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January 21, 2008

Virtualization + Database = Scalability, Availability

By Derrick Harris, Editor

For years, the talk surrounding databases has been about “high availability” and “maximum uptime” — two terms that connote the inevitability of failure or, at the very least, downtime. Now, however, one lower-case start-up, xkoto, is looking to add a new phrase to the mix: “continuous availability.”

Achieving ‘Continuous Availability’

Marketed as a database load balancer, xkoto’s flagship Gridscale product is a middleware appliance that sits between the application and the database and allows for multiple active copies of the database to run simultaneously, as opposed to traditional high availability or disaster recovery solutions that normally run in an active-passive model. Active copies are updated, and latency is minimized, by Gridscale’s method of passing SQL statements between the databases and the application instead of taking the classic replication approaches of scanning for changes to the disk or to the database buffer. Thanks to virtualization, the software touches neither the database nor the application.

The goals in designing Gridscale, says xkoto president and CEO David Patrick, were to solve for two problems: (1) eliminating recovery time associated with failover situations and (2) providing scale to applications by allowing for the addition of commodity hardware. “The concept of failover doesn’t even exist anymore,” says Patrick. “It’s now the concept of continuous availability because you have multiple active copies of the database.”

In terms of scalability, Patrick says adding nodes is easy, and additional boxes can be provisioned or de-provisioned as needed — “basically immediately.” IBM experienced performance gains of 85 percent per additional server when it tested Gridscale, and the xkoto Web site suggests that “upwards of 30 nodes can be clustered while still delivering horizontal scalability.” Additionally, Patrick noted, “you can basically have an active database anywhere in the world,” as the only geographical limitations have to do with the physics of transmitting information over long distances, not with the Gridscale software. According to Patrick, several customers already have Gridscale databases located around the country.

The solution was designed to work with, and currently only officially supports, IBM’s DB2 database, but Patrick says the Gridscale architecture inherently supports other platforms. He added that xkoto is working on a SQL Server edition of Gridscale that should be available later this year.

This notion that Gridscale should be able to support multiple database platforms is particularly captivating to industry analyst and virtualization aficionado Dan Kusnetzky, of the eponymous Kusnetzky Group, who believes that xkoto’s attempt to get into the communication stream at a different level than any previous vendors has the potential to produce great benefits. “You could create these database clusters,” he said, based on his analysis of the product, “… where either side of the communications architecture was running on entirely different physical systems, or virtual systems, that didn’t look anything like the other side, and possibly even running an entirely different database engine.”

Who’s On Board?

Although start-ups generally experience some difficulty in getting customers on board with their new, and often innovative, products, xkoto has been relatively successful thus far, having notched 15-20 high-profile customers in the 12 months since it really began selling Gridscale. Patrick attributes a good portion of this success to his company’s close affiliation with IBM, who has made xkoto part of the sales effort for potential DB2 customers needing the levels of availability and scale Gridscale brings to the table. “IBM has been very, very helpful,” said Patrick, adding that he hopes to develop similar relationships with other database vendors as necessary.

Thus far, xkoto’s customers are comprised of the usual suspects in high-availability, high-scalability solutions: financial services (Genworth Financial); health care (United Health); online retail (Children’s Place); and online travel (Travelport, parent company of Orbitz). The main draw for the early-stage customers, said Patrick, has been the prospect of continuous availability, mostly because cost-analysis of continuous availability is fairly easy and, for certain customers, 100 percent uptime is critical in a world where “people book travel at three in the morning on Sunday night.” However, he added, “As we build a bigger customer base, we can refine the scalability part of the story.”

Gridscale is a horizontal solution, said Patrick, and while xkoto is currently targeting certain markets to build its customer base, it definitely plans to spread out in time.

Patrick believes the upcoming support for SQL Server will go along way toward increasing the company’s customer count and in opening up new markets. While the current focus is on markets with large-scale enterprise applications, he thinks that the SQL Server market will find broader functionality for Gridscale, including the possibility of using it to optimize large, database-driven e-mail environments.

Regardless why customers are buying into xkoto, though, the results have been noticeable within the company. The early sales wins by the skeleton crew in Toronto spurred investments from venture capitalists, resulting in the company moving to Boston in an effort to become a player in the enterprise IT scene, as well as a plan to increase xkoto’s employee count by 150 percent in the next 10 months.

