Thursday, June 13, 2024

A Revolution Threatens the Relational Database

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SAP is hardly known for its revolutionary fervor, but it’s clear that they’re storming the barricades over in Waldorf and Palo Alto. The revolution is being led by the company’s in-memory database technology, and up against the wall, with the thwack of the guillotine ringing in the background, is the relational database, and its main ally, the data warehouse. Not to mention a certain relational database and applications competitor of SAP, and by that I don’t mean Microsoft.

SAP has been working on in-memory database functionality for a while, and has been running its Business Intelligence Accelerator (BIA) using an in-memory database for a couple of years. But at this May’s Sapphire user conference, SAP made a point of showing how to make mincemeat out of the throughput of traditional relational databases.

With SAP’s in-memory system providing sub-second response rates against a billion records, SAP’s Hasso Plattner vowed that the company was close to being able to run a Wal-mart-class database – weighing in at a petabyte or two – completely in-memory and with the same blinding response time.

But that’s not all, and here’s where the revolution comes in. Plattner finally made formal what’s been stewing at SAP for years: this same technology is slated to be deployed in the traditional world of SAP Business Suite transactions, promising more than just speedy throughput.

The technology has Oracle-killer written all over it, and nothing would give SAP greater pleasure than to knock Oracle’s database out of its current position as top-dog in the SAP database kennel.

Of course, the news that SAP was planning to replace its relational database backend with a column-based in-memory system would also make things a little complicated with IBM and Microsoft, both of which have been pushed by SAP to challenge Oracle’s dominance, with some success. So Plattner stuck to more of a techy exposition of what the technology can do for customers than a marketing exposition of what it could to the competition.

But it’s no secret who would have the most to lose from an in-memory revolution. At least until Oracle mainstreams the in-memory technology it bought with the acquisition of TimesTen in 2005.

Because once SAP can truly provide an in-memory alternative to Oracle, it will have a massive performance benefit that Oracle simply won’t be able to challenge, thanks to Oracle’s closed database design. While SAP has always been database agnostic, Oracle’s applications are tied directly to its database, and therefore can’t be run on an in-memory database, theirs or anyone else’s. Oracle could and probably is already thinking of providing some version of in-memory support for its forthcoming Fusion Applications suite. But that’s not what it will take to blunt an SAP in-memory drive against Oracle’s purely relational eBusiness Suite.

There are other benefits to in-memory as well that accrue to customers, and not just to SAP’s competitiveness: in-memory is cheaper to buy, obviously doesn’t need the massive server infrastructure that a relational database needs, and, at least theoretically, is much cheaper to run as well, as in no corps of expensive DBAs needed.

It would be foolish to predict that the relational database will go the way of the dinosaurs any time soon, we know from years of predicting the total demise of technology that most functional systems survive in some form or another, despite their growing irrelevance and obsolescence. (Do a search on IBM’s IMS and you’ll see how popular that old warrior still is after 40 years in service.)

But just as most useful technologies seem to persist, all eventually succumb to challenge from something better, faster, and cheaper. This ascendancy of in-memory databases and the concomitant decline of relational database plays exactly to this trend, and SAP’s Plattner very neatly defined how far along relational databases are in the decline category. Not finished, not out of the market yet, but the technology guillotine is being sharpened, and relational databases are about to be cut down to size. With SAP cheering all the way.

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