‘No’ in NoSQL Means Yes

Interview with Couchbase CEO Bob Wiederhold

By James O. Grundvig Created: August 13, 2012 Last Updated: August 13, 2012
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Entering the headquarters of Couchbase in Mountain View, Calif., one could hear the rapid flutter of a hummingbird’s wings. The quiet in the room full of coders, engineers, and programmers prodded me that I was in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Yet the silence shouldn’t be confused with stillness, as the teams were actively working on Couchbase 2.0, a release that turns an existing, highly successful, key-value database into a document database that will bring direct competition to 10Gen’s MongoDB for the first time. The difference between it and Couchbase began in the database startup’s origins.

Initially, Couchbase set out to build a business around the popular memcached open-source caching project. But after talking to customers they latched onto a bigger opportunity: What customers really wanted was a high-performance, easily scalable, key-value database to replace memcached and MySQL.

Initial customers like Zynga and AOL drove them to deliver that unique product that now defines what sets it apart. With 2.0, Couchbase will also provide the developer-friendly indexing and querying features that they crave.

During the one-hour interview with Couchbase CEO Bob Wiederhold, he said, “The underpinning of the $40 billion a year database market is 95 percent based on relational database technology from companies such as Oracle. Fifteen years from now that number will be different. Will it be 60 percent? 40 percent? I don’t know, but it won’t be close to the 95 percent that it is today.”

Focused and grounded on the direction of the company and the disruptive technology the NoSQL wave is bringing to the business world, he sees big data and its big users as transforming the way we access, share, and communicate information.

NoSQL is a distributed database (DB). Unlike its relational database predecessor, NoSQL scales rapidly and horizontally to handle the exploding amount of data that is stored and the millions of users that are often using today’s apps. It has little operational maintenance compared to relational DBs.

NoSQL doesn’t need to store information using highly structured tables, “1,000s of them,” Wiederhold said, which become cumbersome when updating large swaths of data that have been collected and stored. If a node (server) goes down, the user is oblivious to it as the data has been backed up across other nodes and are, to the human eye, instantly reorganized across the active nodes with the data displayed to the browser; then the down server is replaced by a new one.

The Paradigm Shift of Cloud Computing

Anyone who thinks the “cloud” has always been here—such as a server farm located offsite—doesn’t grasp the transformation of the IT industry today. To drive home that point, Wiederhold drew a flow diagram on the whiteboard, explaining:

“The cloud typically uses a three-tier Internet software architecture. A browser, whether it’s on a desktop, tablet, or smartphone, provides the interface to most applications. The browser then connects over the Internet to a middle layer, the Web/application servers that run all the logic of an application. These servers in turn connect with the bottom tier, the database servers that stores all the data associated with an app. This is the same cloud infrastructure whether it’s used on- or off-premise.”

On the business side I expect the NoSQL industry to grow very fast. While Internet companies are the predominant users of NoSQL today, I think NoSQL’s use in enterprises will grow rapidly and surpass the business coming from Internet companies.

—Bob Wiederhold, Couchbase CEO

In the NoSQL DB, data is distributed across a “cluster” of commodity servers that can be 10, 100, or 1,000 nodes.

Wiederhold went on to note that the 1990s client-server approach to software development is done, adding, “Most new applications use the three-tier architecture, while existing software categories like enterprise content management and new ones like social game expand a massive market opportunity will open up for new technologies.”

Demo Simulator Couchbase NoSQL

The following day, I visited Couchbase’s Steven Mih, VP of business development, and Jeff Howard, business development, in the San Francisco office. They gave a demo of Couchbase v1.8.

With a RightScale “server template” as the interface and Amazon Web Services as the cloud service, Mih ramped up four gaming products simultaneously, while simulating tens of thousands of operations of user traffic. In a dashboard of panes tracking the flow of data across many DB nodes and clusters, it became easy for a non-techie like myself to follow the changes, loading up and draining down of nodes and the switching of data when one server went down in a particular cluster.

For version 2.0, Mih said, “We can also show how you can easily mirror your data across two datacenters. That’s because 2.0 will provide cross datacenter replication.” In other words, in case of a blackout or other major event, if the datacenter goes down on one coast, the data will be replicated on the other coast.

Questions for Bob Wiederhold

Wiederhold also took time to explain to me a bit more about the background of Couchbase and the future of NoSQL.

Mr. James Grundvig: What was the inspiration for founding Couchbase?

Mr. Bob Wiederhold: Couchbase was founded in 2009. The original idea was to build a commercial company around the memcached open source project. At the time, memcached use was exploding as a frontend caching tier to MySQL. When we talked to users, they told us they wanted something to replace the combination. They wanted a database with caching built in that was easier to develop, with much higher performance, and much easier to scale—a NoSQL database. Our Couchbase Server product now has memcached incorporated into it, but it’s a NoSQL database.

James Grundvig : There is a new Couchbase release coming out. Can you provide details?

Bob Wiederhold : Yes, our 2.0 release is coming out in late October, is available now for developer preview, and will go into beta in September.

The biggest change in 2.0 is that Couchbase will move from being a key-value database to a document-oriented database. Using the document model means that you will be able to build secondary indexes and do queries on fields in stored JSON documents all without the need to worry about a restrictive, fixed schema like in relational databases.

The second major new feature is cross datacenter replication. This allows users to scale beyond a single datacenter. Keeping database clusters in different locations synchronized enables fast reads and writes from local instances and allows easy disaster recovery.

The release is a really big deal for us and we expect it to have a big impact on the market.

James Grundvig : Where is NoSQL heading in the next three to five years?

Bob Wiederhold : From a technical perspective there is a race among the NoSQL leaders to fill out the feature sets of our products and improve the reliability of our solutions. Couchbase, for example, is known for its predictable high performance, its easy scalability, its ability to be always on 24x7x365, but until our 2.0 release we didn’t have a rich set of developer features, like indexing and querying.

Mongo on the other hand, has been strong in providing lots of developer features, but has been comparatively weak in performance, scalability, and always on support. Going forward I think you will see a lot more competition among the NoSQL players as each fills out the features of their products.

On the business side I expect the NoSQL industry to grow very fast. While Internet companies are the predominant users of NoSQL today, I think NoSQL’s use in enterprises will grow rapidly and surpass the business coming from Internet companies.

Wiederhold concluded the interview by stating that his firm had 14 Couchbase conferences in 2011. “In June 2012, we took the conference on a roadshow for technical, operations, and development,” he said. “September 21 in San Francisco will be the main Couchbase conference for version 2.0. It will be very technical. But then, it’s about building community, not just an exchange of information.”

James Ottar Grundvig is a writer based in New York City.

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