One optimistic Gridscale user is Genworth Financial, which has been working with xkoto for well over a year as it moves an important insurance agent data management application from a few mainframes into a mid-tier Linux environment. Genworth has been running Gridscale in its test environment and is looking to put the application into production some time this quarter.

Predominantly an Oracle Real Application Cluster (RAC) shop, Adam Webb, an IT solutions architect in the retirement and protection division of Genworth, said his group decided to go with Gridscale after it was brought up by an IBM representative when discussing methods to derive maximum availability, scalability and flexibility from the DB2 environment in which this particular application resides. Preferring to stick with commodity boxes (we “tend to not invest in a lot of high-end hardware,” says Webb) and wanting a complete solution to address its needs, his group rejected several alternative solutions, including IBM’s High Availability and Disaster Recovery for DB2, data partitioning, and an in-house-built-and-supported Q based replication scheme.

When the application is ready to go live, Webb expects to have at least three production nodes running active databases with an additional two for disaster recovery. The online DB2 database will contain about 1TB of data, which will be stored separately in each box, for a total of 5TB. Because the project is a composite of three mainframe systems, Webb said sizing estimates have been tricky. “Of course,” he said, speaking about the Gridscale solution, “we have flexibility, which is one of the great things. If our load exceeds what we need, we have the ability to plug extra hardware behind it pretty easily.”

An interesting sidenote of Genworth’s Gridscale implementation has been the amount of time it has taken. Although xkoto prides itself on quick deployments — often in three days or less — Genworth’s Gridscale environment has been under construction for over a year. According to Webb, the reason for this is twofold: (1) the application development cycle has taken that long; and (2) the application is a composite, with both Java and COBOL responsible for accessing the data tier. Although xkoto didn’t have much experience with COBOL applications using Gridscale to access the data layer, Webb said the company was very willing to work with Genworth to make everything function properly.

Perhaps because Genworth deployed Gridscale to solve a technical need rather than to achieve a competitive advantage, Webb said there hasn’t been much discussion about expanding its use into other database environments. But that could change. “If things continue to go as they have gone — which is to say they’ve gone well,” he added, “I think we would certainly be willing to evaluate that as an option.” Aside from the bargained for levels of availability and scalability, Webb has been impressed with Gridscale’s facilitation of 24×7 processing and the fact the software allows his team to take nodes offline as needed to handle batch jobs associated with the application.

Success Could Hinge on a Delicate Balance

Speaking from an analyst’s perspective, Kusnetzky doesn’t think xkoto’s future challenges will revolve around technology — which he says is both “clever” and “innovative,” especially given its heterogeneous potential — but rather how well the company is able to spread its message over the noise made by much richer and much louder vendors. Part of this, he noted, will be in distinguishing Gridscale’s capabilities from seemingly (at least outwardly) similar technologies like storage replication, database replication or distributed data caching, each of which has its own well-established vendors. It’s not impossible to believe they’ll succeed, he said, noting that VMware was once a start-up, but it will take some skillful marketing.

Assuming they do manage to make a name for themselves, though, Kusnetzky foresees acquisition as the most likely outcome for xkoto. “I don’t expect them to be a standalone company two years from now,” he said. “My expectation is somebody like IBM or Hewlett-Packard or EMC will look at that capability and say, ‘I need it in my portfolio.’ “

For xkoto CEO Patrick, though, the trick isn’t so much about the company setting itself apart as it is about the company fitting in with the rest of the virtualization vendors and their various solutions. “We’re really focused down lower in the stack, specifically on taking the database and … scaling it virtually across the enterprise. We see ourselves as complementary to the other solutions in the stack,” he said. “We ultimately want to fit in with as many of these management frameworks and other tools that are out there so we become a component in an overall datacenter virtualization strategy.”

However, even if it does require some “skillful marketing” to get customers’ ears, the folks at xkoto are confident they can close the deal once in position, and the reason for this confidence is in the simplicity of their message. “This isn’t what I would call a difficult-to-grasp virtualization vision that we’re trying to paint with a broad paintbrush,” said Patrick. “We’re going in very specifically and solving for two really big challenges for enterprise customers — … continuous availability and scalability — and we’re using these virtualization tools to get it done.”

Learn more about xkoto and Gridscale at

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