Will NoSQL Databases Live Up to Their Promise?

Will NoSQL Databases Live Up to Their Promise?
Will NoSQL
Databases Live Up
to Their Promise?
Neal Leavitt
Organizations that collect large amounts of unstructured data are
increasingly turning to nonrelational databases, now frequently
called NoSQL databases.
any organizations collect vast amounts of
customer, scientific,
sales, and other data
for future analysis.
Traditionally, most of these organizations have stored structured data in
relational databases for subsequent
access and analysis.
However, a growing number of
developers and users have begun
turning to various types of nonrelational—now frequently called
Nonrelationa l dat a ba ses—
including hierarchical, graph, and
object-oriented databases—have
been around since the late 1960s.
However, new types of NoSQL databases are being developed. And
only now are they beginning to gain
market traction.
Different NoSQL databases take
different approaches. What they
have in common is that they’re not
relational. Their primary advantage
is that, unlike relational databases,
they handle unstructured data such
as word-processing files, e-mail, multimedia, and social media efficiently.
They are also easier to work with
for the many developers not familiar
r2tec.indd 12
with the structured query language.
SQL is the programming language
used for querying and updating relational databases.
Some NoSQL databases can function in a distributed setting. Users
could thus scale a single database by
running it across additional inexpensive machines rather than by having
to run it on a single more powerful
and costly machine.
Moreover, proponents say, NoSQL
databases enable better performance,
which is particularly important for
applications with large amounts of
Numerous companies and organizations have developed NoSQL
The approach’s most influential
champions are primarily Web 2.0
companies with huge, growing data
and infrastructure needs such as
Amazon and Google. They developed
the Dynamo and Big Table NoSQL
databases, respectively, which have
inspired many of today’s NoSQL
Despite its promise, the approach
must clear several technical and marketplace hurdles before achieving
widespread success.
Published by the IEEE Computer Society
The late Edgar Codd, a former IBM
Fellow, is generally credited with creating the relational-database model
in 1970.
A relational database is a set of
tables containing data fitted into
predefined categories. Each table
contains one or more data categories in columns. Each row contains
a unique instance of data for the categories defined by the columns. Users
can access or reassemble the data in
different ways without having to reorganize the database tables.
Relational databases work best
with structured data—such as a set
of sales figures—which readily fits in
well-organized tables. This is not the
case with unstructured data, such as
that found in word-processing documents and images.
Relational database
The structure of data in a relational
database is predefined by the layout
of the tables and the fixed names and
types of the columns.
Scaling. Users can scale a relational database by running it on a
more powerful—and expensive—
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computer. To scale beyond a certain
point, though, it must be distributed
across multiple servers.
Relational databases don’t work
easily in a distributed manner because
joining their tables across a distributed
system is difficult, said Craigslist software engineer Jeremy Zawodny.
Also, relational databases aren’t
designed to function with data
partitioning, so distributing their
functionality is a chore, said Stephen
O’Grady, an analyst with market
research firm RedMonk.
Complexity. With relational databases, users must convert all data
into tables. When the data doesn’t
fit easily into a table, the database’s
structure can be complex, difficult,
and slow to work with.
SQL. Using SQL is convenient with
structured data. However, using the
language with other types of information is difficult because it’s designed
to work with structured, relationally
organized databases with fixed table
information, explained Stefan Edlich,
professor at the Beuth University of
Applied Sciences in Berlin.
SQL can entail large amounts of
complex code and doesn’t work well
with modern, agile development, he
Large feature set. Relational databases offer a big feature set and data
integrity. But NoSQL proponents say
database users often don’t need all
the features, as well as the cost and
complexity they add.
INSIDE NoSQL databases
Partly in response to the growing
awareness of relational databases’
limitations, vendors and users are
increasingly turning to NoSQL
One of the key moments in this
shift occurred in 2007, when Amazon
published a paper that introduced its
Dynamo distributed NoSQL system
for internal use. Amazon was one of
the first major companies to store
much of its important corporate data
in a nonrelational database.
The technology
There are three popular types of
NoSQL databases.
Key-value stores. As the name
implies, a key-value store is a system
that stores va lues indexed for
retrieval by keys. These systems can
hold structured or unstructured data.
Amazon’s SimpleDB is a Web
service that provides core database
functions of information indexing
and querying in the cloud. It provides
a simple API for storage and access.
Users pay only for the services they
The Apache Software Foundation hosts CouchDB as an open
source, scalable database written
in Erlang and accessible from any
10gen commercially supports and
sponsors the development of MongoDB, an open source document
database built for scalability and ease
of use.
Basho Technologies’ Riak is a
distributed, scalable, decentralized,
open source database suitable for
Web-based applications.
