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Google’s new cloud service is a unique take on a database

Blair Hanley Frank | Feb. 15, 2017
Google Cloud Spanner provides users with a highly available database running on Google's infrastructure

Google has turned a database service that it uses to run some of its mission-critical products into an offering for its public cloud customers.

On Tuesday, the company launched Cloud Spanner, a new, fully managed database that’s supposed to provide the transactional consistency of a traditional database plus the scalability and performance of a NoSQL database. It’s based on the same systems that run the company’s own Spanner database internally.

Usually, businesses have to pick either a traditional or a NoSQL database, and each comes with particular trade-offs. Traditional databases provide better transactional consistency, but can be hard to scale. NoSQL databases are better at scaling but sacrifice consistency.

Cloud Spanner is designed to reduce those trade-offs, and it's also delivered as a fully managed service. Among other things, that means Google will manage hardware, software and replication of content for a database that can span multiple data centers.

The service will be useful for companies that need millisecond-level consistency in their databases worldwide, according to Nick Heudecker, a research director at Gartner. In an interview, he called out financial services and advertising as two industries that might benefit from Cloud Spanner.

Heudecker did point out that the service will require companies to port existing applications, which may prove challenging. Google is working with partners to help customers move over, according to Deepti Srivastava, the product manager for Cloud Spanner.

Cloud Spanner has generated more interest than most new Google services, based on response to a closed alpha test, Srivastava said.

Cloud Spanner grew out of a project that began in 2007, when a team of Google employees set out to solve the problem of choosing between NoSQL and traditional databases. That led to a paper, published in 2012, describing the company’s Spanner database, which uses a number of novel techniques, including atomic and GPS clocks inside data centers to maintain time consistency.

Spanner is used to operate Google services like AdWords and Google Play. According to the company, it can handle tens of millions of queries per second.

That pedigree is a feature of Cloud Spanner that appealed to Peter Bakkum, the platform lead at Quizlet. The education software company, which offers a popular set of study tools for students, is evaluating how to scale its database infrastructure.

Quizlet has been testing Cloud Spanner since the closed alpha phase and may end up using the service to replace its existing setup of MySQL databases. Refactoring Quizlet’s applications to use Cloud Spanner will require work, but that's true of all the possible upgrade paths, Bakkum said.

“We need a fundamentally different architecture to do scaling, and any of those solutions have a difficult migration path,” he said.

 

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