November 11, 2010

Things are moving incredibly fast in the NoSQL space. I am used to internet-fast — helping bring on 300 customers in a year at Akamai; going from adult bulletin boards and leased lines to hosting sites for twenty percent of the Fortune 500 at Digex (Verizon Business) in eighteen months. I have never seen a space explode like the NoSQL space.

Two weeks ago, Justin Sheehy stood on stage delivering a rousing and thoughtful presentation to the NoSQL East Conference that was less about Riak and more about a definition of first principles that underpinned Riak: what it REALLY means when you claim such terms as scalability (it doesn’t mean buying a bigger machine for your master DB) and fault-tolerance (it has to apply to writes and reads and is binary; you either always accept writes and serve reads or you don’t). The conference was a bit of a coming out party for Basho, which co-sponsored the event with Rackspace, Georgia Tech, and a host of other companies. We had been working on Riak for 18 months or so in relative quiet and it was nice to finally see what people thought, first hand.

There were equally interesting presentations about Pig and MongoDB and a host of other NoSQL entrants, all of which will make for engrossing viewing when they finally get posted. We were told this wasn’t quite as exciting as the NoSQL conference out West but none of us seemed to mind. Home Depot, Turner Broadcasting,, and Comcast had all sent folks down to evaluate the technology for real, live problems and the enthusiasm in the auditorium spilled out into the Atlanta bars. Business cards were exchanged, calls set up, even a little business discussed. Clearly, NoSQL databases were maturing fast.

No sooner had we returned to Cambridge than news of Flybridge’s investment in 10Gen came out. Hooray! Someone was willing to bet a $3.4 million dollars on a company in the space. Chip Hazard, ever affable, wrote a nice blog post explaining the investment. According to him, every developer they talked to had downloaded some NoSQL database to test. Brilliant news. He said Flybridge invested in 10Gen because they liked the space and knew the team from their investment in Doubleclick, from whose loins the management team at 10Gen issued. No more felicitous reason exists for a group of persons to invest $3.4 million than that previous investments in the same team were handsomely rewarded. I would wish Chip and 10Gen the best if I had time.

Because contemporaneous with the news of Flybridge’s investment, and almost as if the world had decided NoSQL’s time had come, we began to field emails and calls from interested parties. Trials, quotes, lengthy discussions about features and uses of Riak — the week was a blur. Everyone was conducting a bakeoff: “I have a 4TB database and customers in three continents. I am evaluating Riak and two other document datastores. Tell me about your OLAP features.”

Heady times and, frankly, of somewhat dubious promise, if you ask me. Potential clients that materialize so quickly always seem to disappear just as fast. Really embracing a new technology requires trials, tests, new features, and time. Time most off all. These “bluebirds” would fly away in no time, if my experience held true.

Except, this time it didn’t happen. Contracts were exchanged. Pen nibs were sharpened. It is as if the entire world decided to not wait for the everyone else to jump on the bandwagon and instead, decided to go NoSQL. Even using this last week as the sole example, I think the reason is plain — people have real pain and suddenly the word is out that they no longer have to suffer.

Devs are constrained by what they can build, rich features notwithstanding. Ask the company that had to choose between Riak and a $100K in-memory appliance to scale. And Ops is getting slaughtered — the cost of scaling poorly (and by poorly I mean pagers going off during dinner, bulk updates taking hours and failing all the time, fragmented and unmanageable indices consuming dozens of machines) is beginning to look like the cost of antiquated technology. Good Ops people are not fools. They look for ways to make life easier. Make no mistake — all the Devs and Ops folks came with a set of tough questions and a list of new features. They also came with an understanding that companies that release open source software still have a business to run. They are willing to spend on a real company. In fact, having a business behind Riak ended up mattering as much as any features.

So, I suspect, we are at the proverbial “end of the beginning.” Smart people in the NoSQL movement have succeeded in building convincingly good software and then explaining the virtues convincingly (all but one of the presentations at NoSQL East demonstrated the virtues of the respective approaches). Now these people are connecting to smart people responsible for building and running web apps, people who are decidedly unwilling to sit around hoping for Oracle or IBM to solve their problems.

In the new phase — which we will cleverly call the “beginning of the middle” — great tech will matter even more than it does now. It won’t be about selling or marketing or any of that. If our numbers are any indication of a larger trend, more people will download and install NoSQL databases in the next month than the combined total of the three months previous. More people in a buying frame of mind will evaluate NoSQL technology not in terms of its coolness but in terms of its ability to solve their real, often expensive problems. The next phase will be rigorous in a way this phase was not. People have created several entirely new ways to store and distribute data. That was the easy part.

Just as much as great tech, the people behind it will matter. That means more calls between us and Dev teams. That means more feature requests considered and, possibly, judiciously, agreed to.

That also means lots of questions answered. People care about support. They care about whether you answer their emails in a timely fashion and are polite. People want to do business with NoSQL. They want to spend money to solve problems. They need to know they are spending it with responsible, responsive, dedicated people.

Earl tweets about it all the time and I happen to agree: any NoSQL success helps all NoSQL players. I also happen to feel that any failure hurts all NoSQL players. As NoSQL rapidly ages into its adolescence, it will either be awkward and painful or exciting and characterized by incredible growth.

When I was a kid on the Navy base in Alameda, my babysitter watched soaps all afternoon, leaving me mostly to my own devices. If I stopped in, I always got roped in to hearing her explain her favorite stories. Most of all she loved how ridiculous they were, though she would never admit this exactly. Instead, adopting an attitude of gleeful incredulity, she would point out this or that attractive young actor and tell me how just a year ago, she was a little baby. “Soap people have to grow up quick, I guess,” was her single (and to her, completely satisfactory) explanation. “If they don’t, they get written out of the story.”



Tony Falco