NoSQL databases are starting to gain market
Uppsala University’s Amos II is a
research prototype that can function
as a standalone database or as a front
end to other applications.
Resea rch facilit y Zuse Institute Berlin and software developer
onScale Solutions built Scalaris, a
scalable, distributed database that
can work with Web 2.0 services.
Column-oriented databases.
Rather than store sets of information in a heavily structured table of
columns and rows with uniformsized fields for each record, as is
the case with relational databases,
column-oriented databases contain
one extendable column of closely
related data.
Facebook created the high-performance Cassandra to help power its
The Apache Software Foundation developed Hbase, a distributed,
open source database that emulates
Google’s Big Table.
Document-based stores. These
databases store and organize data as
collections of documents, rather than
as structured tables with uniformsized fields for each record. With
these databases, users can add any
number of fields of any length to a
Open source
Most NoSQL databases are open
source, reflecting developments in
the overall software market.
Disruptive software trends such
as NoSQL databases frequently do
better in an open source environment, which lets users perform
technical evaluations at low cost, said
Basho chief technology officer Justin
nosql Pros and cons
NoSQL databases have numerous
advantages and disadvantages.
NoSQL databases generally process data faster than relational
Relational databases are usually
used by businesses and often for
transactions that require great precision. They thus generally subject all
data to the same set of ACID (atomicity, consistency, isolation, durability)
restraints, said Uppsala University
professor Tore Risch.
Atomicity means an update is
performed completely or not at all,
and consistency means no part of a
transaction will be allowed to break
a database’s rules, he explained.
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Isolation means each application runs
transactions independently of other
applications operating concurrently,
and durability means that completed
transactions will persist, he added.
Having to perform these restraints
on every piece of data makes relational databases slower, Risch noted.
Developers usually don’t have their
NoSQL databases support ACID, in
order to increase performance, he
said, but this can cause problems
when used for applications that
require great precision.
NoSQL databases are also often
faster because their data models are
simpler, noted Kyle Banker, a software engineer at 10gen. “There’s a
bit of a trade-off between speed and
model complexity, he said, but it’s
frequently a tradeoff worth making,”
Because they don’t have all the
technical requirements that relational
databases have, proponents say, most
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major NoSQL systems are flexible
enough to better enable developers
to use the applications in ways that
meet their needs.
Concerns and doubts
NoSQL databases face several
O ve r h e a d a n d co m p l ex i t y.
Because NoSQL databases don’t work
with SQL, they require manual query
programming, which can be fast for
simple tasks but time-consuming for
In addition, complex query programming for the databases can be
difficult, Risch noted.
Reliability. Relational databases
natively support ACID, while NoSQL
databases don’t. NoSQL databases
thus don’t natively offer the degree of
reliability that ACID provides. If users
want NoSQL databases to apply ACID
restraints to a data set, they must
perform additional programming.
Consistency. Because NoSQL
databases don’t natively support
ACID transactions, they also could
compromise consistency, unless
manual support is provided. Not
providing consistency enables better
performance and scalability but is a
problem for certain types of applications and transactions, such as those
involved in banking, Risch said.
Unfamiliarity with the technology.
Most organizations are unfamiliar
with NoSQL databases and thus may
not feel knowledgeable enough to
choose one or even to determine that
the approach might be better for their
purposes, Beuth University’s Edlich
Limited ecostructure. Unlike commercial relational databases, many
open source NoSQL applications
don’t yet come with customer support or management tools.
uring the next five years,
according to RedMonk’s
O’G rady, NoSQL proponents will focus on
developing better applica-
tion compatibility and management
According to Dave Rosenberg,
founder of open source infrastructure provider MuleSource and adviser
to several technology companies,
NoSQL databases will be used largely
for working with unstructured data in
ways that require scalability.
NoSQL adoption will be small-scale
and only in some niches because relational databases are more mature
and represent huge investments by
vendors and users, said Anant Jhingran, IBM’s chief technology officer
for information management, analytics, and optimization.
During the next one or two years,
O’Grady predicted, users will adopt
NoSQL databases primarily for specialized projects, such as those that
are distributed, that involve large
amounts of data, or that must scale.
After that, he said, broader adoption
could occur.
NoSQL databases won’t replace
relational databases, he stated, but
instead will become a better option
for certain types of projects.
“People will learn to look at their
data and select many databases for
many needs,” said Edlich.
Added Basho’s Sheehy, “There
will be a growing realization that the
relational databases in use today are
often good tools but that other tools
have their place as well.”
Neal Leavitt is president of Leavitt
Communications (www.leavcom.
com), a Fallbrook, California-based
international marketing communications company with affiliate offices
in Brazil, France, Germany, Hong
Kong, India, and the UK. He writes
frequently on technology topics and
can be reached at [email protected]
Editor: Lee Garber, Computer,
[email protected]
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