Rocking your NoSQL foundations

FoundationDB on uniting NoSQL and ACID compliance

Lucy Carey

In this interview, two of FoundationDB’s co-founders talk about what motivated them to shake up NoSQL as we know it, Death Stars, and their hopes for the future.

FoundationDB, an
innovative ACID compliant, high-performance NoSQL database, had its
GA launch on August 20. We caught up with Nick Lavezzo and
 Dave Scherer, two co-founders of the low cost platform, to
find out more about this innovative project.

JAXenter: What were the big
challenges you initially set out to solve with this

Lavezzo: We looked
at the database market, and realised that almost every application
being developed needs a database, and there was a real problem with
what was available in terms of choice. Application developers were
being forced to choose between traditional relational databases
like MySQL. But the problem with those databases was that they
could not scale a single database beyond one machine. So they were
really built for a time period before cloud architectures and
parallel computing became the norm. With the explosion of all this
data coming off social media sites, they were just becoming
overwhelmed and not feasible for any large or even medium scale web

And then there was the NoSQL camp. Emerging
NoSQL databases were really great and built with this new frame of
mind of scalability and distributed computing- but what they gave
up to get there was data consistency – the level of data
consistency provided by relational databases previously.

And so the choice was between a modern scalable
design and data consistency. And basically, everyone had convinced
themselves that it was just an essentially compromise that had to
be made. Basically we looked at the problem and said, you know, it
seems like it should be possible to build a database that combines
the properties of horizontal scalability, high fault tolerance, but
still retain the strong data consistency guarantees provided by
ACID transactions.

So FoundationDB emerged as a bit of a
conceptual leap?

Lavezzo: Yeah- and
it turns out most people thought we were crazy. And even we weren’t
actually sure it was possible, because it  was very much the
conventional wisdom that is wasn’t, so when we started out,
thought it would work, but we really
weren’t sure. It was probably about one year into the company that
we were sure it was possible.

We spent two years just working on our own, just
making a bet with ourselves that it would work. We saw how popular
NoSQL was, it was growing despite the limitations around
consistency. We thought if we could make a database that had the
best of both worlds that there 
would be people that
were really interested in that.

Scherer: Because
combining transactions and scalability is so hard, what we decided
to do was build our product with a very simple data model without a
lot of external input. Whereas the development of data models on
top of that can be much more collaborative and

Lavezzo: its not
just us. When we’re developing these things we are just working
with the APIs of our core data storage products. And so other
people can do it to. And that’s our vision. The world of things
that need to store data is way too big for one company to ever
develop. But we can provide the foundation for an ecosystem of
things that do that.

What would you say makes FoundationDB

 The technological thing that makes us stand out among other
NoSQL databases is that we are the only one which supports ACID
transactions across the entire database, in a high performance
manner, at least, in the sense that ACID transactions have been
defined for the past 30 years.

It looks like Google has something similar internally
that’s just for them, but it requires atomic clocks and crazy stuff
like that, not exactly in reach of the average person or company.
Because we can truly support these ACID transactions, it gives us
the ability to expose not just one data model.

If you’re using MongoDB, you’re getting just one
data model. With MySQL you’re getting SQL, with Riak you’re getting
a key value store. With all these, you’re getting just one

But because we have ACID transactions, we can
efficiently map operations that are in a document storage layer
into our core key value store.

We can also map SQL operations from our SQL
layer into a key value store, and you can have three, four, or 5
different layers that are exposing different data models to your
developers. With FoundationDB, they can all be running on the same
cluster, and be doing operations between different data models
perfectly consistently, and that’s something that no other database
technology on the market can do, or is even claiming to be able to

Scherer: There’s
an increasing problem people have operationally where they are
adopting a bunch of different databases which are convenient for
different parts of their application. We’ve literally seen people
with a dozen, and it makes for an operational nightmare because you
have to keep all of those things running to keep your site running,
and they are not stateless, so they are not naturally fault

Lavezzo: And on
top of that, the C-level technology executives at large enterprises
in this situation also have to maintain expertise internally on all
of these technologies. So it’s an operational nightmare, and an HR
problem. Whereas with Foundation DB, the thing that is appealing is
that it gives the developers what they want, which is the ability
to model their data in different ways but keep the architecture
sane, getting back to one reliable system. That’s our biggest
differentiator, I think.

Going forward, what do think the biggest
challenges are that you face? Will you be looking to up performance
on ACID transactions?

Lavezzo: Our biggest challenge
is to continue to build out the community around FoundationDB, and
to build out this layer ecosystem. Our story gets stronger the more
high quality layers that are available to the market.

