Just a few days ago, we did something a bit new at Basho. We posted the beginning of a public discussion to explore and document some differences between various NoSQL systems. Some people have attempted such comparisons before, but generally from an external observer’s point of view. When something like this comes from a producer of one of the systems in question it necessarily changes the tone.

If you weren’t really paying attention you could choose to see this as aggressive competition on our part, but the people that have chosen to engage with us have hopefully seen that it’s the opposite: an overt attempt at collaboration. While the initial comparisons were definitely not complete (for instance, in some cases they reflected the current self-documented state of systems instead of the current state of their code) they nonetheless very much had the desired effect.

That effect was to create productive conversation, resulting both in improvement of the comparison documents and in richer ongoing communication between the various projects out there. Our comparisons have already improved a great deal as a result of this and will continue to do so. I attribute this to the constructive attention that they have received from people deeply in the trenches with the various systems being discussed. That attention has also, I hope, given us a concrete context in which to strengthen our relationships with those people and projects.

Some of the attention we received was from people that are generally unhelpful; there are plenty of trolls on the internet who are more interested in throwing stones than in useful conversation. There’s not much point in wading into that kind of a mess as everyone gets dirty and nothing improves as a result. Luckily, we also received attention from people who actually build things. Those sorts of people tend to be much more interested in productive collaboration, and that was certainly the case this time. Though they’re by no means the only ones we’ve been happy to talk to, we can explicitly thank Greg Arnette, Jonathan Ellis, Benjamin Black, Mike Dirolf, Joe Stump, and Peter Neubauer for being among those spending their valuable time talking with us recently.

It’s easy to claim that any attempt to describe others that isn’t immediately perfect is just FUD, but our goal here is to help remove the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that people outside this fledgling community already have about all of this weird NoSQL stuff. By engaging each other in direct, honest, open, civil conversations we can all improve our knowledge as well as the words we use to describe each others’ work.

The people behind the various NoSQL systems today have a lot in common with the American craft brewers of the 1980s and 1990s. (Yes, I’m talking about beer.) You might casually imagine that people trying to sell similar products to the same market would be cutthroat competitors, but you’d be wrong. When you are disrupting a much larger established industry, aggression amongst peers isn’t a good route to success.

The friend who convinced me to try a Sam Adams in 1993 wasn’t striking a blow against Sierra Nevada or any of the other craft brewers at the time. In fact, he was helping all of those supposed “competitors” by opening up one more pair of eyes to the richness of choices that are available to all. People who enjoy good beer will happily talk about the differences between their brews all day, but in the end what matters is that when they walk into a bar they will look to see what choices they have at the tap instead of just ordering the same old Bud without a second thought.

Understanding that “beer” doesn’t always mean exactly the same identical beverage is the key realization, just as with NoSQL the most important thing people outside the community can realize is that not all data problems are shaped like a typical RDBMS.

Of course, any brewer will talk more about their own product more than anything else, but will also know that good conversations lead to improvements by all and the potential greater success of the entire community they exist in. Sometimes the way to start a good conversation is to talk about what you know best, with people that you know will have a different point of view than your own. From there, everyone’s knowledge, perspective, and understanding can improve.

At Basho we’re not just going to keep doing what we’ve already done in terms of communication. We’re going to keep finding new and better ways of communicating, and do it more often.

In addition to continuing to work with others on finding the right ways to publicly discuss our differences and similarities on fundamentals, we will also do so in specific areas such as performance testing, reliability under duress, and more. This will remain tricky, because it is easy for people to get confused by superficial issues and distracted from the more interesting ones — and opinions will vary on which are which. In discussing those opinions, we will all become more capable practitioners and advocates of the craft that binds us together.

Ruffling a few feathers is a low cost to pay, if better conversations occur. This is especially true if the people truly creating value by building systems learn how to work better together in the process.