Why Babelfish for Aurora PostgreSQL is a Savage and Aggressive Announcement by AWS

On December 1st at Amazon re:invent, Amazon announced its plans to open source Babelfish for PostgreSQL in Q1 of 2021 under the Apache 2.0 license. Babelfish for PostgreSQL is a service that allows PostgreSQL databases to support SQL Server requests and communication without requiring schema rewrites or custom SQL.

As those of you who work with data know, this is an obvious shot across the bow by Amazon to make it easier than ever to migrate away from SQL Server and towards PostgreSQL. Amazon is targeting Microsoft in yet another attempt to push database migration.

Over my 25 years in tech (and beyond), there have been many many attempts to push database migration and the vast majority have failed. Nothing in IT has the gravitational pull of the enterprise database, mostly because the business risks of migration have almost never warranted the potential operational and cost savings of migration.

So, what makes Babelfish for PostgreSQL different? PostgreSQL is more flexible than traditional relational databases in managing geospatial data and is relatively popular, placing fourth on DB-Engines ranking as of December 2, 2020. So, the demand to use PostgreSQL as a transactional database fundamentally exists at a groundroots level.

In addition, the need to create and store data is continuing to grow exponentially. There is no longer a “single source of truth” as there once was in the days of monolithic enterprise applications. Today, the “truth” is distributed, multi-faceted, and rapidly changing based on new data and context, which is often better set up in new or emerging databases rather than retrofitted into an existing legacy database tool and schema.

The aspect that I think is fundamentally most important is that Babelfish for PostgreSQL allows PostgreSQL to understand SQL Server’s proprietary T-SQL. This removes the need to rewrite schemas and code for the applications that are linked to SQL Server prior to migration.

And it doesn’t hurt that, as an open source project, the PostgreSQL community has traditionally been both open and not dominated by any one vendor. So, although this project will help Amazon, Amazon will not be driving the majority of the project or have a majority of the contributors to the project.

My biggest caveat is that Babelfish is still a work in progress. For now, it’s an appropriate tool for standard transactional database use cases, but you will want to closely check data types. And if you have a specialized industry vertical or use case associated with the application, you may need an industry-specific contributor to help with developing Babelfish for your migration.

As for the value, there is both the operational value and the financial value. From an operational perspective, PostgreSQL is typically easier to manage than SQL Server and provides more flexibility to migrate and host the database based on your preferences. There is also an obvious cost benefit, as the inherent license cost of SQL Server will likely cut the cost of the database itself by 60%, give or take on Amazon Web Services. For companies that are rapidly spinning up services and creating data, this can be a significant cost over time.

For now, I think the best move is to start looking at the preview of Babelfish on Amazon Aurora to get a feel for the data translations and transmissions since Babelfish for PostgreSQL likely won’t be open sourced for another couple of months. This will allow you to measure up the maturity of Babelfish for your current and rapidly growing databases. Given the likely gaps that exist in Babelfish at the moment, the best initial use cases for this tool are for databases where fixed text values make up the majority of data being transferred.

As an analyst, I believe this announcement is one of the few in my lifetime that will result in a significant migration of relational database hosting. I’m not predicting the death of SQL Server, by any means, and this tool is really best suited for smaller TB and below transactional databases at this point. (Please don’t think of this as a potential tool for your SQL Server data warehouse at this point!)

But the concept, the proposed execution, and the value proposition of Babelfish all line up in a way that is client and customer-focused, rather than a heavy-handed attempt to force migration for vendor-related revenue increases.