Shaping the Genuine Internet Enterprise atop NoSQL

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NoSQL Language x300The NoSQL Apache Cassandra database is a name player in some very exciting companies and projects. Planet Cassandra cites among its resume its use by Facebook Instagram to operate a Cassandra cluster for the newsfeed part of its application; its implementation at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, as the NoSQL database technology of choice in the ATLAS detector, built along the Large Hadron Collider to measure particle production when protons collide at a very high center of mass energy; and, the adoption of a cluster by music discovery service Shazam to power its recommendations system, to name just a few.

Its use isn’t restricted to high-end scientific projects or startups that made their bones in the digital realm, though. It claims its fair share of established enterprises as customers, including Cablevision, Credit Suisse, FedEx and Target. Some of the traditional and new-age enterprises that have gotten behind the technology – from The ING Group to eBay, UBS AG to Netflix, and PennMutual to Constant Contact, are customers of DataStax.

The company builds upon the open source distributed database management system to deliver DataStax Enterprise as a secure, fast, always-on NoSQL platform designed to meet application next-generation Internet application performance and availability demands, all while remaining operationally simple when scaled in a single data center or across multiple data centers and clouds. (Datastax also provides Planet Cassandra as a community service site.) The Apache Cassandra Project and DataStax share the talents of Jonathan Ellis, chair of the former and co-founder and CTO at the latter, which this fall named the company a Leader in Gartner’s 2015 Magic Quadrant for Operational Database Management Systems (ODBMS).

According to the report, reference customers cite DataStax for its automated data distribution and high-speed ingestion capabilities. Seventy-two percent plan to expand their engagement with DataStax during the next 12 months, and nearly half said that DataStax Enterprise is a standard operational DBMS in their enterprise.

Businesses Determined to Move Customer Engagements Ahead

At the NoSQL Now! 2015 conference, DataStax CEO Billy Bosworth – one of the opening keynote participants – discussed some of the clients the company has served and the reasons why they turned to its offerings to meet the performance and availability demands of modern applications. He also explained why it will be important for others to join in leveraging a tool like Apache Cassandra in a data-rich world that demands businesses engage with customers as Internet enterprises.

Take the case of British Gas, a 120-year old energy and home services company whose relationships with customers tended to stop at “Here’s the bill” and “We’ll get the power back on,” as Bosworth recounted it. But reinvention was in order as the company saw smart devices like Nest and connected homes gain favor with clients, and decided to get into the Internet of Things (IoT) game itself. It enhanced its odds of success with “a brilliant new architecture to handle interactions [with customers] and [it] upgraded and updated all its old equipment to transform relationships with customers,” he said. Its Connected Homes division offers the Hive smart thermostat with an app fed by data from 300,000 customers, processed by Apache Cassandra and the Spark big data processing engine, that enables a near real-time analytics experience for customers.

The data processing and analytics can result in customers being able to receive, for example, a text to alert them that they’ve hit a new peak load that will add to their bills – and offer them an option to automatically have the temperature turned down a few degrees. “To [help customers] save money they have to be smart in the moment,” Bosworth said.

This example of interacting with data, devices, and each other exemplifies how life is so “radically unimaginable” from how it was lived even 20 years ago, he noted. And there is and will continue to be an increasing level of expectation of engagement of this sort, even for businesses that did not grow up that way, he said.

“They had figured out how to get lots of market share on the old model and now they have to shift, and that can be painful,” he said. Legacy relational database management systems typically don’t scale for a new age of mission-critical retail mobile apps that have to handle large volumes of simple transactions, online payments at banks, and other modern applications for the web, mobility, and the IoT. “There’s a chasm between how people want to interact and what many companies can provide by way of interaction, and that creates stress.”

Easing on Down that Road

The Cassandra Project, Bosworth explained, has its roots in a different field, one that encourages scaling out for high-performance customer engagement. It derives from Amazon’s work on Dynamo, its highly available key-value store for reliability at massive scale and Google’s BigTable distributed storage system data model.

“The love child [between the two] was Cassandra and we as a company have taken Cassandra over the last five years and advanced it in a number of ways,” he said. But the first design principles with which it was crafted were geared to deliver key benefits. Thanks to a masterless architecture, there’s no encumbrance for scaling out a relentlessly available system whose components can live in any data center or any cloud. Adding a node to a cluster to generate more scale is irrespective of its location, whether it’s at a New York or San Francisco data center or drawing on Amazon or Microsoft Azure resources. “It’s just an implementation detail to a Cassandra system,” he said.

And that helps organizations progress to another important level of thinking they need to adopt to satisfy the needs of a new age of users:

“You can’t think of data centers and clouds as obstacles to overcome,” he said. “You have to think about them as building blocks to leverage. That will change everything about how you think of your design, data center and applications, and everything you think about how you scale and everything about what developers think of as new possibilities with the kinds of SLAs and guarantees possible.”

Indestructibility of these systems is for real, he said. He cited as an example Netflix, which has staked its business on transitioning 100% of its IT services to the Amazon Cloud, but continues to use DataStax Enterprise Cassandra as its database. Netflix was prepared, then, for Amazon’s 2014 famous reboot of one of the Cloud services’ high availability zones; 218 Netflix Cassandra production nodes went down and more than 10% didn’t come back. But it didn’t matter to Netflix, which experienced no downtime and no missed SLAs because automation detected the failed nodes and replaced them all.

He encouraged the audience to think about the last production system they had rolled out on a relational database or master-slave database, and what they would have experienced if, during a regular load at an unknown time during peak periods, someone came in and shut down even just five of the production machines in their cluster, maybe including even their primary and backup systems. “And then I tell you that you won’t get them all back and you don’t know which you will get back, but you can have no downtime and no missed SLAs.” he said. “That is a foundationally different world from where we were.”

The Genuine Internet Enterprise

Getting to this new world, in DataStax’s view, requires not seeing the enterprise as transitioning but as a genuine Internet enterprise. That means the business must harness the power of these Internet technologies but, in order to avoid chaos, to do so in a way informed by operational governance.

The company’s focus is on helping businesses build platforms for developing modern transactional applications, and on their implementing them “in a way where… teams can understand how to handle it operationally at scale and then how to develop fast and efficiently for new applications.” Starts with the Cassandra open source technology as its foundation, and surrounds that with enterprise requirements such as support, certification on code, security, visual tools, and automation management services.

Still, that’s just table stakes for a new transactional world, he noted. To go beyond what’s necessary to what DataStax believes is sufficient, the company also equips its solution with other capabilities. These include integrated search functionality on Cassandra data that scales and performs to meet the search requirements of modern Internet Enterprise apps. The solution also supports real-time analytics on Cassandra data for enterprise systems that constantly interact with external customers and internal users, and in-memory technology to service use cases that lend themselves to that computing model, while allowing disk-based workloads to be quickly serviced by Cassandra’s traditional storage model.

But whatever approach or partner an enterprise signs onto to scale out for high-performance customer engagement, he cautions businesses to remember that they’re on a journey. “Don’t think you’re going to arrive overnight or panic… if this seems so overwhelming, because it doesn’t have to be.”

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