Two weeks ago MongoDB, formerly known as 10gen, announced a massive $150M funding round said to be the largest in the history of databases lead by Fidelity, Altimeter, and Salesforce.com with participation from existing investors Intel, NEA, Red Hat, and Sequoia. This brings the total capital raised by MongoDB to $231M, making it the best-funded database / big data technology of all time.
What does this mean?
The two winners of the next-generation NoSQL database wars have been decided: MongoDB and Hadoop. The faster the runner-ups figure that out, the faster they can carve off sensible niches on the periphery of the market instead of running like decapitated chickens in the middle. 
The first reason I say this is because of the increasing returns (or, network effects) in platform markets. These effects are weak to non-existent in applications markets, but in core platform markets like databases, the rich invariably get richer. Why?
- The more people that use a database, the easier it is to find people to staff teams so the more likely you are to use it.
- The more people that use a database, the richer the community of people you can leverage to get help
- The more people that build applications atop a database, the less perceived risk there is in building a new application atop it.
- The more people that use a database, the more jobs there are around it, which attracts more people to learn how to use it.
- The more people that use a database, the cooler it is seen to be which in turn attracts more people to want to learn it.
- The more people that use a database, the more likely major universities are to teach how to use it in their computer science departments.
To see just how strong MongoDB has become in this regard, see here. My favorite analysis is the 451 Groups’ LinkedIn NoSQL skills analysis, below.
This is why betting on horizontal underdogs in core platform markets is rarely a good idea. At some point, best technology or not, a strong leader becomes the universal safe choice. Consider 1990 to about 2005 where the relational model was the chosen technology and the market a comfortable oligopoly ruled by Oracle, IBM, and Microsoft.
It’s taken 30+ years (and numerous prior failed attempts) to create a credible threat to the relational stasis, but the combination of three forces is proving to be a perfect storm:
- Open source business models which cut costs by a factor of 10
- Increasing amounts of data in unstructured data types which do not map well to the relational model.
- A change in hardware topology to from fewer/bigger computers to vast numbers of smaller ones.
While all technologies die slowly, the best days of relational databases are now clearly behind them. Kids graduating college today see SQL the way I saw COBOL when I graduated from Berkeley in 1985. Yes, COBOL was everywhere. Yes, you could easily get a job programming it. But it was not cool in any way whatsoever and it certainly was not the future. It was more of a “trade school” language than interesting computer science.
The second reason I say this is because of my experience at Ingres, one of the original relational database providers which — despite growing from ~$30M to ~$250M during my tenure from 1985 to 1992 — never realized that it had lost the market and needed a plan B strategy. In Ingres’s case (and with full 20/20 hindsight) there was a very viable plan B available: as the leader in query optimization, Ingres could have easily focused exclusively on data warehousing at its dawn and become the leader in that segment as opposed to a loser in the overall market. Yet, executives too often deny market reality, preferring to die in the name of “going big” as opposed to living (and prospering) in what could be seen as “going home.” Runner-up vendors should think hard about the lessons of Ingres.
The last reason I say this is because of what I see as a change in venture capital. In the 1980s and 1990s VCs used to fund categories and cage-fights. A new category would be identified, 5-10 companies would get created around it, each might raise $20-$30M in venture capital and then there would be one heck of a cage-fight for market leadership.
Today that seems less true. VCs seem to prefer funding companies to categories. (Does anyone know what category Box is in? Does anyone care about any other vendor in it?) Today, it seems that VCs fund fewer players, create fewer cage-fights, and prefer to invest much more, much later in a company that appears to be a clear winner.
This, so-called “momentum investing” itself helps to anoint winners because if Box can raise $309M, then it doesn’t really matter how smart the folks at WatchDox are or how clever their technology.
MongoDB is in this enviable position in the next-generation (open source) NoSQL database market. It has built a huge following, that huge following is attracting a huge-r (sorry) following. That cycle is attracting momentum investors who see MongoDB as the clear leader. Those investors give MongoDB $150M.
By my math, if entirely invested in sales , that money could fund hiring some 500 sales teams who could generate maybe $400M a year in incremental revenue. Which would in turn will attract more users. Which would make the community bigger. Which would de-risk using the system. Which would attract more users.
And, quoting Vonnegut, so it goes.
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Disclaimer: I own shares in several of the companies mentioned herein as well as competitors who are not. See my FAQ for more.
 Because I try to avoid writing about MarkLogic, I should be clear that while one can (and I have) argued that MarkLogic is a NoSQL system, my thinking has evolved over time and I now put much more weight on the open-source test as described in the “perfect storm” paragraph above. Ergo, for the purposes of this post, I exclude MarkLogic entirely from the analysis because they are not in the open-source NoSQL market (despite the 451’s including them in their skills index). Regarding MarkLogic, I have no public opinion and I do not view MongoDB’s or Hadoop’s success as definitively meaning either anything either good or bad for them.
 Which, by the way, they have explicitly said they will not do. They have said, “the company will use these funds to further invest in the core MongoDB project as well as in MongoDB Management Service, a suite of tools and services to operate MongoDB at scale. In addition, MongoDB will extend its efforts in supporting its growing user base throughout the world.”