​Engineering out of Oracle: how SaaS threatens Oracle's database core

Orion Health's future customers, like many users of SaaS software, will also be users of the Cassandra NoSQL database - and they probably won't even know it.

Oracle is an enterprise software juggernaut, but downbeat first quarter results released overnight could point to emerging challenges, not least in its core database market.

Getting your head around enterprise database market share in the era of cloud computing is proving a challenging task, but those that have tackled it, such as Matt Asay as ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic, foresee trouble at the Oracle mill.

Among other data points, Asay cites research from Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady showing a sharp decline in the percentage of revenue Oracle receives from new licenses (see chart).

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Cloud services, and especially software as a service, are often built on open source components, but those components aren't visible to users. One of the great benefits of SaaS is users don't need to know about or manage that complexity.

Hundreds of web services are now being built by born-digital companies on massively scalable, distributed NoSQL databases such as Cassandra and MongoDB. The companies implementing these databases in turn have thousands of enterprise users.

Often these web services are very specific and no real threat to a company such as Oracle. However, there are clear signs of direct adoption of Cassandra by more traditional, established corporations, many of whom are seeking elusive "digital transformation".

It's happening in retail (Walmart, Target), Telecommunications (T-Mobile, Orange), post and logistics (FedEx, Australia Post), media and entertainment (New York Times, Disney), and perhaps most worrying for Oracle, financial services (First American, Credit Suisse, Suncorp, ING).

Among those Cassandra users is a notable hub of health companies, many in search of unified health records for patients. CloudHealth, Health Market Science, HealthCare Anytime, HealthX, Sevocity and more are listed.

Writing for Cassandra vendor DataStax, Robin Schumacher noted one reason why this may be the case:

"Take one of our healthcare customers. You know the old joke about not being able to read doctor's handwriting? Imagine having to scan in doctor's handwritten notes to your database, analyze them, and do so with such a degree of precision that you use the information to bill back Medicare/Medicaid.

"That's the kind of use case that our customer is handling with Cassandra's flexible data model that handles all data formats equally well."

One adopter that isn't listed on the Cassandra user page, but most definitely shifting, is Orion Health.

The New Zealand-based company, which outlined its strategy to media in July, is a customer of Oracle but is engineering a way out.

Orion is redeveloping its software as a SaaS platform, using Cassandra's database to target the market for massive health information exchanges such as that of one Orion customer, California's CalINDEX.

Ian McCrae
Orion founder Ian McCrae, who also leads the company's R&D, was clearly excited about that.

"It's a beautiful application. It scales linearly, you just keep adding servers on," he said. "A good thing about it is you can run it on a Raspberry Pi. I've got an eight node Raspberry Pi cluster. It's a bit slow but it works."

For Orion, what's critical is to get its cloud platform rolled out and deployed in as many parts of the world as possible. There are big vendors in the space, but many are struggling with older technologies, McCrae said.

"We're web browser modern," he said.

Success is measured by the number of patients in the system and that's why Orion is spending 27 percent of revenue on R&D.

Chief operating officer Graeme Wilson is also a fan, and not just because of the NoSQL database's performance, but the amount it can save Orion on Oracle licences.

Operating health information exchanges containing the records of millions of people requires scale, he said. Orion needs to be able to move large amounts of data, and assemble it and present it at scale. And that's why it has invested in a new architecture.

Cassandra, developed by Facebook and prominently used by Netflix, fits the bill.

"It's like cooking with gas," he said. "If you need more capacity, turn up the dial.

"One of the biggest costs we have, because we still have relational technology in our solution ... the money we pay to Oracle every year is eye-watering.

"So one of the things on our roadmap is how do we engineer that out?"

Asay concluded that NoSQL systems are effectively fighting for new database workloads, not displacing current ones. Big data, networked sensors and massively scalable systems are where the battle commences, but not where it ends.

"At first, this is hitting MySQL hardest. But over time, every RDBMS, including Oracle, is at risk," he said.

Perhaps most worryingly for established vendors is the rapid growth in the number of DBMS developers and administrators becoming familiar with NoSQL. Evangelists are dangerous people.

It would, of course, be a mistake to read too much into one quarterly earnings report, but change in the database market is definitely in the air.