Skip to Content



E-learning? There’s a database for that. Real-time data? That, too

To gain a competitive edge, organizations are looking to a new approach to IT and data management: using “purpose-built” databases for specific applications.

In association withAmazon Web Services

Companies of all sizes and maturity levels, from startups to multinational corporations, have at least this in common: they know that using data effectively is a key driver of innovation, competitive advantage, and growth. Now that expensive hardware and software are no longer prerequisites for innovation, thanks to the rise of cloud computing, startups can play on the same field as, and sometimes even beat, larger competitors.

This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

The insights gained from the vast terabytes and petabytes of data companies collect are critical to innovation and competitive advantage. Ken Corless, CTO of Deloitte’s cloud practice, remarks, “I am regularly blown away by what a three-person startup can accomplish with today’s cloud technologies.” Businesses are feeling the urgency to dig into data more effectively and innovate more quickly. They’re asking, “How can we unlock a different operating model?”

One way: by modernizing their database infrastructure to handle today’s data-driven business. In the past, companies had limited options in commercial-grade databases from a handful of vendors. But in the cloud era, there are unique database services built to handle different business tasks. These “purpose-built” databases can handle workloads with much greater efficiency and speed than the monolithic, do-everything machines of the past.

For example, in-memory databases offer real-time access to data for e-commerce and gaming; wide-column databases are ideal for low-latency applications like geographic information and fleet management systems; and relational databases, the age-old standard, handle traditional applications such as customer relationship management and enterprise resource planning. What’s more, all of these database types can be run as managed services in the cloud, eliminating the need for operational overhead and expensive software licensing.

Purpose-built databases enable huge global companies like Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals to run analytics on one database while keeping user profiles and account information on another, and transactional data on a third—delivering value at speeds that a monolithic database could never achieve. 

Using a combination of databases and data analysis and visualization tools, Janssen’s senior director of business technology, Dharmesh Thakkar, and his team created a data “workbench”—a single pool of combined data sources that business analysts can use to answer questions which previously could have taken weeks or months to resolve. “When a new question or a new kind of question arises, we don’t have to make a project out of it. They now have the flexibility to access the data directly,” Thakkar says.

Audiobook retailer Audible relies on a combination of relational and key-value databases to serve up thousands of titles to its global audience. For corporate clients, the Amazon-owned service launched Audible for Business, which helps companies match skills-building audiobooks, workshops, and other spoken-word content to their individual employees and teams. The millions of data relationships the service has to juggle—involving thousands of titles and, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of users per client—are highly complex, says Mayank Gupta, software development engineer. A standard relational database just wouldn’t cut it.

“We would have to do a lot of joins and negotiate a lot of complicated business logic, which would have caused high latency,” Gupta says. So Audible for Business built its application using a graph database, which can quickly query millions of relationships between data sets. “Graph is a much simpler and more scalable solution for our use case.”

The on-demand nature of these cloud-native databases also mitigates risk. Rob Paushter, vice president of product development at Lexia Learning, says the reading-technology company’s specialized cloud database usage “lets us do things we never thought we could do before. We can try out new ideas and test new applications in days rather than weeks or months. So there is much more opportunity to innovate at much lower risk in terms of investment.”

By using purpose-built databases for specific business tasks, organizations are reaping the value of their huge and constantly growing data volumes. Each type of database plays a key role in the larger cloud infrastructure. Janssen’s Thakkar, who sees himself as a conductor of sorts, reflected, “The value is in the data, but the power is in the orchestration of customer engagement using traditional and predictive insights.”

Deep Dive


It’s time to retire the term “user”

The proliferation of AI means we need a new word.

Modernizing data with strategic purpose

Data strategies and modernization initiatives misaligned with the overall business strategy—or too narrowly focused on AI—leave substantial business value on the table.

How ASML took over the chipmaking chessboard

MIT Technology Review sat down with outgoing CTO Martin van den Brink to talk about the company’s rise to dominance and the life and death of Moore’s Law.


Why it’s so hard for China’s chip industry to become self-sufficient

Chip companies from the US and China are developing new materials to reduce reliance on a Japanese monopoly. It won’t be easy.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.