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How Amazon's DynamoDB helped reinvent databases

Brandon Butler | June 11, 2015
In the earliest days of SQL databases weren’t cutting it, so the company created DynamoDB and in doing so helped usher in the NoSQL market.

NoSQL's use case and vendor landscape

The fundamental advantage of NoSQL databases is their ability to scale and have flexible schema, meaning users can easily change how data is structured and run multiple queries against it. Many new web-based applications, such as social, mobile and gaming-centric ones, are being built using NoSQL databases.

While Amazon may have helped jumpstart the NoSQL market, it is now one of dozens of vendors attempting to cash in on it. Nick Heudecker, a Gartner researcher, stresses that even though NoSQL has captured the attention of many developers, it is still a relatively young technology. He estimates revenues of NoSQL products to not even surpass half a billion dollars annually (that's not an official Gartner estimate). Heudecker says the majority of his enterprise client inquiries are still around SQL databases.

NoSQL competitors MongoDB, MarkLogic, Couchbase and Datastax have strong standings in the market as well and some seem to have greater traction among enterprise customers compared to DynamoDB, Huedecker says.

Living in the cloud

What's holding DynamoDB back in the enterprise market? For one, it has no on-premises version it can only be used in AWS's cloud. Some users just aren't comfortable using a cloud-based database, Heudecker says. DynamoDB competitors offer users the opportunity to run databases on their own premises behind their own firewall.

And many organizations still get great value out of SQL systems. Those RDBMs aren't going away they're still great for enterprise systems of record.

Perhaps the biggest criticism against DynamoDB that it only lives in the cloud is also one of its biggest selling points, AWS officials contend.

Shams, AWS's DynamoDB engineering head, says because the technology is hosted in the cloud, users don't have to worry about configuring or provisioning any hardware. They just use the service and scale it up or down based on demand, while paying only for storage and throughput, he says.

For security-sensitive customers, there are opportunities to encrypt data as DynamoDB stores it. Plus, DynamoDB is integrated with AWS - the market's leading IaaS platform (according to Gartner's Magic Quadrant report), which supports a variety of tools, including other relational databases such as Aurora and RDS.

Adroll rolls with AWS DynamoDB

Marketing platform provider Adroll, which serves more than 20,000 customers in 150 countries, is among those organizations comfortable using the cloud-based DynamoDB. Basically, if an ecommerce site visitor browses a product page but does not buy the item, AdRoll bids on ad space on another site the user visits to show the product they were previously considering. It's an effective method for getting people to buy products they were considering.

It's really complicated for AdRoll to figure out which ads to serve to which users though. Even more complicated is that AdRoll needs to decide in about the time it takes for a webpage to load whether it will bid on an ad spot and which ad to place. That's the job of CTO Valentino Volonghi --he has about 100 milliseconds to play with. Most of that time is gobbled up by network latency, so needless to say AdRoll requires a reliably fast platform. It also needs huge scale: AdRoll considers more than 60 billion ad impressions every day.


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