Case study: Concur fuels growth with Couchbase

Expense management company Concur has used NoSQL database supplier Couchbase to further its growth

Expense management company Concur has used NoSQL database supplier Couchbase to further its growth.

Concur is a software as a service (SaaS) financial services company that provides employee spend management for travel and other expenses. It averages some 6.2 billion hits to its sites on a monthly basis, from 215 countries. It uses pairs of datacentres in the US and the European Union.

Drew Garner, Czech Republic country director and senior director architecture services at Concur, says if he were starting from scratch he would use a combination of Couchbase and the open-source Postgres SQL relational database system for an ideal data architecture, in both cases because of the strength of developer communities and the quality of training available.

Concur originally engaged with Couchbase in 2010, he recounts, when it was called NorthScale: “I told them, as long as I can still email the same people it is fine.”

His team wanted a cache that it could turn into a full database system further down the line. “Being a financial services firm, our developers are nervous about technology that is too disruptive," he says. "We don’t make video games. If someone files an expense report and doesn’t get paid, they tend to get angry."

Acquisitions made simple

Concur has grown by acquisition, and Couchbase has been useful in that context, he says. 

As an example, Garner gives the purchase of Global Expense in the UK in 2011: “Global Expense brought on board an audit capability. Its IT team jumped into Couchbase because it has an application for auditors, and wanted it live in both datacentres straight away. Only Couchbase could offer cross-datacentre replication, and it was good for ease of use."

He says Couchbase’s community is popular with Concur’s development staff. “Developers tend to be introverted and want a community to plug into.”

As a technology, he describes Couchbase as “strategic, not so much for replacing our relational system, but for augmenting it”. 

Concur also has Microsoft SQL and other databases from acquisitions, including Postgres and MySQL. Its use of Couchbase has been steadily growing organically, and he confirms the supplier is “very good at educating our developers”.

Keeping tabs on the NoSQL competition

Garner also keeps an eye on Couchbase’s NoSQL competitors. 

Couchbase’s company culture mirrors our own – it is agile, it patches quickly and responds quickly to our needs

Drew Garner, Concur

“We did a bake-off with MongoDB and Cassandra when we decided to go from cache to a full data store – Couchbase was still the best," he says. 

"With Cassandra, it was too complicated to do cross-datacentre replication, and there was too much of a training overhead. 

"MongoDB was more in the middle. In performance testing, with the high-end loads, it started to suffer.

“Couchbase’s culture [as a company] also mirrors our own – it is agile, it patches quickly and responds quickly to our needs."

However, Garner admits feeling nervous about working with venture capital-funded companies like Couchbase. "We prefer to see them self-funded, without being eaten by a big fish," he says.

But the upside with even a venture capital-backed open-source-based NoSQL technology company is that you can get the scale of a big company quickly. 

"Our issue has been how to benefit from these when they have legacy," he says, "but we wouldn’t have scaled to where were are today without a NoSQL system."

Garner runs Concur’s R&D operation in Prague. “We also moved our outsourcing from India to Prague. There is great talent there,” he attests.

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