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While many vendor conferences fall into a blur, one of the events we most look forward to is Percona Live. In place of the usual vendor focus, Percona’s event is a more grassroots gathering of open-source database enthusiasts providing the opportunity, not for the usual commercial plug, but the chance to put your ears to the ground and get a sense of the trials and tribulations of open-source databases.
The sense of realism that you get at Percona Live is all due to the culture of the company itself. Percona was born because the founder, Peter Zaitsev, departed MySQL, the company (when it was still independent) because he wanted to focus on making open-source databases work, rather than selling them.
But the support business on which Percona has been based is beginning to morph.
The paradoxes of growth
As Percona has built out its business, it has had to embrace some paradoxes. While Percona has not considered itself to be a product company, its packaged software is exactly that — it’s just that the revenue model is from services. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be practical for the company to deliver the support that is the crux of its business.
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Furthermore, it makes sense to productize the expertise that the company has built up smoothing out the kinks in open-source databases and for some customers, delivering remote DBA services. Otherwise, you’re reinventing the wheel each time you’re remediating a customer issue.
And then there are the escalating expectations around open-source databases. No longer strictly departmental affairs, as customers look to MySQL, PostgreSQL, or MongoDB to start running some mission-critical systems, they are going to expect the kind of end-to-end solutions they expect from enterprise technology providers. While developers might be infatuated with their command line utilities, their supervisors are expecting more streamlined means for handling the mundane and the Black Swan occurrences alike.
For Percona, products start with prepackaged, certified database distros; if Percona is going to support it, it can’t be from any random build. And then there’s the ops management: Percona Monitoring and Management system (PMM).
All of this is offered with freemium community editions that are expected of open-source software and then paid subscriptions for various levels of support. But here another paradox crops up. Almost all of Percona’s products are offered with the open-source licenses associated with them, with one major exception: MongoDB is offered through the non-open source SSPL license that MongoDB, the company, legally requires.
And did we mention cloud? For the past few years, we’ve been seeing of the secular trend, not only to cloud adoption, but to managed services that deliver the biggest bang for the buck when it comes to the operational simplification expected of the cloud. Three years ago – in other words, just before the pandemic – we asked Percona if they were considering their own managed cloud database service on the roadmap. Zaitsev’s response was, in essence, “Never say never.”
Hold that thought.
A ‘platform’ emerges
Percona is now speaking of offering a “platform.” That may not necessarily be synonymous with product, but it outlines a framework that implies commercially supported interoperability between the building blocks. As a technology stack, Percona Platform covers the usual bases: a developer environment, a monitoring and management tool and of course, the databases themselves and then the deployment options of on-premises and any public cloud.
Besides using the term “platform,” the announcement this year was pretty modest: a preview of adding some automated “advisors” that package the collective knowledge base of Percona consultants. There are three tiers of offerings, including two freemium levels: Anonymous, where you get general tips; registered, where the tips get more specific and a paid subscription tier that includes more proactive tips. Eventually, we expect that the paid tier will also automate some remediation as well. In our eyes, Percona Platform is still a work in progress as there are utilities for specific tasks such as backups that are still separate pieces, but this is a first step.
But now that it is embracing “platform,” what does that imply?
Cut to the chase
It’s all about the cloud. Just as Percona has started mentioning the term “platform,” likewise it is also starting to describe its aspirations to offer database-as-a-service (DBaaS). Going to as-a-service is a big commitment for a software or services provider. That’s why database product companies like Vertica and EDB have only recently entered that market.
Percona has long had a foot in the door with its remote DBA services, but that is a far cry from the automated self-service experience that is expected of managed cloud database-as-a-service (DBaaS) offerings. Not surprisingly, as with the platform, Percona DBaaS starts with baby steps.
Step one is the new Kubernetes (K8s) operator for each of Percona’s supported databases. And with that, Percona has launched a private preview of the first iteration of what will eventually become its DBaaS. Percona supplies the operator, but subsequently, implementation is on the customer’s shoulders. They must either build their own K8s clusters or mount it on an existing commercial K8s environment such as OpenShift or any of the K8s services offered by cloud providers. Beyond that, Percona is still defining what the evolution will be for its DBaaS offering.
Our take is that delivering a database packaged with a K8s operator is not a full DBaaS. The addressable market for this will be large enterprises with homegrown K8s skills; in essence, it’s the same crowd that had the deep IT skills to mount their Hadoop clusters. Regardless of whether you are building your own K8s environment or mounting a database on a commercially packaged K8s cluster or cloud service, it will require specialized skills. For most organizations, that’s going to be a heavy lift. Of course, the payoff will come in operation, where K8s will simplify housekeeping like software version updates and patches and of course, scaling up or down.
It’s a journey and Percona must manage expectations
Percona has a unique challenge because of its origins and culture. It draws customers because of the company’s transparency; they are not there to sell you a database, but instead, to deliver open-source databases with the same vendor commitment as the incumbents.
And so, when Percona speaks of DBaaS, it needs to carefully communicate that it is not selling the type of end-to-end full service of, say, an Amazon RDS. In fact, we’d prefer that they not call the initial offering, a ‘database-as-a-service’ because there are too many missing pieces. Instead, Percona should characterize this as something like a self-hosted private database cloud that is the first step in the journey to DBaaS.
The distinction is doubly important because DBaaS, as a term, is being applied all too loosely across the industry. Some providers consider virtualizing the database stack with policy-based tools that automate provisioning, backup and recovery and software patching to be a full-fledged DBaaS. But they leave off when it comes to some specifics, for instance, of who handles the actual management. It’s not the full end-to-end experience that you get from the usual cloud suspects, or from independents like MongoDB Atlas.
As Percona already does deliver operational services (remote DBA) to some customers, at some point, we would expect that the company will eventually evolve to adding vendor-managed services. And when coupled with self-service automation, it will deliver an equivalent end-to-end experience that allow enterprises to leave the driving to the software-as-a-service (SaaS) vendor.
There is significant potential for partnerships and not just with the usual suspect cloud providers. For instance, Percona will be selling the operational simplicity of the cloud, but significantly, not the consumption-based pricing associated with it. That’s where a partner like HPE, which offers the hardware, a consumption-based pricing model to go with it and also targets the same type of customers (those seeking to operate their own private clouds) could form a good combo.
As a company that is very much a creature of the open-source community, Percona has long had a reputation for transparency across its customer base. It is critical that Percona carefully manage the expectations of its community when it comes to DBaaS because the term is so loosely applied in the marketplace and because for Percona (and its customers), it will be a journey.
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