Heroku targets MongoDB with new Postgres V8 feature

Heroku has rolled out a new feature in its Heroku Postgres service that lets the database act a lot more like NoSQL fave MongoDB. It’s probably good news for Heroku’s revenues and database customers, although possibly less so for the MongoDB-based services that the platform-as-a-service provider also supports.

In a nutshell, the new feature, called PL/V8 is Google’s V8 engine for running JavaScript, but turned into a procedural language within the Postgres database. V8 already runs within MongoDB and is part of what makes that database so adept at handling the JSON data type that is common among web applications. Because they are schemaless, JSON files let developers and applications work with different data types that might not fit within the rigid structure required by relational databases.

Now, Heroku’s Craig Kerstiens explained to me, Heroku Postgres users can use JavaScript to perform functions on those JSON files without ever having to touch the SQL engine inside Postgres. This type of functionality, he said, makes Heroku Postgres comparable to MongoDB, which many developers choose for its ability to handle flexible data types that traditional SQL databases don’t support.

You can get a lot more detail on Pl/V8 from Kerstiens’ blog post announcing the new feature. I’m sure the MongoDB world can point to numerous notable differences between MongoDB and Heroku Postgres, and that’s a fair debate to have.

But that doesn’t change the bigger business picture surrounding PL/V8, which is that life can be hard for cloud services that rely in part on partnerships with larger platform providers in order to attract new users. Much like there was always speculation Amazon Web Services would roll out a PaaS offering to compete with Heroku (something that kind of happened), startups such as MongoLab and MongoHQ now have to worry that potential users will be able to find what they need in Heroku Postgres. It’s not necessarily unfair — companies should continue to improve their own products (and in Heroku’s case it’s able to leverage a lot of work being done in the Postgres community) — but it does mean smaller companies need to stay on their toes so as to not get consumed.

It’s an interesting time for Heroku and the PaaS market, as well. In some ways, it’s stuck between a rock in a hard place with many developers and larger companies still preferring infrastructure-as-a-service offerings to host their applications, and mobile developers increasingly heading to so-called backend-as-a-service platforms designed specifically for hosting mobile apps. Heroku, specifically, is also operating (within the Salesforce.com empire) without its two of its three founders and former CEO Byron Sebastian, who was at the helm from 2009 until late 2012.

Not that I’m sounding the death knell for PaaS or anything. I suspect Heroku will continue to thrive, and we’ve yet to see what will come of Cloud Foundry, the open source PaaS project created by VMware and now part of Pivotal. You’ll probably hear more about how this space and the cloud, in general, will play out at our Structure conference June 19 and 20, where the speakers will include Amazon’s Werner Vogels, VMware’s Pat Gelsinger and Microsoft’s Satya Nadallea, among others.