Apple Buys FoundationDB In A Decisive Break With The Jobs Playbook

(Updated to note the closure of FoundationDB’s GitHub repository.)

This really isn’t Steve Jobs’ Apple anymore. 

According to TechCrunch, Apple just acquired FoundationDB, a relative newcomer to the NoSQL crowd and the first enterprise software company Apple has ever bought. While the acquisition seems weird on one level, it makes sense on another: talent. Apple has struggled to retain top Web and infrastructure engineering talent.

See also: Apple May Have Just Killed An Open-Source Project

By buying FoundationDB, Apple scored a great set of engineers in an area that it must own to be competitive with other data-hungry companies like Google and Facebook.

FoundationDB Who?

FoundationDB, with its “NoSQL, YesACID” mantra, has never managed to generate much of a following. While MongoDB, Cassandra, and Redis headline the multi-faceted database popularity ranking kept by DB-Engines, FoundationDB came in a dismal #115 out of 216 on that list.

It was always going to struggle to catch up, at least in terms of market traction.

Apple, however, doesn’t need a database to sell. Instead, it can use database engineers to help build out the infrastructure behind iTunes, iCloud, and other data-centric services. True, Apple already uses NoSQL databases like MongoDB, Cassandra, and Couchbase (this isn’t a secret—search the company’s job postings and you’ll find plenty of mentions of each of these databases). But there’s always a difference between paying vendor technologies and homegrown technologies.

Apple clearly feels that it needs to have deep database expertise in-house.

Getting Out Of The Database Business

And let’s be clear: By buying FoundationDB, Apple is almost certainly not getting into the database business. Indeed, based on FoundationDB’s community site, it would appear that the NoSQL startup is already gearing up to get out of distributing software.

As the company’s FAQ (removed from the website—you can find a cached version here) indicates, “We have released several FoundationDB language bindings and layers as open source software and anticipate continuing to do so.”

That open sourcery doesn’t look like it has much of a future under Apple.

In fact, it seems that FoundationDB may be getting out of the business of selling software altogether. As the company notes on its community site:


Source: FoundationDB

A New Era For Apple

Of course, those components that FoundationDB open sourced will always remain open. That’s the benefit of open source. [Update, March 25: That may not be true; FoundationDB’s GitHub repository is now private.]

But the real benefit in this deal is for Apple, and for developers. As one engineer close to the company told me: “I’m looking forward to what this means for Apple developers. I’m hoping for a new service rather than CloudKit enhancements.”

As he intimates, the acquisition of FoundationDB could lead not only to improved engineering under the covers of Apple’s products, but also to improved developer services. While it’s doubtful one startup can change Apple’s engineering culture, Apple CEO Tim Cook has already displayed a propensity for openness in a way that Steve Jobs never did. 

At any rate, it’s a start. This is a new Apple, one that may have taken a big step toward improving its data infrastructure engineering team.

Lead photo by Brett Bolkowy

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