IBM couches NoSQL strategy with Cloudant acquisition

Tony Baer, Principal Analyst, Software – Information Management

IBM has taken another step to ramp up its cloud presence with the acquisition of Cloudant, a five-year-old company that offers a managed NoSQL cloud database. The acquisition adds a data layer to IBM’s growing portfolio of web/mobile application developer-oriented cloud platforms, such as WorkLight, and is a good complement to SoftLayer, the managed cloud service provider that IBM acquired last year.

The core component of the Cloudant data layer is based on CouchDB, one of a group of emerging NoSQL data stores based on the JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) document-oriented data format to extend its portfolio of cloud-based development platforms to web/mobile app developers. It formalizes what was already a growing partnership between Cloudant and SoftLayer, IBM’s recently acquired managed cloud platform. But it also signifies that in the growing area of developer-friendly JSON-based NoSQL databases, IBM is, literally, “couching” its bets.

Why cloud is attractive to mobile/web app developers

It is hardly an understatement that the market for mobile apps is rapidly expanding. There is the obvious hotspot in the consumer market, where mobile has stolen the thunder from desktop or laptop machines for entertainment, retail, and gaming applications. Increasingly, mobile apps are also becoming an enterprise play as well, as there is growing demand for mobile-enabled clients that are useful for applications that can be accessed regardless of location.

There are a number of reasons why cloud-based development and deployment platforms have become popular for developers of mobile and web apps. First, there is the obvious time-to-benefit of cloud, as it eliminates the time lag and cost of setting up your own data center. Secondly, there is the spikey nature of demand for any app that is targeted at consumers – a scenario where the cloud’s elasticity makes it a preferable option to investing in “just in case” IT infrastructure. And finally, for many mobile apps, the data is already external, meaning there is no need to migrate data from inside a corporate firewall.

While there are economic debates as to when it makes sense to take deployment in-house, there is little question why cloud development and deployment platforms are a market where IBM is ramping up its presence.

The CouchDB platform

Cloudant, a five-year-old company that had raised a relatively modest $18m in venture backing, planted its stake hosting a managed cloud service based on CouchDB, one of an emerging breed of JSON-based NoSQL databases. JSON-based data stores have grown popular with web developers as they use technologies that are common on the web. They include JavaScript, a well-known web scripting language for indexing data; REST-based HTTP APIs for querying data; and a JSON document-oriented data format that supports schema flexibility and is well adapted to the variable nature of how data is represented in mobile and web apps (e.g., blogs will have threads and subthreads of comments associated with them). In an upcoming report, Ovum will take a closer look at JSON data stores.

Not surprisingly, the JSON, document-oriented database market has been on a tear with developers, as witnessed by the large sums of venture capital that are pouring into the space (MongoDB’s recent $150m in funding being a prime example). The CouchDB platform itself has been through a series of forks that slowed momentum versus the MongoDB juggernaut, but the potential market is large enough that the game is hardly over regarding the market ecosystem.

Around the CouchDB platform, Cloudant has added proprietary and open source extensions. It has contributed its clustering technology through the BigCouch project back to the open source community. Other enhancements include the open source Lucene text-based search indexing; geospatial extensions for making search useful for location-based marketing clients; and a synchronization feature for Android and iOS to support offline operations when mobile clients are disconnected. It has built a client base in excess of 20,000 customers, who are serviced from third-party data centers worldwide; among them are Novartis, for clinical trial analytics; Hothead Games, an independent video game development studio focusing on iOS and Android; FidSafe from Fidelity Investments, for storing financial documents for 20 million customers; and Rosetta Stone, for its online, social network-oriented, language-learning platform.

Boosting IBM’s presence with web/mobile app developers

Cloudant differentiates itself by offering more tailored technical support versus comparable NoSQL database-as-a-service offerings such as AWS DynamoDB. It also differentiates through wide-area automated disaster recovery features to remote data centers, plus some of the bells and whistles (e.g., geospatial extensions to Lucene text search) mentioned above.

Buying Cloudant helps IBM deepen its presence with web and mobile app developers who are reliant on cloud. Both players are hardly strangers, as nearly three-quarters of Cloudant’s installed base was already on the SoftLayer cloud. For Cloudant and IBM, the common thread is that SoftLayer was positioned as a cloud platform for developers, while Cloudant was its biggest NoSQL database-as-a-service partner. So there will be natural synergies.

But the deal brings some questions because IBM already supports other JSON data stores. They include a MongoDB-compatible JSON data store that is one of several engines embedded in IBM DB2 10.5 and Informix 12.1, and a unique Informix JSON data store in its BlueMix DevOps cloud. It’s evident that IBM was opportunistic in this deal; getting a foothold with a substantial installed base in the cloud trumped any notions of designating any particular JSON option as its strategic platform.

IBM will promote this as “freedom of choice” for clients, but raises the discrepancy that there is one de facto standard for on premises and another for cloud. That said, should there be significant pressure from Cloudant clients to have an on-premises option (for data portability), we believe that CouchDB will become yet another addition to some future DB2 release.

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