Actian and the Zen of IoT maintenance

Scrappy database player Actian finds new IoT life and purpose in an old, but proven PC database technology.
Written by Andrew Brust, Contributor

Palo Alto-based hybrid database player Actian is announcing today the transformation of its Zen Embedded Database for use in Internet of Things (IoT) applications, both on edge devices and gateways.

The company says its Zen platform, which can run on a wide range of operating systems and device types, will bring standardization to the IoT space which has heretofore been ruled by a hodgepodge of database technologies and has required an associated array of extract, transform and load (ETL) code to run smoothly.

One for all
The new Zen IoT Server and Zen IoT Core products will run on IoT gateways and devices, respectively, and will integrate with the already established Zen Workgroup and Zen Server products. That combination will provide an end-to-end consistent database platform from edge device to gateway to PC to server, with common APIs and a common data format all the way up and down.


Actian's database technology stack and its application to IoT

Credit: Actian

That's a pretty integrated solution for the IoT space, which has been a bit like the Wild West, with an array of vendors, standards, protocols and operating systems. And, in a way, that's all you have to know. That's the tl;dr. But if you really want to understand why this all makes sense, and why Actian is the one to do it, you have to know a little history and you may wish to read on.

Actian explained
Actian is an interesting company in the world of data and analytics. While many don't know the company name so well, if at all, everyone in the database industry knows of products and technologies in Actian's portfolio, as a result of the numerous acquisitions from which the company was formed.

Folks who have been in the business for a long time will know about Ingres, a seminal relational database (from whose name Postgres is derived). Maybe you haven't heard of ParAccel, the data warehouse platform that became Actian Matrix, but you're most likely familiar with Amazon Redshift, which is based on the same product. (Amazon was one of ParAccel's investors.)

Also read: Actian acquires ParAccel

Maybe you don't know Actian Vector, which was previously known as Vectorwise. But you probably know a little about about vector processing techniques, and the Intel Streaming SIMD extensions, that are used by most data warehouse platforms of today. If so, then you're a beneficiary of the MonetDB project whose original leaders founded the company Vectorwise which built the product, and which Actian also acquired.

Pervasive, not abrasive
In addition to Ingres, ParAccel and Vectorwise, Actian also acquired a company called Pervasive Software, whose database, Pervasive SQL (aka PSQL), became what is now Actian Zen Embedded Database. Pervasive SQL was previously known as Btrieve, a product that Novell acquired from SoftCraft in 1987, for integration into its own NetWare OS. Btrieve was, all at once, an API, a database engine and a database format, in use since the 1980s.


The Brtrieve/PSQL/Zen evolution

Credit: Actian

Also read: Actian consolidates its analytics portfolio

The same technology that made Btrieve a great database for embedding in PC application software back in the 80s and 90s makes Zen a seemingly shrewd choice for embedding in IoT devices and gateways today.

More with less
Back in the late 80s and early 90s, mainframe hegemony had given way to the PC revolution, and the client/server era had not yet taken hold. People were enamored of the concept of leaving their expensive, time-shared host systems and dumb terminals behind and bringing cheap, fast PCs into play.

But doing database work on early PCs required engines that could work with local file systems, in relatively small memory and disk footprints, and could be used from a variety of programming languages. Btrieve did all that, and with aplomb. It was especially popular with C and C++ programmers, but could be used from a variety of other languages. Btrieve data files could even be accessed via the JET Database Engine in Microsoft Access, back to the earliest versions of that product.

Styles go and come
The client/server era made such resource-constrained scenarios less common and less important, and client/server databases became these big hulking things best suited to run on servers or very beefy development PCs. But that old Btrieve technology stayed pretty lean, even if a lot of people found that to be, shall we say, quaint.

But never scoff at efficiency. While advances in technology may allow vendors to focus less on using every last byte of RAM and invest more in new features, eventually a new technology will come around that, in its early days at least, imposes an environment of scarce resources. And then that old efficient technology becomes relevant again.

As with PC, so with IoT
That's what's happened with IoT devices, which must run at very low power and be as small as possible. IoT gateways can be and are a bit more beefy, but desktop workstations they are not. All the qualities that made Btrieve so appropriate in the PC era make Zen relevant in these pioneering days of IoT.

The folks at Actian explained to me that the alternative until now has been to combine different databases, like SQLite, on the device, with others, like MySQL, on the gateway and server. And even that combination may not be available consistently, given the array of operating systems and platforms out there in IoT land.

Zen once, run anywhere
Using Zen IoT Core and Zen IoT Server seems like a better prospect, and the four Actian execs I spoke to explained to me how hard the company has worked to make Zen incredibly compatible.

By the second quarter of this year, Actian says, Zen IoT Core will run on ARM chips, and work with Android. By the third quarter, for those using iPod Touches, iPhones and iPads as IoT devices, it is slated to run on Apple's iOS. Zen IoT Server can run on Intel or ARM CPUs, and both the Raspbian and Windows IoT Core operating systems. (Moving up the stack, Zen Workgroup runs on 32-bit Windows, and Zen Server on Windows, macOS and Linux, on ARM and Intel CPUs.) Support for Zen Server on both Android and IoS is slated for later in the year.

Little Actian that could
Let's see if Actian can make a go of this. The company's strategy has seemingly been to snatch up the pioneering -- and often unsung -- heroes of numerous database categories. This has given it a versatile array of products and technologies which should, theoretically, allow it to jump on new trends, as specific categories become relevant, and ensure their integration with other data technologies.

The notion of the company getting a huge windfall on some such technological paradigm shift hasn't really come to fruition yet, and it may not here either. But Zen for IoT looks to have much efficacy, and the IoT community needs a database breakthrough.

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