Database in the Sky Using a web service as your database can save you lots of time, money and frustration.

Web 2.0 concepts may be difficult for some businesses to implement, but it gives entrepreneurs new and improved ways to operate their business.

Take data storage, for example: Due to the popularity of transforming software into services, there have been huge advances in data storage. Amazon is leading in this area with their beta version of SimpleDB, a web service designed to make web-scale computing easier and more cost-effective for developers.

SimpleDB is different from its competitors because it stores structured data and has its sights on eventually replacing traditional databases such as Oracle, SQL Server, DB2 or mysql.

Traditionally, I see business using relational databases, so transitioning into data storage services has interesting implications for entrepreneurs trying to create a highly scalable web-based system.

SimpleDB is a web service that simulates a database. Here are some of the major features and benefits this service offers:

  • Time to market--As a service, it's up and ready to use as soon as you turn it on.
  • Inexpensive initial costs--Trying to build an equivalent platform that will scale even with open source software like mysql takes hardware, space, time, expertise and capital.
  • Scalable and reliable for reasonable cost--Amazon has designed the service to scale easily. The beta is limited to 10GBs per domain--a reasonable starting size. The service is run on top of Amazon's high-availability data centers where data is stored across multiple servers and centers.
  • Ease of use and flexibility--Amazon's version has taken out many administrative layers such as table creation and maintenance, database backup and recovery, index creation and maintenance.

But SimpleDB is still in Beta and has the following limitations:

  • No sorting
  • No full text search
  • No support for data joins
  • Attribute values are limited to 1024 characters so this immediately makes this less useful for anyone who wanted to store article type data which is over this size.
  • A query that takes longer than five seconds gets cut off.
  • Numbers and dates cannot be easily compared. A developer has to deal with the fact that the storage system is all strings so numbers have to be zero padded and offsets created for negative number storage.
  • SimpleDB only guarantees eventual consistency meaning there could be significant latency between the writing and retrieval of the data.
  • Custom proprietary language versus a subset of SQL

Amazon does a good job explaining the mechanics of how the online storage system works and compares how their concepts equate to a spreadsheet. You can find more details here.

The Future of Databases
Data is the lifeblood of all systems. Typically, we are using a system only to get to the "data" or "information." Oracle has made a fortune based on that concept. Many large companies would never think of moving their data to an external company or service. As a web/technology entrepreneur, the concept is pretty interesting and compelling--especially the fact that you wouldn't need to spend as much capital upfront to prove a concept.

For Amazon, this seems to be part of a well thought out plan to provide scalable web services to technologists and entrepreneurs that want to build the next generation of web systems and applications.

Large technology and software companies are competing to provide services and tools for the gold prospectors of the internet--developers and entrepreneurs. does this with its, but it's more like an entire holistic application development environment than a data storage service. Amazon is providing discrete separate services that integrate well together. SimpleDB works closely with S3 (their Simple Storage Service) and their Elastic Compute Cloud. Microsoft, Google and other vendors will also look to compete in this area, assuming it continues to gain momentum. We'll see what the future brings for structured data storage and retrieval via web services.

Frank Bell is's "Web 2.0" columnist and a principal at IT Strategists, a leading business and technology consulting firm in Southern California. He has consulted with many internet startups, as well as companies such as Yahoo!, Vivendi Universal, Disney, Toyota, Nissan, Deluxe Digital Studios, AEG, Sony and Ticketmaster.

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