NuoDB, Morgenthaler Ventures Talk Disruption in Databases

The database startup that is closest to my office, if not my heart, has a compelling story. Roughly speaking, it’s one of these “if it really works, it is a game changer” types of companies. Which is fairly common in the tech world—but not as common as, say, “even if it works, who cares?”

NuoDB, based in Cambridge, MA, released its first product in January. The software provides business customers with an “elastically scalable” system for cloud data management. Before your eyes glaze over from the technical description, here’s what it’s really about.

“Let’s stop screwing around with incremental stuff,” says Barry Morris, the company’s CEO and co-founder. “Think about the 10-year horizon.”

He’s talking about the notion that the Internet could have 50 billion devices on it by then. Web and mobile users already demand levels of speed and responsiveness that were unheard of when most of today’s databases were designed. With global usage of social media, e-commerce, and financial sites on the rise, the volume of queries and transactions that IT systems have to handle is becoming a serious challenge. (Facebook handles roughly 50 million transactions per second, which requires a huge investment in big-data infrastructure.)

NuoDB’s answer is to completely redesign databases from the ground up. Its technology uses “emergent” principles: instead of storing data in rows, columns, or tables and having centralized control points, NuoDB’s software employs smart “atoms” that communicate peer-to-peer to represent the data in a non-obvious way. To the outside world, the atoms behave collectively like a database—in particular, one that gets faster by adding more machines to the network, Morris says. A loose analogy would be the group intelligence shown by a flock of birds or a herd of migrating wildebeest.

And in the debate over SQL vs. NoSQL (and relational vs. non-relational) databases, NuoDB comes down on the side of SQL and relational—though its architecture under the hood is unconventional. It is intended to do everything an SQL database can do, but be more scalable on the Internet.

Perhaps biggest among NuoDB’s claims is that its software can handle high volumes of both transactions (user clicks) and business-intelligence queries (analytics). With most databases, you can do one but not the other—traditional SQL systems, for example, are maligned for not being able to handle millions of user clicks.

But what are the prospects of a novel design in an industry so deeply entrenched in old IT infrastructure? And how well is it actually working so far?

To get some answers, I sat down with Morris and Gary Morgenthaler, the partner at Menlo Park, CA-based Morgenthaler Ventures who invested in NuoDB. (The 25-person company has raised $20 million, … Next Page »

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