The year of PostgreSQL is every year

PostgreSQL really has no right to be cool. PostgreSQL development began during the Reagan administration — in 1986! Although shepherded by “exceptional early leadership,” according to open source luminary Mike Olson, the project was later superseded in popularity by its Eurovision-esque cousin, MySQL, which launched in 1995.

Yet over the past decade PostgreSQL has become hip with startups and enterprises alike, surging in popularity to become the world’s fourth-most-popular database, steadily gaining on MySQL, Microsoft SQL Server, and Oracle.

The question today, just as in 2017, is why. And how? PostgreSQL, unlike every other database (open source or proprietary), is powered by community, with no single company responsible for its development. This shouldn’t work, yet it does.

To better understand why and how PostgreSQL works, I spoke with Crunchy Data executives Bob Laurence and Craig Kerstiens. Crunchy Data has spent nearly a decade delivering PostgreSQL to enterprise customers, most recently launching a managed PostgreSQL-as-a-service offering.

But, really, Crunchy Data shouldn’t exist, just as PostgreSQL shouldn’t exist — except as some mainframe-like database left for dead in the wake of NoSQL (or so the media narrative goes). And yet…

Not dead yet. Not even limping

According to Laurence, he’s been hearing about the imminent demise of relational databases since at least 2012, when Crunchy Data launched. “At the time [the media talked like] it was a one-way trip to NoSQL and SQL was a thing of the past.” Mea culpa. But customers were telling the Crunchy folks something different:

The thing that we heard at the time was, “Yeah, we’re using some MongoDB or we’re using some Hadoop, we’re going in the direction of NoSQL,” but it’s really part of a new data management toolbox that’s centered around open source and Postgres is their relational bet.

NoSQL was taking off, in other words. It’s just that it wasn’t supplanting the importance of relational databases like PostgreSQL and perhaps especially PostgreSQL.

It’s hard to quit relational databases, Kerstiens suggests, because of the decades-old investments in SQL for analytics. “The lingua franca [of analytics] is SQL,” he stressed. “Every data analyst learns SQL.” Additionally, even as unstructured or semi-structured data grew, there was still structured data to manage and organizations still wanted the transactional guarantees that a relational database could provide.

So PostgreSQL, and relational databases generally, never really lost their shine. Yet PostgreSQL stands out for how it has kept growing in “shine.” Other relational databases may have stood their ground, yet without gaining new ground. PostgreSQL keeps growing, right alongside the burgeoning NoSQL market.

Why? According to Laurence, it’s because “PostgreSQL offers true community-driven development, extensibility, strong SQL compliance, a long history of stability.” It doesn’t hurt that PostgreSQL is as close as you can get to a like-for-like replacement for Oracle Database. Nor has it hurt that the PostgreSQL community has added support for NoSQL-esque features like JSON.

But ultimately, what makes PostgreSQL different is community.

The Linux of databases

Oracle’s takeover of MySQL may have dampened community enthusiasm for the database, yet MySQL was always essentially a one-company community. Ditto every other database you can name. (DB-Engines lists 358 databases; I’ll wait while you try to name even 10 percent of them.) Only PostgreSQL comes with “community-driven development and a lack of centralized ownership,” says Laurence.

This may seem like a fluffy, feel-good benefit, but enterprises don’t make database decisions lightly, Laurence stressed. “It’s like a heart transplant.” As such, “sophisticated users of data management technology… dig in and do their diligence on the community behind this technology because they’re making multi-year bets on these databases. It’s a big, strategic decision.”

Yet even as I type “PostgreSQL is the Linux of databases,” the PostgreSQL community diverges from Linux in significant ways, and chiefly because there is no chief. There’s no Linus Torvalds. No benevolent dictator for life. Instead, there’s a group of hard-working, understated contributors like Tom Lane. Although Lane is one of the world’s most prolific open source contributors, “Tom doesn’t want his name ever mentioned,” says Kerstiens. “He just wants to sit there and write Postgres code.” (Sorry, Tom. Blame Kerstiens. Maybe we can atone by also mentioning Magnus Hagander, Bruce Momjian, Dave Page, and….)

For PostgreSQL, or rather for its users, it turns out that being a truly open (as in open governance), open source database deeply matters. As companies look to modernize their infrastructure with cloud and open source, Laurence notes, they’re making big bets on PostgreSQL. In other words, PostgreSQL is having a moment… a moment that has lasted for over three decades now.

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