Most of us have grown up in the world of the relational database. From Edgar Codd’s first 1970 paper on the relational model, to Michael Stonebraker’s implementation of INGRES in 1973, the relational database has been king. We had a short affair in the 1980s with object databases, but in general have remained faithful to the big four of the relational world: Oracle, Microsoft, IBM and Sybase.

But over the last 4-5 years, a seismic shift has occurred that spawned a new series of startups. This shift arguably started in November 2006 with Google publishing Bigtable: A Distributed Storage System for Structured Data, which proposed a new non-relational database to support large scale data management needs. This paper was followed by the release of Amazon’s equivalent titled Dynamo: Amazon’s Highly Available Key-value Store; and eventually by the launch of the open sourced project Cassandra by Facebook engineers.

With these three technical giants effectively defining a market need for a highly scalable database (often referred to as “web-scale” or Web 2.0 databases), entrepreneurs quickly began to fill the market gap with new solutions. The resulting startups are building next-generation database management systems that in most cases directly compete with the big four, and in some cases directly reject the fundamental premise of the relational model. With Boston one of the the epicenters of this transformation, we are going to review our top five database startups in the local area.

It’s probably worth noting that Michael Stonebraker, MIT professor and database researcher, has had an enormous impact on the local database scene. Michael has been involved in a number of commercial ventures over the years, including Illustra, Cohera, StreamBase, Vertica, Goby, VoltDB and Zetics. Two companies he founded will be making our top five list.

#1: Vertica Systems (Billerica, MA)

Vertica is our first Michael Stonebraker co-founded startup in our roundup. The company was formed in 2005 to commercialize the technology behind Stonebraker’s C-Store research, a column-oriented database management system. Unlike the other companies in our round up, Vertica is not trying to meet your Web 2.0 scaling needs. Their focus is on providing an analytic database for enterprise data warehousing, which is a problem space particularly suited to the column-oriented solution.

The company has raised more than $20M in at least two rounds, with Bessemer, Highland, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and New England Associates. They recently brought in a new CEO, Christopher Lynch, former VP at F5 Networks and CEO of Acopia. The company may have some recent wind at its back based on the acquisitions of Greenplum (acquired by EMC, price not disclosed) and Netezza (to be acquired by IBM, proposed price of $1.7B).

Why you should watch them: analytics becoming increasingly strategic

#2: VoltDB (Billerica, MA)

VoltDB is targeting the same scalability challenge that spawned the NoSQL movement, a movement whose premise is that relational databases cannot support “web-scale.” But VoltDB is supporting high performance and scale by delivering a new relational database management system optimized for fast-growing transaction workloads. The company claims their relational databases can outperform the NoSQL database Cassandra by up to 13 times, and MySQL by up to 100 times.

VoltDB was founded by MIT professor Michael Stonebraker as an outgrowth of his H-Store project, and received a $5M B round of capital from Kepha and Sigma in September 2010. The company CEO, Scott Jarr, was formerly VP of product management and marketing at LiveVault. Their product is available with both open source and commercial licenses.

Why you should watch them: strong management, unique market message

#3: Tokutek (Lexington, MA)

Tokutek is a startup focused on solving the data scalability challenge by complementing and extending existing relational databases. The company was founded in 2006 and took a $2.7M round of capital in August 2010 from from undisclosed investors.

Tokutek was founded by MIT research scientist Bradley Kuszmaul, and Stony Brook University professors Martin Farach-Colton and Michael Bender. The CEO of Tokutek is John Partridge, former co-founder and VP of business development of StreamBase, another Michael Stonebraker company. The company’s first product, TokuDB for MySQL, is priced based by the database size, and is free for academic use.

Why you should watch them: emerging technology

#4: Cloudant (Somerville, MA)

Cloudant is the sponsor of the open sourced elastic database, CouchDB. Their product is competing in the emerging NoSQL market with products such as Cassandra and MongoDB. The company offers a series of both on-premise and cloud-based database solutions based on CouchDB, that are priced per month and support both public and private clouds.

Cloudant was founded in 2008 by two MIT PhD students, Alan Hoffman and Adam Kocoloski, and is a Y Combinator funded company. We included them in our recent review of Top 10 Cloud Computing Startups in Boston. The company recently took a seed round of $1M from Avalon Ventures.

Why you should watch them: emerging technology, unique go to market solution

#5: Akiban (Boston, MA)

Akiban was founded in 2009 with the mission of delivering a database virtualization solution to allow high performance and scalability. The product, which is not yet in the market, allows companies to maintain existing relational databases, but restructures the storage of the data for scale. The company touts this approach as breaking “through the SQL scalability barrier”. The initial unreleased product appears to support MySQL, and we infer plans to support other relational databases in the future.

The company took its first round of $6.5M in July of 2009 from Foundation Capital and North Bridge. They appear to have had some internal challenges within engineering, and thus are the only company in our roundup without a product in the market. Their CEO, David McFarlane, was formerly the COO of Nexaweb Technologies.  We very much like their complement and extend market message and the North Bridge backing - but look forward to seeing a product in the market.

Why you should watch them: unique market message


We can argue when started it. Maybe it was Google in 2006, Amazon in 2007, or Facebook in 2008. But whenever it happened, there is no doubt: databases are hot again. You need only look at the Marlborough-based Netezza - which was founded in 2000, went public in 2007, and is now engaged in a $1.7B acquisition by IBM - as an example of the potential of our local database startups.

It is not clear yet what technologies will emerge to be the next market leaders for highly scalable databases. But what is clear is that Boston is right in the middle of this transformation.

If you would like to follow these companies on Twitter, you can find them here: @akibantech, @voltdb, @verticasystems (not actively used), @cloudant and @tokutek.

In addition to the startups mentioned above, you may also be interested in taking a look at Basho, ScaleBase, Zetics, NimbusDB and EnterpriseDB, five additional startups that we expect to hear more from in the future.