Tony Bain

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Is the RDBMS doomed (yada yada yada) ?

September 22, 2009 | Tony Bain

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I was speaking with Michael Stonebraker this morning.  I mentioned that lately many have been referencing comments he has made over the last couple of years.  And I also mentioned that many had interpreted them as he was implying the RDBMS is “doomed”.  Mike has been saying the same thing for years, but the current NoSQL movement seems to have picked up on this and highlighting one of the RDBMS's own pioneers is predicting its demise.

I asked Mike to clarify this.  My interpretation of his response is as follows.  I understand that he doesn’t believe the relational database itself is doomed.  Instead the current general purpose implementations, or “elephants” using his words, were out of date.  By moving away from a historical GP function into something more specific in focus, either in transaction processing or analytics, you can easily get 50x performance improvement over GP RDBMS.  This doesn’t necessarily mean moving away from the “relational” nature, but instead changing some core design principles for how a RDBMS is implemented.  It is this improvement factor that will see “new” specialist platforms overtake “old” general purpose platforms.  That is gradually, over time.  However Mike also mentioned the relational data model doesn’t make sense in a number of disciplines, particularly in sciences, and alternative modeling paradigms will offer benefits to this market (hence his focus on SciDB).  So while relational is a valid data model, other data models are also needed.

I have a similar position to Mike, but perhaps with a few differences. 

– Firstly I agree with the mantra that current GP RDBMS platforms provide only a “middle of the road” capability, and we gone too far in using a GP RDBMS for everything.  However I do believe there is a long term future for the GP RDBMS.  A general purpose application requirement will continued to be well suited for a general purpose platform.  With a specialist only approach, a general purpose requirement may need both a specialist OLTP platform and a specialist Analytics platform to provide the same capability.

– I agree that with an extreme requirement, either analytics or transaction processing, a specialist platform is well suited.  But I don’t see the choices of just MPP or memory resident RBDMS as being a broad enough set.  Apps that use a db just as a persistence cache will benefit from a high performing, scalable database platform with much tighter integration with the object model.  I am not sure any of the current NoSQL platforms have it quite right yet, but when these guys eventually get together with the database guys and work on these things together they may get there.

– I don’t think a 50x performance speed up on its own is enough to drive change in OLTP.  I have written before how difficult it is to get into this market and how tight Oracle, Microsoft & IBM have this sewn up.  But I don’t believe it is impossible, I think you just need to bring slam dunks on multiple fronts (performance just being one of them).

Anyway I feel like I am a bit of a broken record at the moment.  I have been addressing the “is the RDBMS doomed” question a couple of times a day for some time. Time to focus on something else for a bit.