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The Database Landscape 2021

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens’ famous introduction to A Tale of Two Cities referred to the disparities in human experience in London and Paris around the time of the French Revolution. But these words could just as well be applied to today’s IT landscape. For most of us, it’s the worst of times as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But for some technology companies—particularly cloud vendors—it’s the best of times.

For more articles looking at the current state of technology and what's ahead for 2021, download the Data Sourcebook.

It’s hard to discuss anything contemporary without considering the effects of the pandemic, and the same is true of the database landscape. From an IT perspective, the pandemic has accelerated at least three significant trends:

  • Cloud adoption
  • The imperative of scalability
  • Telecommuting

The enterprises that had the most difficulty adapting to COVID-19—particularly shelter-in-place rules—were those whose infrastructure was primarily on-premise. For these companies, it was sometimes challenging to provide remote access to DBAs and system administrators, because direct access to production databases from beyond the firewall was generally forbidden. For those that had adopted a cloud infrastructure, these security issues had already been addressed.

Most enterprises also encountered an abrupt reduction in demand. Those with a fully elastic cloud infrastructure could reduce their spending by shrinking database and container clusters. Those with on-premise assets had fewer options for reducing running costs.

At the other end of the spectrum, some enterprises found their workloads massively increased. Online conferencing software vendors are the obvious example, but gaming and streaming services also experienced a spike in demand. Companies who needed to abruptly increase their capacity could only do so easily if they had a fully scalable cloud infrastructure.

The cloud-tipping point for database technology had already occurred by the beginning of 2020. But what was a gradual migration to the cloud is now looking increasingly like a sprint. The idea that a database vendor could anticipate healthy growth through on-premise deployments is now untenable—the only path to growth is in the cloud.

The Market Share Perspective

At a macro level, the market share for database vendors has been remarkably constant over the last few years. The two leading generators of database revenue are Oracle and Microsoft. Five years ago, IBM held the number-three slot. Amazon now holds that position, and IBM’s share of database revenue continues to decline.

Oracle remains the leading database plat­form both by revenue and deployments, but is under threat on multiple fronts. The company  is pinning its hopes on its “Autonomous” Database platform and on winning cloud market share through a high-performance cloud database platform. The cynic in me sees the Autonomous Database pitch as a refresh of the Oracle 10g “Self-Managing” database (circa 2006). I also think that it’s way too late for Oracle to fight for cloud market share against the likes of Microsoft and Amazon. In my humble opinion, unless Oracle works harder to win the hearts and minds of software developers, its future status will resemble the mainframe vendors of the 1980s and 1990s—running a healthy and profitable business but with little chance of growth and decreasing technology relevance.

Although in second place, Microsoft is in a more enviable position. Similar to Oracle, it has a healthy legacy SQL database business in the SQL Server family, but unlike Oracle, its public cloud has huge penetration. Within the Azure cloud, Microsoft offers not just SQL Server but also open source databases such as Postgres and MySQL. Furthermore, Microsoft offers a next-generation native cloud database—CosmosDB. Although CosmosDB has limited adoption so far, it is growing in acceptance and represents a compelling vision for a native cloud database service.

Amazon falls into third place primarily by being the dominant public cloud vendor. Within the AWS cloud, the RDS (Relational Database Service) product offers a variety of database technologies as cloud services, including Oracle, SQL Server, and the open source SQL databases. Amazon doesn’t have to contribute R&D toward the development of these databases, so these services are very profitable. Amazon also offers a cloud-native database platform—DynamoDB—which is popular but whose revenues pale when compared to the RDS services.


Revenues tell one story, but when crystal-ball gazing, overall deployment numbers are just as important. Some of the applications developed today will be the killer applications of tomorrow, and the developers of these applications are the ones choosing the database platforms of tomorrow.

There are a variety of imprecise but broadly accurate measures of database “popularity,” of which the most widely known is the DB-Engines Ranking ( The DB-Engines Ranking shows Oracle, MySQL, and SQL Server as the three most popular database engines, with MongoDB and PostgreSQL vying for fourth place.

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