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What You Need To Know About NoSQL Databases

[IMAGE: GETTY IMAGES]

For a quarter of a century, the relational database (RDBMS) has been the dominant model for database management. But, today, non-relational, “cloud,” or “NoSQL” databases are gaining mindshare as an alternative model for database management. In this article, we will look at the key aspects of these non-relational NoSQL databases.

 

Elastic Scaling

For years, database administrators have relied on scale up buying bigger servers as database load increases rather than scale out distributing the database across multiple hosts as load increases. However, as transaction rates and availability requirements increase, and as databases move into the cloud or onto virtualized environments, the economic advantages of scaling out on commodity hardware become irresistible. RDBMS might not scale out easily on commodity clusters, but the new breed of NoSQL databases are designed to expand transparently to take advantage of new nodes, and they are usually designed with low-cost commodity hardware in mind.

 

Big Data

Just as transaction rates have grown out of recognition over the last decade, the volumes of data that are being stored also have increased massively. O’Reilly has cleverly called this the “industrial revolution of data.” RDBMS capacity has been growing to match these increases, but as with transaction rates, the constraints of data volumes that can be practically managed by a single RDBMS are becoming intolerable for some enterprises. Today, the volumes of Big Data that can be handled by NoSQL systems, such as Hadoop, outstrip what can be handled by the biggest RDBMS.

 

Goodbye DBAs

Despite the many manageability improvements claimed by RDBMS vendors over the years, high-end RDBMS systems can be maintained only with the assistance of expensive, highly trained DBAs. DBAs are intimately involved in the design, installation, and ongoing tuning of high-end RDBMS systems.

NoSQL databases are generally designed from the ground up to require less management:  automatic repair, data distribution, and simpler data models lead to lower administration and tuning requirements in theory. In practice, it’s likely that rumors of the DBA’s death have been slightly exaggerated. Someone will always be accountable for the performance and availability of any mission-critical data store.

 

Economics

NoSQL databases typically use clusters of cheap commodity servers to manage the exploding data and transaction volumes, while RDBMS tends to rely on expensive proprietary servers and storage systems. The result is that the cost per gigabyte or transaction/second for NoSQL can be many times less than the cost for RDBMS, allowing you to store and process more data at a much lower price point.

 

Flexible Data Models

Change management is a big headache for large production RDBMS. Even minor changes to the data model of an RDBMS have to be carefully managed and may necessitate downtime or reduced service levels. NoSQL databases have far more relaxed or even nonexistent data model restrictions. NoSQL Key Value stores and document databases allow the application to store virtually any structure it wants in a data element. Even the more rigidly defined BigTable-based NoSQL databases (Cassandra, HBase) typically allow new columns to be created without too much fuss.

The result is that application changes and database schema changes do not have to be managed as one complicated change unit. In theory, this will allow applications to iterate faster, though, clearly, there can be undesirable side effects if the application fails to manage data integrity.