Open season: is open source really the best approach for NoSQL?

By John Leonard
02 May 2014 View Comments

Gary Bloom, CEO of NoSQL database vendor MarkLogic, seems keen to start a shooting match between the open source NoSQL providers such as MongoDB and Cassandra and proprietary firms like his own that sell an integrated enterprise stack.

Further reading

"The open source providers thought they could quietly move into the data centre through the back door of the developer," Bloom said. "The developers became enamoured with the technology but now they're finding security, consistency of data and consistency of transactions is critically important," he told Computing a few weeks back.

In a nutshell, Bloom's argument is this: by focusing on making their offerings developer-friendly (as all open source products need to be if they are to develop a healthy community), open source NoSQL firms necessarily have had to compromise on enterprise features such as security, integrated search and ACID transactions.

He also said that companies adopting the free versions of open source products can find that this leads to a heavy burden and unforeseen expense being placed on shoulders of the IT team, while enterprise subscription versions are effectively not so far removed from their proprietary alternatives, given that their advanced features need to be paid for.

Computing put these points to two subscription customers of one of the more prominent open source NoSQL databases, Couchbase. Their responses are interesting. While stoutly defending their choice, the open source model and community-based development, both conceded that open source NoSQL firms like Couchbase need to concentrate on polishing their enterprise credentials. And sooner rather than later.

Community feel

"Open source is really important: having a community is huge for us," said Drew Garner, director of cloud architecture at Concur, the US-based global provider of integrated travel and expense management solutions, describing how the model gives Concur access to a wide pool of expertise, including developers from other companies.

"Couchbase will say ‘you should get to know these people because they've had your use case before and fixed it'," he said, contrasting this approach with that of a proprietary database vendor.

"Developers are not going to say ‘who else uses Microsoft SQL Server that we want to reach out to?' because we're not getting that community feel back."

Dietmar Fauser, VP architecture, quality and governance at Amadeus, the provider of technology solutions for the global travel industry, agreed that the community aspect of open source is vital.

"We use a lot of open source," he said. "We were an aggressive early adopter of Linux and MemcacheD. We believe the culture of open source comes with frequent releases and faster updates."

Amadeus is a Premium Plus subscriber to Couchbase, while Concur opts for Premium level support. Both Amadeus and Concur are large organisations with a strong tradition of research and development (R&D). Amadeus employs 3,000 IT engineers in R&D globally while Concur has about 800. These factors mean they can both contribute a lot to the community and also, importantly, prioritise their own wish lists via that community, especially Amadeus with its Premium Plus status: "We spent quite some money on that," Fauser said.

Amadeus' flight booking system handles three to four million reads per second, a number that is anticipated to increase tenfold within five years. Amadeus installed high-end Fusion IO SSD cards in its Couchbase servers as a way to handle this huge throughput. To utilise this ultra-fast storage to its full capacity required the load to be parallelised to an extent that exceeded Couchbase's capabilities at the time.

"We needed higher parallelisation of our persistency layer and we contributed ourselves to parts of that development," commented Fauser. "If you are in a closed product environment you cannot extend it yourself and push new features into it."

For its part, Concur has helped Couchbase with improvements to its client-side .Net software development kit.

Being significant players with plenty of software engineers on hand has other advantages too, particularly when it comes to assuring the platform's future.

"Imagine Couchbase decides to increase the price 50 times," Fauser speculated. "You can take the code and either another company clones it and maintains a fork, or we could maintain our own fork - we have the engineering power to do this."

As enterprise subscribers with a strong engineering culture, both Concur and Amadeus have found the model works well for them. They use Couchbase where it is the best fit, and alternative solutions elsewhere. However, those with fewer resources in-house will likely require more hand-holding as they seek to tailor the technology to fit their needs.

So does Bloom's argument hold water? Will developer-led adoption of open source NoSQL eventually hit the buffers of security, compliance and complexity?

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