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DataStax strengthens foundations for relational database assault

Kenny MacIver Profile picture for user kmaciver February 17, 2014
NoSQL database start-up responds to accelerating growth by drafting in seasoned database industry execs.

“Up and down Silicon Valley, you can’t find anybody under 30 who’s building their business on Oracle [database technology]. In the same way that in the 1990s it was not cool to be a Cobol programmer, it’s not cool any more to be using Oracle — as great a company as it is.”

Strong words from a man who built much of his career on Oracle database development, but Bill Bosworth, CEO of DataStax, the vendor of the eponymous enterprise-class Apache Cassandra database platform, is not just claiming to be witnessing the slow but sure generational drift away from relational database technology, he is executing plans to make it happen even faster.

Four-year-old DataStax doesn’t yet share sales numbers, but according to one of its former VPs, revenue growth during 2013 was running at 400%. A fifth of the Fortune 100 are now customers of its NoSQL open source database distribution, and headcount has jumped by 150% in the last 12 months from 80 to 200.

That trajectory has certainly given its VC backers (who’ve pumped in $84 million), board members and management the sense that they may be sitting on top of one of the next hot database properties, and encouraged them to send head-hunters in search of seasoned talent — talent that can both manage such exponential growth and get the company in shape for an earlier-than-anticipated IPO or acquisition.

Three recent appointments, in particular, underscored that move:

• New board director Jim Baum was the former CEO of Netezza, the upstart that successfully challenged high-end data warehousing and analytics giant Teradata. He took Netezza to IPO, and then followed that with 14 straight quarters of growth before its ultimate acquisition by IBM.

• Dennis Wolf joined DataStax as CFO towards the end of last year after having led finance at enterprise flash memory company Fusion-io, where he helped shape its 2011 IPO. Earlier he was CFO at MySQL, the open source relational database company bought by Sun Microsystems for $1 billion, and now part of Oracle.

• Clint Smith, hired as general counsel in January, is a tech company legal veteran who was also part of the team that built success at MySQL and took it to exit.

According to Bosworth, such team-strengthening is primarily about supporting growth. “We have been accelerating faster than any of us on the board had anticipated so we wanted to bring in [a CFO] that could get his arms around the financials and build the proper controls underneath the organization so we have a solid foundation for the growth,” says Bosworth.

Billy Bosworth, CEO of DataStax

“For us it is about getting good financial hygiene in place so you can run your business effectively and efficiently. The fact that that also happens to be the same type of preparation you do for an IPO is actually incidental. Our aim internally is to act like a public company right now, and then, should we need a fund-raising event and that happens to be an IPO, we would have no surprises.”

The fact that the two new members of the management team both participated in the MySQL story is a singular advantage, he maintains. “To have people who really understand the dynamics of open source as a business model and all the intricacies that come with being a community-minded company but with a commercial veneer and presence to satisfy your enterprise customers, that is a rare find.”

Migration wave

What is drawing such talent is a chance to participate in what new CFO Dennis Wolf describes as “clearly the future of database software.” Demand for NoSQL database products is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 21% over the next four years to hit $3.4 billion by 2018, according to Market Research Media. And much of that is already coming at the expense of relational databases.

“Over 85% of our large customers are moving from an existing relational database application — and, not surprisingly, it is almost always Oracle,” says Bosworth. “That is the world we are disrupting.”

“We are doing that by delivering this always-on fully distributed database that was actually built for the new world of very dynamic online applications, where the data is everything,” he says. “It allows companies to overcome the obstacles to the kind of innovation that they need to do to revolutionize their businesses, but which they can’t do with the old technology.”

When he arrived at DataStax in 2011, he had expectations of around five major businesses making the switch away from Oracle by the end of 2013. But that started to happen as early as 2012, he says, and has gained momentum ever since.

Hybrid adoption

One reason is that migration is a much less painful or risky experience than in previous eras of IT, he argues. “In the old world of the 1990s, when we were moving from the mainframe to Oracle, it was really an all or nothing proposition — in other words, there was a day when we literally cut off the mainframe, held on to our hats and turned on the Oracle database.”

“Today’s applications are architected in such a way that you can start moving your applications a piece at a time. And that is causing so much freedom for the way businesses can now be agile in adopting these new technologies. They now don’t have to risk everything. So we have had companies that are on two or even three year migration plans, progressively taking pieces of their applications and starting to move them over.”

His favourite example of that is DataStax’s flagship customer, on-demand streaming media company Netflix. Today 95% of Netflix’s data is running on Cassandra, but that migration away from Oracle was staged over a year. For Christos Kalantzis, Netflix manager of cloud and platform engineering that move was all about the always-on availability, tunable consistency and “almost infinite” scalability of Apache Cassandra — and distributing load across multiple data centers. “There’s no other database out there that allows you to take advantage of multi-data centers,” he says.

Although that bluechip customer  roster now extends to eBay, Safeway, Pearson, Thomson Reuters, Australia Post, WW Grainger, InterContinental Hotels and Travelocity, DataStax is still not quite in a position to start disclosing the names of any of the 21 companies from the Fortune 100 who use its technology — they still have too much invested in the relational world. But perhaps that will change as the politics of switching from relational to NoSQL becomes less charged.

Disclosure: Oracle is a diginomica partner at time of writing

Featured image: iStockphoto/masta4650

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