Scherer: Right now
we’re selling a database that has the raw capability to do almost
anything- but that doesn’t mean it does anything super easily
outside of the box. Our goal over the next period of time- at least
engineering wise- will be to give it more out of the box
engineering capabilities, and you know, to work with the community
to grow an ecosystem on top of it, because there are more things
you could want out of the box than any one company could ever
build. And so we need to develop a whole community and ecosystem
and industry building stateless things on top of our

At the recent NoSQL Now 2013 conference in San
Jose, California, Max Schireson, the CEO of
 said, “There’s lots of work to do before
NoSQL as a sector can win.” What is your opinion on

Lavezzo: We think that the
primary driver is ACID transactions. Enterprise data architectures
are build primarily around Oracle right now, and the thing that
they have above their competitors is the ability to provide ACID
transactions at a really high scale. They do it differently than
us. They do it by taking advantage of machines with 1000 cores and
terabytes of memory, whereas we do it by using cheap servers that
use a bunch of cheap computers versus one big expensive one. So, we
think that has held the NoSQL market back from mass enterprise
penetration. And, he [Max Schireson] is not going to say that,
because there is no way that MongoDB can add ACID transactions into
their system.

What would you say the differences between the
open source and enterprise versions of FoundationDB

be clear, neither version is open source. We have just one software
package- obviously that comes in different builds for different
environments- but there’s just one FoundationDB package that people
download. No sign ups, just one package that is totally unaware of
your current license, so you can download it under the community
license we created which allows people to use unlimited amounts of
FoundationDB for non-production use. If you’re putting it into
production you can run it on up to  six servers for free
without contacting us, getting support, or anything like that. That
lets medium and small sized businesses run a meaningful sized
cluster that gives them fault tolerance, scalability- all those
good things- and then, if they succeed in becoming the next
Pintrest or whatever and they need to go beyond six nodes, at that
point they are supposed to get in touch with us and get support
contracts and licenses.

Scherer: And we
have customers who are not using more than six properties but chose
to pay for the enterprise version, and the difference there is just
support. It’s that they know they can call us in the middle of the
night if something is going wrong.

Lavezzo: But there’s no
additional features, to be clear.

How have you kept your prices

Lavezzo: We’re
going for higher adoption. We really think that someone is going to
win this. SQL databases won in the eighties, and were the standard
for twenty- thirty years. We think that there’s going to be a
database technology and a data storage technology that’s going to
become the standard for modern distribution systems. And, if it’s
going to do that, it has to be accessible to not just large
financial institutions, or ridiculous companies like that- it needs
to be accessible to everybody. And so, we think that there’s tons
of money to be made at a relatively low price point if we can
succeed in really changing the market.  

Scherer: Solving
this problem is really, really hard, and we don’t want us, or
anyone else to do it again. So we really feel like our mission is
to solve this. Every big web company has had to do something to
solve the scaling problems, and  I feel like way too many
smart people have invested way too much time and energy 75 or 80
percent solving this problem again and again and again. Our mission
is really to solve it 100 percent once and for all, so that all the
people can do something more interesting and more important. And we
really want it to be something everyone else can use.

How does the deploy anywhere model

Lavezzo: Well you
may have seen we have the image of the Death Star on our site-
we’re not quite on there yet- though I do want a Death Star…but
really, we designed the software to be run on a wide range of
commodity level hardware and we don’t require anything

Scherer: If we’d
used atomic clocks or whatever, there would be people out there who
need this problem solved badly enough that they would buy atomic
clocks- but you’re not going to get atomic clocks in your cloud
computers or your laptop. So,we’ve chosen a distributed design that
can use lots of little computers instead of needing one monster
one, and the fact that we haven’t required anything particularly
exotic in the design of the system. And we’ve also gone to some
effort to make it easy to apply anywhere. One quick cloud formation
launch can get you something running You just fill out a little
tiny form and you have something running on Amazon systems with n
computers all wired together. We can run on cheap computers, but
we’ve also designed FoundationDB to take advantage of large
multi-core processor computers, and the cool technology we’ve

What do you think the future holds for

Lavezzo: Well I
think our hopes are that we become adopted more and more and grow a
community and eventually serve as the foundation for modern
distributed systems, or one of few solutions out there that
provides distributed transactions and multiple data models. That’s
in ten years time. This year, we’re looking to release our SQL
layer soon, and some other really exciting layers shortly
thereafter, and we think that’s going to really help us to be able
to plug directly into existing communities that are facing the pain
of having systems that don’t scale.

Once we have the SQL layer available, we can jump in and be
like, “Hey Drupal guys, you’re having problems-here, this fixes
them!” or ‘WordPress, it doesn’t scale- now it does!”. There are so
many ways we can gain traction without having to build our own
communities from scratch and we can kind of jump into communities
that are already existing, already have these pain points, and sort
of solve them.

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