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Why a balanced upbringing has set Postgres up for success

Databases are not always seen as the most exciting technology driving organisations’ growth. This is a travesty. While they often fly under the radar, database technology is arguably the killer app for server computers, enabling a huge wave of logistical applications that make modern organisations run faster, more efficiently, and at a lower cost. 

At the forefront of database technology is PostgreSQL®. For 25 years, it has quietly become the world’s most popular open source database management system, providing advanced server software for storing and retrieving data using international standard mechanisms. It’s the database of choice for the world’s information applications – a vital technology you may never see as an end user, yet rely on it without knowing it. 

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Across the globe, governments rely heavily on Postgres. Many major organisations that are pivotal to the economy in retail, finance, telecoms and other commercial enterprises have adopted it.

I believe the popularity of Postgres today lies in its balanced upbringing, shared between an ‘artistic parent’ and a ‘systematic parent’: the open source community and commercial software companies. This marriage has nurtured one of the most exciting technologies in the world. After 25 years, Postgres is entering ‘adulthood’ with unparalleled durability, endurance and an impressively low cost.

The artistic parent – the open source community

Open source is a true community project, which means it has been driven by people who want to contribute something to the greater good, instead of focusing on self-promotion. This community is Postgres’ artistic parent: the smartest minds in the world coming together to collaborate on the project, setting their own direction and applying a perfectionist’s attention to detail. The goal is to make Postgres as good as it can possibly be, not boost a business’ bottom line. 

Postgres source code is open to a worldwide audience of computer scientists from a variety of disciplines, such as database, algorithmics, hardware tuning, compiler development and security (amongst others). The opportunity for so many people of varying perspectives to scrutinize the source code enables open engineering, which has resulted in fewer bugs per line of code, with reported bug rates in equivalent commercial software being many times higher. This community approach is one reason Postgres is a great technology popular with individuals and organisations around the world. 

Recently, for example, DB-Engines named Postgres Database Management System of the Year for 2020. According to the Stack Overflow Developer Survey 2020, Postgres is the second most loved database in the world.

The systematic parent – harnessing the power of open source for the real-world

The freedom encouraged by the artistic parent could quickly spiral out of control without the guiding hand of the systematic parent: commercial software companies. 

Companies like EDB help harness Postgres for use in real-world applications for businesses, just as Red Hat did for Linux. Support by commercial vendors has been essential to Postgres’ development because, to build complex software applications, you need full-time developers working together. This focused collaboration cannot happen organically within open source communities because people are contributing as best they can in their spare time

Commercial organisations benefit Postgres by providing full-time contributors and a commitment to an open approach. The result is a truly open source database management system that is both technologically superior and commercially successful.

Sprints and endurance

Independent open source projects that increase in technological strength and endure over long periods of time tend to inherit these qualities from a strong, dependable commercial supporter. To reach excellence and durability, open source projects such as Postgres require a systematic parenting approach that encompasses two different scenarios: sprint and endurance challenges.

Sprint challenges can involve hiring for rapid growth, creating buzz through a major marketing campaign, and managing short development projects. They drive immediate revenue, satisfy investors and address some customer needs – if not all of them. Endurance challenges call for vision and relentless commitment, often over several years. They tackle difficult technical issues and bigger problems. They’re ultimately worth the effort, but a strong commercial player is essential for good push results.

The ability of commercial supporters to switch between sprint and endurance challenges has propelled Postgres to its high level of popularity, building a strong customer base and an agile, resilient business operation that ensures customer needs are being satisfied.  

Three vital use cases of databases are systems of analysis, systems of a record and systems of engagement. Postgres’ general purpose is in the middle of this triangle, and has eaten away into the three corners – making the niches for other use case databases smaller and smaller.

Endless possibilities for Postgres 

Postgres is fast becoming the gold standard for databases, rapidly responding to users’ needs with new features and optimisations and helping businesses all over the world manage data and remain compliant.

The possibilities are endless. From gourmet grocery suppliers using Postgres to track the provenance of artisan cheese, to the animators behind The LEGO movies deploying Postgres to keep track of every virtual brick in the films. Fintechs are adopting Postgres to ensure customers’ passwords meet tough security checks, or that customer password changes are redacted within the database log. These small details are vital for compliance, and Postgres makes them possible with minimal effort, and at a lower cost.

However, one may ask why Postgres is unique compared to other open source databases, such as MariaDB or MySQL. Postgres is a community open source project. MySQL is built by Oracle and provides source code. However, Postgres is built by many and owned by none, so it’s owned by everyone. At the moment, there are around 250 core committers who know the code so well that they can post changes to the source, employed by a myriad of companies. Anybody who invests the time and energy into understanding Postgres core code can contribute. This allows for greater innovation and development in various technological directions–something a vendor-driven source cannot do. 

Postgres is also the most liberal open source project in the world; you don’t have to be a part of the community to use it. Amazon and Google are just two examples of companies who’ve  built their own databases on top of Postgres (interpretations of PostgreSQL) and are selling it. This sort of activity is different from other open source licenses, which require you to contribute back to the project if you make changes to the code. Postgres does not, which is why it continues to get stronger technologically, but this openness can also negatively affect the community if it takes focus away from the core project.

Postgres’ would not be where it is today without the effective combination of an open source community working with commercial organisations to translate the technology into real-world business applications. And it’s not done growing – the open source community is continually adapting, developing more (and better) features while exploring new uses for Postgres. For maximum impact, this work must continue to be done in conjunction with businesses. With two parenting styles in perfect harmony, Postgres is poised to deliver meaningful benefits to even more people in the coming years.

See also: DataStax on evolving enterprise data strategies, a new CEO, and its renewed commitment to open source

Jan Karremans

Jan Karremans is Director of Sales Engineering at EDB

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