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On the Radar: VoltDB, Just the Latest Database Company from Mike Stonebraker

Posted by Scott Kirsner  August 3, 2009 07:05 AM

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The great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright used to quip about his productivity, explaining, "I just shake buildings out of my sleeves."

Mike Stonebraker and Andy Palmer might say the same about new start-ups.

The pair were involved in getting Andover-based Vertica off the ground (and raising $23 million for the database company). Then there was Byledge, a still-stealthy Boston company working on a new approach to travel search (and funded by Flybridge Capital Partners and Kepha Partners.) Separately, Stonebraker (pictured at right) and Palmer are involved with a handful of other fledgling companies, including StreamBase Systems, CloudSwitch, and BlueFin Lab.

Their latest collaboration is VoltDB, a sort of sister company to Vertica that is operating out of Vertica's Andover offices.

What's VoltDB up to?

The company is commercializing new database software originally developed at MIT (where Stonebraker is on the faculty) and known as Horizontica. Palmer calls it a "high-throughput, lightweight, very distributed" database architecture that runs entirely in memory. "It's purpose-built for running hundreds of thousands of transactions a second," offering big performance improvements over garden-variety databases from Oracle, Microsoft, IBM, or MySQL, Palmer claims. VoltDB is part of a space called OLTP (online transaction processing), which targets customers that handle lots of transactions daily and want instant access to that information, like financial services institutions, airlines, and retailers.

The VoltDB team is still just six people, Palmer says. Their funding -- several million dollars so far -- comes from a single strategic investor, Global Electronic Trading Company (GETCO), an electronic trading firm headquartered in Chicago. GETCO will also be the first customer for VoltDB, sometime later this year. GETCO will use VoltDB in combination with Vertica's database, and in fact Vertica's sales force will also offer VoltDB to other customers. The existing market for database software is crowded and competitive, Palmer acknowledges, so the assistance Vertica is providing will give VoltDB a leg up.

There's a close relationship between VoltDB and Vertica. Former Oracle executive Jerry Held serves on both boards, as do Stonebraker and Palmer. Vertica also holds a substantial stake in the new company -- though not a majority. Palmer's currently serving as VoltDB's chief technology officer, and he says the company will soon recruit a "senior business development person" -- but not necessarily a CEO.

Is the new company going to avoid venture funding entirely? Palmer says they've been keeping their burn rate low, but that they may indeed raise venture money at some point. "We want to do it when we don't need it," he says, affording the company more negotiating leverage -- and presumably, a higher valuation.

Felda Hardymon of Bessemer Venture Partners, who sits on the board of Vertica but isn't involved with VoltDB, told me on Friday that he doesn't think the new venture will be a distraction for Vertica. "There was enough of a market test" -- IE, GETCO's interest in using and funding the new database software -- "that we really know that this is a powerful and viable technology, and in addition, we had access to a really brilliant lift-off guy in Andy Palmer."

Keeping track of Palmer's and Stonebraker's companies is turning into a full-time job...

Update: Later in the week, Mass High Tech got Stonebraker to elaborate on what VoltDB is up to.

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1 comments so far...
  1. Great to have such prolific entrepreneurs in Boston!

    Posted by Therese Byrne August 3, 09 11:32 AM


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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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