Couchbase CEO exclusive: why NoSQL is the database for the digital economy

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed October 8, 2015
Couchbase CEO Bob Wiederhold takes a bold position on the importance of NoSQL for digital business. At Couchbase Live, he gave me the reasons why.

Bob Wiederhold

At the Couchbase Live New York City event, I talked to customers running NoSQL at scale. But during my interview with Couchbase CEO Bob Wiederhold, he took it further, arguing that NoSQL is THE database of choice for the digital economy.

During our informal chat in the Vault Room of the Cipriani (pictured right), I asked Wiederhold for the context behind his NoSQL assertions. He also shared the top concerns that companies looking at NoSQL transitions are facing.

Wiederhold sees companies across industries making platform changes to get digital results. Yes, it's about delivering products and services over mobile/cloud, at the speed and scale customers expect. But don't try floating the idea that NoSQL is for side projects with Wiederhold:

We have never really subscribed to this view that the use of NoSQL is just for green field applications. Half of our business is replacing relational database technologies.

Wiederhold went on to name two massive companies that have moved off a well-known RDBMS for Couchbase (the names are off the record for now). Other customers are moving off mainframes:

You heard from Marriott this morning. They were on a mainframe, but you can't run a digital economy business on a mainframe. You just cannot compete. You can't move fast enough. You can't get the scalability. The cost is way too high.

Heard the phrase "data-driven" lately? Wiederhold sees this as NoSQL's chance to seize the moment:

Building web, mobile, and IOT applications that provide great experiences to customers is paramount to those digital economy businesses. Especially now - because most of these apps are data-centric apps with very data--centric features.

We think an operational database is absolutely critical to delivering those great web, mobile and IoT experiences. So whether you buy from Couchbase or DataStax, or Mongo, we think NoSQL is the right technology fit.

Wiederhold didn't stop there. Up against the NoSQL competition, he thinks the Couchbase value prop just got a big-ol' turbo-boost from the release of Couchbase Server 4.0. Other articles have detailed 4.0 features. But for Wiederhold, the key to the 4.0 release is how it enables what he calls the third phase of digital adoption.

The three phases of digital/NoSQL adoption

Wiederhold outlined the three (overlapping) phases as:

Phase 1: Grassroots developer adoption - this is a more experimental phase, with developers downloading free open source tools and getting feet wet. Soon they move on to building lightweight-use, smaller apps - but not mission-critical business-critical applications. Wiederhold: "This is a very important part of the adoption cycle because that's how people get exposed to these technologies."

Phase 2: NoSQL is ready for prime time - beginning in 2013, Wiederhold saw a shift towards NoSQL being used for mission-critical enterprise apps:

Enterprises started to come to the conclusion that NoSQL was feature-rich enough, reliable enough and stable enough that they could start deploying under mission-critical business applications that are already operating in scale. Many times, not always, they did deep strategic evaluations, something that never happens in phase one.

Phase two put NoSQL to a bigger test, with companies putting products through rigorous stress testing, before deploying NoSQL under a few select mission-critical/business-critical apps. As Wiederhold admits, this phase wasn't a widespread deployment of NoSQL across all digital business units - it was more of a toe (or two) in the water.

Phase 3 - broad NoSQL adoption - for Couchbase, this means customers who are adopting NoSQL across their digital business. They've used the product for two to three years, building internal momentum along with confidence on vendor delivery. As Joyent's Brian Cantrill joked to me that morning, enterprises still need a "throat to choke":

To move into this phase, enhanced features are needed, including beefed-up security. Wiederhold:

Companies are now making a strategic decision that NoSQL is a fundamental part of our digital economy infrastructure, and they're going to deploy broadly. The product bar is much higher in this phase. In phase two, some security features may have been missing; they got a waiver from the Chief Security Officer because it was just a few apps. Now if they're going to deploy broadly, they'll need higher security.

I asked Wiederhold whether Couchbase was ready for phase three. He acknowledged they weren't quite there until the 4.0 release. But now he thinks they have arrived:

The 4.0 release we think extends the use cases we can support very significantly, because you can all kinds of complex queries. The business intelligence and reporting that people want to do is made much easier, because of N1QL. We think that that significantly extends the use cases we can support.

What holds customers back?

Even if technology delivers on its promise, customers run into hurdles. I asked Wiederhold about the concerns he hears from customers looking at digital projects. The most common problem Wiederhold runs into is technical. Often, existing solutions can't scale for digital:

One of the key things is just scalability. I need to be able to serve not just 5,000 simultaneous users of my app anymore. I need to support 10,000, 100,000, a million simultaneous users, and I need to be able to do that without an army of people. I need to be able to do that at a reasonable cost.

Wiederhold believes NoSQL has three key attributes that come into play here: scalability, performance and user development. For a company like Marriott, scalability also means global reach, and global data centers. Enter NoSQL as an operational database.

Wiederhold advises customers to look hard at their use cases, and evaluate solutions with their specific industry case in mind. Training and skills also require a serious assessment. It's not as simple as upskilling your SQL folks - thought that might be crucial. Digital business means attracting different kinds of talent, including designers, UX specialists, and mobile developers.

Change might be necessary, but it isn't easy. Wiederhold cited a Couchbase customer that split out a separate division to better recruit and nurture digital talent. He added:

A lot of times it's organizational. The kind of people you want to hire may not fit in well next to the fifty-year-old DBA that wants nothing to do with NoSQL. NoSQL is a fast moving, rapidly changing environment. A lot of times, this means younger people who grew up using Ruby or Python. They're open to new technologies. For many of these companies that aren't Internet companies, creating that innovative culture means a lot of organizational changes.

Wiederhold shared this bit from a recent customer chat:

I was with a company that's big in retail yesterday, and that's exactly what he was talking about. He was saying, "I love NoSQL. NoSQL is going to be part of our future. That isn't my biggest problem." His biggest problem is, "How can I set up the innovative environment necessary to build great apps?" Making the technology decisions is easier. It's, "How do I organizationally create what I need so that I can succeed?"

My take

It's too soon after the release of 4. 0 to assess whether Wiederhold is right about 4.0 heralding a new level of adoption for NoSQL I certainly heard stories reinforcing the strategic value of NoSQL at Couchbase Live. (I'll be writing more on this).

Some at Couchbase may differ, but I think there is more work for them to do on phase one. Developer engagement, training, and community aren't something you get a pass on because your product is robust enough to scale. The Couchbase leadership I spoke with about this were thinking along these same lines. They shared plans to further their developer engagement and online training. That will be another issue to watch.

Enterprise NoSQL has moved well beyond developer sandboxing and skunkworks. Whether Wiederhold is right that NoSQL is essential to digital business remains to be seen. But the enthusiasm NoSQL customers show about what they can achieve does make an impression.

Image credits: on-site photos by Jon Reed.

Disclosure: Couchbase covered most of the travel expenses for my attendance at Couchbase Live New York City. Diginomica does not have a financial relationship with Couchbase.