugely exciting watching it happen.



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