News/Trends, Tech/Engineering

What I’m Reading: Google Spanner Pressuring Oracle

W. Curtis Preston, Chief Technology Evangelist

In case you’re unfamiliar with it, Google Spanner is the latest product from Google, and it is a database management system (DBMS).  Some see it as a replacement for Oracle, but the folks over at Wikibon expressed significant caution on that front, in their latest blog post by David Floyer, which is what I’m reading right now.

The CAP Theorem

I would say I’m more than familiar DBMSs, and specifically RDBMSs, such as Oracle, DB2, and SQL Server. I’ve had to learn a lot about their architecture to understand how to properly back them up, restore, and recover them. (Recovery is different than restore in the database world.)

What I'm reading

The CAP Theorem: Image used by permission © Wikibon

Even so, I was unfamiliar with the CAP theorem mentioned in the blog post, which I found very interesting. Databases need to be consistent, available, and have partition tolerance. Consistency ensures that the data we thought we put in there is the data that is still in there. Availability speaks to the database being available for use at any particular time, and partition tolerance speaks to scalability. The idea of the CAP theorem is that any given database can be only two of these things at once. It can be consistent and available (the CA model), consistent and partition tolerant (CP model), or available and partition tolerant (AP model) –– but no database can be C, A, and P all at the same time. For example, if you spread a database across the world and make sure it’s available all the time, the only way you can do that is through an eventually consistent model – which is how databases like Cassandra work.

Oracle operates on a CA model, which means it doesn’t scale as well, but it’s data will always be consistent and mostly available. Spanner uses the CP model, which means it’s scalable and consistent, but might not be as available as Oracle. This is an important difference when considering how its used.

Deterministic vs. Probabilistic

David then went on to explain the difference between deterministic and probabilistic workloads. The former describes an outcome that must be the same every time, such as adding up payroll or billing. Given the same inputs, a deterministic result should always be the same, regardless of which application computes it. Probabilistic outcomes are used when a “good enough” number is, well, good enough. A perfect example would be to predict the price a given ad might fetch in an on-demand marketplace. It’s OK to be off a few cents; what matters is how fast you compute the result.

Oracle is best for deterministic workloads, but Spanner was designed for probabilistic workloads. David estimated that 5% (by license revenue) of Oracle workloads were probabilistic and would be alright with Spanner’s lower availability numbers.


The folks at Wikibon still expressed caution. Spanner is available as a product, but has very little infrastructure support. For one thing, no one knows how to back it up! (Now we’re in my neighborhood.) All the same, they do recommend getting an Oracle Spanner mug, and placing it on your desk whenever talking to an Oracle Sales Rep.

Google Cloud spanner

Image used by permission © Wikibon

I would highly recommend reading the Wikibon article in its entirety. There’s a lot of really good information in it.