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The Oracle NoSQL push to legitimacy: Is it working?

Oracle wants its NoSQL database to be relevant in the world of non-relational databases. But winning over NoSQL adherents could be a tall task.

Right in the thick of the recent NoSQL Now! Conference, there was a large presence from one of the biggest SQL database vendors there are -- Oracle.

Oracle had a keynote delivered by Andy Mendelsohn, its VP of databases. Then there was a session on NoSQL databases and enterprise applications with David Segleau, Oracle director of product management for Oracle NoSQL, and another with some Oracle software developers on graph databases and other NoSQL technologies. Oracle also was one of the biggest sponsors of the event. Clearly, the Oracle NoSQL team was trying to get some attention.

In addition, Oracle made two NoSQL announcements at the conference. The first was that paid support for the Oracle NoSQL Community Edition would be licensed on a per-month, per-server basis. Most of the company's databases are licensed annually per processor. The second was that customers buying its Big Data Appliance could license Oracle NoSQL on a per-node basis, rather than having to license the whole box.

Two years after first launching its BerkeleyDB-based NoSQL database, Oracle is pushing hard to get recognized in the world of big data and non-relational databases. Can the company do it? Do people care?

Off the radar

One of the stars of the NoSQL-based cloud database world is Adrian Cockcroft, chief cloud architect at Netflix, which moved from a large Oracle deployment running on IBM server hardware to Apache Cassandra on Amazon Web Services. When I asked him last week what he thought of Oracle's push into the NoSQL world, Cockcroft said he wasn't aware of the announcements and didn't have any comment on them. But his "no comment" was telling.

It will be hard for Oracle and other relational database vendors to convince anyone that they're pushing into the NoSQL world for anything other than a money grab.

"Too many NoSQL solutions out there, this one isn't on my radar at all," the former Sun engineer wrote to me in an email.

Oracle is best known for Oracle Database, its relational database management software that has been around for decades. But in recent years, Oracle has invested in a host of other database technologies -- TimesTen for in-memory databases, MySQL for open-source relational databases and, yes, NoSQL. A common refrain today is that NoSQL should be spelled "NOSQL," an acronym that stands for "not only SQL." But there's no doubt that there exists something of a divide between relational and non-relational databases, a gap that Oracle wishes to bridge with its own products. Segleau told me in a recent interview that he thought the choice on which way to go "is very much about what problem you're trying to solve."

"If you have a line of business implementing a point solution that solves their problem, they tend to think toward a silo," he said. "But enterprises are more apt to look at silos as a bad thing. Business problems usually span more than one line of business, so it's important that your vendor can integrate them together."

All together now

Whenever Oracle starts talking about integration, it usually means one main thing: Fusion Middleware. The company has invested a lot of time and money in its middleware platform in recent years, with the goal of being able to integrate all of its various products -- whether they were engineered in-house or acquired.

The question is how that integration happens. Wary NoSQL types might see Oracle's goal being to eventually fold all data into a relational format that can be neatly queried and sorted, just like with its flagship database. I followed up with Netflix's Cockcroft, asking him if relational and non-relational databases don't talk to each other enough, and if it's possible to change that.

"Relational databases need to own the whole normalized schema, so they never want to talk to anyone else and are hard to partition, alter and scale," Cockcroft responded. "Denormalized use cases can move to NoSQL where polyglot options, rapid change and scale are normal."

The growing popularity of NoSQL has often been called a "movement," as if it's a kind of political undertaking to overthrow the norm. For some people, especially those who have grown up around Web applications requiring massive scalability that are well served by NoSQL, that may not be far off from the truth. It will be hard for Oracle and other relational database vendors to convince anyone that they're pushing into the NoSQL world for anything other than a money grab.

This was first published in September 2013

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