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Browsing into the future of database platforms

Gavin Payne

Past success is no guarantee of success in the future. Database platforms, like web browsers, might be an established technology but the demands of them are likely to change more in the next two years than in the previous 25.

Browsers today are about more than browsing

Almost 25 years after the modern web browser was created, the priorities for their developers are now very different to when they first appeared. Web browser innovation today is about supporting multiple platforms, extending functionality with plug-ins and streaming every kind of media imaginable – as well as being faster than the competition. It’s a very different world to the era when presenting text with hyperlinks at any speed was considered state of the art.

Any technology that’s lasted 25 years will have seen significant changes in both the expectations of it and its capabilities. How it adapts to stay relevant has as much to do with its success as its core functionality. Although, you could argue they’re the same thing.

The database platform faces new competitors

Although a couple of years behind the modern web browser, the database server technology we’re all familiar with is also getting close to being a quarter of a century old. And, it too has had to adapt. These days, the megavendors whose businesses rely on licensing sales don’t just face competition from their competitors making their products go faster or providing new programming functions. They face competition from completely new ways of storing and managing data. Now they don’t just have to worry about their customers spending their money elsewhere (strategically migrating to a competitor’s product), they now have to worry about customers:

  • favouring a platform they don’t currently support (Windows vs. Linux vs. PaaS vs. SaaS)
  • not wanting to pay for licensing at all and even helping write the product they use (open source)
  • wanting to store new types and quantities of data that their products were never designed for (unstructured/non-relational/big data)

In a nutshell, the future of database platforms is clearly no longer going to be about providing incremental product updates that add a few features, it’s going to be about significant product changes that we’d never imagined could have happened just a few years ago.

The future world of database platforms

So what might those future significant product changes be? Looking at the three threats to current database platforms I identified above, we can begin to think about how future database platforms may look. Microsoft in particular has already taken some very visible steps to accommodate the current and future needs of its customers, so let’s review what they’ve been:

  • SQL Server on Linux – “the cloud runs on Linux” and “if there’s one thing organisations hate more than Oracle, it’s Windows” - two great sayings I’ve heard and while they’re probably not true they still show why Microsoft’s porting of SQL Server to Linux is critical to the future success of the product.
  • Azure SQL Database – if you don’t care how your database gets there as long as it does, then the Platform as a Service (PaaS) variant of SQL Server is a perfect match for you. Creating a cloud variant of SQL Server very early in the era of cloud services was a good decision Microsoft made.
  • Commercial grade open source software – while some teams want to use open source technologies, their organisations want them to use commercially backed products. Already, Microsoft has taken open source technologies – such as Hadoop and R – and created enterprise grade and supported builds. With the analytics and database server environment having significant innovation from the open source communities, I can see Microsoft using this new model more in the future.
  • Supporting any type of data – Storing and managing relational/table based data is a mature capability now. The skill today is making a relational platform also store and manage non-relational data. Microsoft’s PolyBase technology is one example of making this happen, I can see more examples appearing in the future (U-SQL and the Azure Data Lake technology for example).

Adapting to new worlds

Like the web browser then, today’s database platform also needs to be ready for a rapidly changing world. Each product’s core functionality is a given. Now they need to remain relevant in the future but perhaps more importantly help take their existing users and customers to it as well.


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