Is the End Nigh for Database Appliances?

Whenever a new appliance hits the market, the question is asked whether customers will actually be willing to pay big bucks for a product that locks them into a specific architecture at a specific price point that makes scaling an expensive proposition. If the tale of Schooner Information Technology is any indication, the answer to that question is no, at least when the target is web applications. Today, Schooner, which just under two years ago made a splash with its high-powered, $45,000 database appliance — including securing a partnership with IBM (s ibm) — made a hard left turn to selling software only. The implication, from my perspective, is that, with few exceptions, vendors pushing appliances need the right product for the right customer, or they might be in trouble.

The goal of the Schooner appliance was to significantly boost web-application performance by packing 512GB of flash memory into each appliance to serve MySQL or memcached data, as well as high-powered chips and networking gear. Schooner was optimistic there was a market of companies that would just want to buy an appliance and forget about having to worry about scaling their data layers or tuning for better performance. However, as my colleague Stacey Higginbotham pointed out in covering Schooner’s launch, “I’ve seen appliance efforts play out before. And I can’t help but think of that abandoned panini press buried in the back of one of my cabinets.” It appears that Stacey was right on this one, unless nobody was buying the appliances to begin with.

In an email response to my inquiries on Schooner’s new software-only approach, CEO Jerry Rudisin laid out the lessons learned that led to Schooner’s decision to put its physical appliances to rest: (1) customers loved the prospect of boosting performance, but wanted to reuse their existing servers; (2) customers who do large-volume purchasing can get hardware at price points far lower than Schooner could sell it to them; (3) customers have preferences of hardware vendors and don’t want to be forced to buy particular gear if they want the foundational software; and (4) the appliances only came in the 512GB capacity, which was too small for some users and too big for others. Customers always drool over the prospect of faster-performing applications, but, it seems, not at the expense of everything they believe in terms of IT budgeting and avoiding lock-in.

So, as of today, Schooner now sells only the software that made its appliances run, leaving customers to choose their own x86 server platforms on which to run it. The aptly named Schooner MySQL is the MySQL version, while the memcached-based data store is now called Membrain. Schooner says Membrain is ideal for running NoSQL databases, which generally target unstructured data not fit for SQL-based relational databases. However, Schooner’s scale-up-instead-of-scale-out value proposition remains in tact. Whereas scale-out approaches have become a popular option for boosting performance due to the prevalence of cheap boxes, Schooner’s software is still optimized for flash memory, which also is becoming less expensive by the day. According to Rudisin, customers can consolidate their database footprints by packing fewer servers full of more flash memory, including from former nemesis turned technology partner Fusion-io.

Maybe Schooner also learned a lesson from one-time competitor Gear6, which launched its own memcached-based appliance just a week after Schooner made its debut. Gear6 went belly-up in early 2010 and ended up selling its assets to flash leader Violin Memory. Gear6 had a longer history and a broader product line than does Schooner, but Violin’s use of the Gear6 IP is telling — it’s using Gear6’s caching software to underpin cache appliances that sit in front of network-attached storage. Yes, Violin’s appliance start at $40,000, but it’s easier to sell high-priced storage appliances than it is to sell high-priced web-database appliances, which Violin is not selling.

It’s worth noting, however, that not every vendor has trouble selling database appliances. Oracle (s orcl) claims it’s making a killing with its Exadata Database Machines, and Teradata (s tdc) and Netezza (now owned by IBM) are doing just fine, as well. Even EMC (s emc) decided to get into the appliance game upon acquiring Greenplum and its database software. But those are large vendors selling data warehouses and analytic engines to large companies, which is a different game than simply trying to improve web application performance like Schooner is attempting to do.

Image courtesy of Eileen Henderson.

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