The shifting market for PostgreSQL

Decades into what should have been PostgreSQL’s dotage, developers keep reimagining what it can be
  • Matt Asay (InfoWorld)
  • 28 February, 2021 20:55

PostgreSQL has been around in some form since 1986, yet somehow keeps getting younger and hipper with each year. Start-ups like Timescale have found old-school PostgreSQL to be key to building their new-school database products, joining companies like EnterpriseDB in deepening PostgreSQL’s popularity.

In fact, EnterpriseDB just celebrated its 44th consecutive quarter of rising annual recurring revenue. That’s 11 years of PostgreSQL paying the bills (and growing the number of bills EnterpriseDB can afford to pay).

As steady as PostgreSQL has been, however, its progress hasn’t been linear. I recently spoke with EnterpriseDB CEO Ed Boyajian, now in his 13th year at the helm of the company, who talked about the essential ingredients to PostgreSQL’s rise. The first? Developers. Yes, developers, who keep evolving PostgreSQL to meet new needs in the cloud, even as they optimise it to handle their oldest, on-premises requirements.

Developers go retro

Over the years, the market has dallied with NoSQL and NewSQL and every other shape of database imaginable. We’ve also gone through various shades of self-managed data center hosting to public clouds and everything in between. Through it all, developers have embraced PostgreSQL, even as the PostgreSQL community has shaped and reshaped the database to fit emerging workloads.

Early on, EnterpriseDB tried to bludgeon Oracle with a compatibility layer that allowed applications to run on PostgreSQL but think they were running Oracle Database. It’s what EnterpriseDB was known for in its early days.

But according to Boyajian, it’s not really the primary reason enterprises adopt PostgreSQL. He says about a third of EnterpriseDB’s business is net new customers, half of which are enterprises looking to migrate off another database, usually Oracle. The other half? It’s for greenfield applications.

This shift toward new application development, and away from Oracle replacements, may be accelerating for PostgreSQL.

“This has changed dramatically over time,” said Boyajian. “It has paralleled the shift in who makes database decisions, as that’s moved more and more to the hands of developers and business units.” Give enterprise IT the say and perhaps they continue to fumble along with Oracle (or whatever their legacy database choice happens to be), pushing it into new workloads because, well, that’s what they’ve always done.

But let developers decide and you start to see all sorts of different options, from MongoDB to PostgreSQL and a host of other options. Ask tens of thousands of developers which databases they most love, as Stack Overflow did, and PostgreSQL is topped only by Redis.

One reason developers love PostgreSQL is that its core development community has focused so much on improving its ease of use. EnterpriseDB and other corporate and individual contributors have spent years making “Postgres easier to experience and to consume,” says Boyajian.

“This has been a priority for the company, helping new users get comfortable and get into the Postgres ecosystem faster and easier.” The more the PostgreSQL community has done this, the more adoption has shifted from Oracle migrations to greenfield, new application development.

Sometimes cloud isn’t the answer

Intriguingly, this doesn’t always mean cloud. Sure, vendors like AWS (my employer), Crunchy Data, Microsoft, Instaclustr, Google Cloud, and others have done great work to make PostgreSQL easier to use as a managed service. But EnterpriseDB has managed those 44 quarters of growth without the slightest wisp of a cloud service.

“Our experience tells us it’s still largely in a traditional data center context” that enterprises run PostgreSQL, Boyajian says. This doesn’t mean “traditional” in the, well, traditional context. It could be a VMware virtualisation environment, or containerised applications running on-premises, or a self-managed PostgreSQL instance on Microsoft Azure or Amazon EC2.

According to Boyajian, some customers miss the flexibility and control they might normally have with their applications if running the database as a cloud service. “If you’ve got to fix something, you can’t fix it in the database anymore, and must fix it in the app. And that’s a challenge.”

As such, he continues, “We’re seeing the pendulum swing away from that a bit.” So will EnterpriseDB never offer a cloud service? Actually, they already do, through a partnership with Alibaba. Over time, Boyajian expects his customers to push EnterpriseDB deeper into the cloud.

For now, however, the company is doing well by catering to the hefty market of developers who still want to twist the knobs on their database. It’s one of the most impressive things about PostgreSQL. Decades into what should have been PostgreSQL’s dotage, developers keep reimagining what it can be, and for whom.