Can Greenplum Become the Sun Microsystems of Databases?

To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention when Greenplum announced its “Enterprise Data Cloud” vision last summer. I tend to ignore cloud “visions” without a compelling product around which to start a discussion. However, when I heard about Greenplum’s new Chorus platform, the first concrete step toward the enterprise data cloud, I couldn’t resist learning more – the combination of databases, social networking, the cloud and Scott McNealy is a powerful proposition. What I learned is that Greenplum has a unique vision for working with data (database guru Curt Monash has a great post analyzing the technical aspects of Greenplum Database 4.0 and Chorus, as well as the data-warehousing market, in general), and a Sun-inspired business model that could pay big dividends.

A product-focus of connected data and collaboration isn’t too surprising given Sun Microsystems’ heavy influence on Greenplum. CEO Bill Cook spent 19 years with Sun prior to leaving in 2005, and one of the company’s strategic advisers, Scott McNealy, has a bit of history with Sun, himself. McNealy, for what it’s worth, isn’t even being paid; he just wants to help out a company in which he believes. Although couldn’t officially begin advising until the Oracle deal closed, it appears his philosophies already are influencing Greenplum.

For example, McNealy’s take on partnering with other vendors is that it’s “mankind vs. Goliath.” In other words, the market leader doesn’t need any partners, so everyone below teams up, to some degree, to chip away at the leader’s position (e.g., Citrix and Microsoft teaming up to battle VMware). Sun did its fair share of strategic partnerships, be it with Hitachi Data Systems on storage or with Fujitsu on servers, and Greenplum is starting to do the same. Greenplum president and co-founder Scott Yara told me that systems vendors are getting more proactive about new database partnerships since Oracle made known its vertically integrated strategy, and Greenplum recently signed deals with Dell and EMC as a result.

Other of Greenplum’s partnerships show a Sun-like willingness to integrate with others under the notion that openness will help everyone. Although it’s in the early stages, Greenplum is working with commercialized-Hadoop vendor Cloudera to make the two companies’ solutions connect with each other. It doesn’t make Greenplum any more money to have customers running MapReduce jobs against unstructured data sets, but it does give customers the ability to deploy fully capable analytical environments.

But Greenplum, which built its database on the open-source PostgreSQL, needs to make sure it doesn’t take its open spirit too far. As McNealy warned during a Q&A at the company’s Greenplum Days event this week (read the many quoteworthy highlights here), companies need to find the right balance between open source and proprietary software in order to ensure everyone – customers, partners and distributors – is happy. Customers won’t be happy unless the R&D budget keeps increasing and solutions keep improving; open source is great to build a foundation, McNealy explained, but companies need to keep some code in-house if they want to make the money necessary to fund those improvements.

As Greenplum advances its efforts around openness, which I’m told it will do, it will be wise to heed this piece of McNealy’s advice, especially. Sun’s story might not have a fairytale ending, but the company made billions during its 20-plus-year existence by balancing the competing interests of open source, standards and proprietary products. Some would argue an accordance of too much weight to the open source factor precipitated Sun’s ultimate demise.

Overall, it appears Greenplum is on the right track — not that it needs me to tell it that. For one, the company has more than 150 customers for Greenplum Database, including big names like T-Mobile, Fox Interactive Media, Equifax and Skype. During a breakfast meeting, McNealy made two critical observations: (1) “the network is the computer” is reality, but we call it “cloud,” and (2) “data is the new secret sauce.” Greenplum has both going for it, too, and now it has McNealy.

Question of the week

How does Greenplum stack up against competitors like Vertica and Aster Data Systems?
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