Since the 1970s there’s been a steady decline in the number of free-standing relational database companies until only Oracle remains. Familiar names like Sybase, Ingres, Informix, MySQL, SQL Server and others are either out of business or have been acquired.
So, it would be reasonable to believe that the database market has commoditized, and that one relational DB is as good as another (plus or minus), though today Oracle has the dominant share of the market. But if commoditization was true a few years ago, it’s certainly not now.
In the recent past, lost market share, technology hiccups, and a minor rebellion among users over pricing and related policies aimed at Oracle, helped to launch a new generation of databases from startups and well-heeled competitors like Amazon.
Trouble is, the reports of commoditization and of Oracle’s flagging market presence were greatly exaggerated. Over the last decade, Oracle has built up its flagship product to be not simply better, but much better, than the competition. It did this in several ways.
First, it developed hardware like Exadata to move big database workloads into memory. It was a predictable move, but greatly appreciated by large DB consumers because it removed the performance bottleneck of relatively slow hard disks, thus enabling databases to run as much as a million times faster. Disk drives operate at millisecond rates — and silicone runs by the nanosecond — potentially enabling that dramatic speed up.
Next, and perhaps just as important, Oracle embraced cloud computing. Even though it had supported the majority of cloud companies from the beginning, and even though Oracle developers lived with cloud customers to see how to boost performance, it was seen as a laggard because the company didn’t offer cloud applications of its own.
Today’s Business Needs
Nonetheless, Oracle learned a lot from its customers and plowed its findings back into its core product just as others were getting restless and seeking alternatives.
Competition heated up and today there are good and credible competitors for Oracle. Though Oracle, and Gartner, have scads of data documenting Oracle’s superior performance.
One big difference that Oracle exploits is that its competitors now offer multiple versions of their databases tuned to specific workloads like OLTP or analytics. It’s a good strategy that enables the company to concentrate on optimizing various functions for discreet markets.
But that’s not how we work.
Modern business has converged needs because applications like CRM continue to demand more styles of computing and database access than ever before. Back when relational databases existed to support row and column screens and reports, there was less challenge.
Today though, a CRM application might need the same data, but it will also want to know the next best offer to provide, an analytics and machine learning job. It might also require serious graphics processing to give users visual understanding of possible next steps.
In short, our business apps don’t do just one thing and our databases have to keep up. The idea of specialization makes sense in theory, but the idea loses a lot in practice — especially if a given specialty database is not as robust as the converged version.
That’s why I was so intrigued by one particular part of Oracle’s briefing about the new 21c version of its flagship RDB.
According to Oracle and Gartner, the Oracle Autonomous Database placed first in all four operational use cases tested — and first or second for all four analytical use cases according to Gartner’s publication, “Critical Capabilities for Cloud DBMS for Operational Use Cases.”
That’s not supposed to happen. Specialists are supposed to be better at their one thing than generalists are at trying to be all things to all people. But not here. In this case, the performance leader continues to be one of the earliest players in the market. Moreover, all of the significant resources that companies can throw at the problem (i.e. money) have not resulted in significant advantages.
Just to highlight the point, Oracle is now calling its product a “converged database” to help with differentiation by highlighting that many businesses don’t often only focus on OLTP or AI, but that their businesses require a bit of everything. You can search on the new version of Oracle’s DB, 21c for the details.
There’s no doubt that the database market is undergoing a second flowering after decades of status quo stasis, and there are some good options out there. Some of the advances had to wait for faster hardware and others needed a business case to capture part of the billions of dollars that Oracle spends on R&D every year.
To get that truism right for once, the proof of the pudding really is in the eating.