What is NoSQL?

Relational databases were introduced into the 1970s to allow applications to store data through a standard data modeling and query language (Structured Query Language, or SQL). At the time, storage was expensive and data schemas were fairly simple and straightforward. Since the rise of the web, the volume of data stored about users, objects, products and events has exploded. Data is also accessed more frequently, and is processed more intensively – for example, social networks create hundreds of millions of customized, real-time activity feeds for users based on their connections' activities.

Even rendering a single web page or answering a single API request may take tens or hundreds of database requests as applications process increasingly complex information. Interactivity, large user networks, and more complex applications are all driving this trend.

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The Leading NoSQL Database

MongoDB is recognized as the leading NoSQL database. See the evidence.

In response to this demand, computing infrastructure and deployment strategies have also changed dramatically. Low-cost, commodity cloud hardware has emerged to replace vertical scaling on highly complex and expensive single-server deployments. And engineers now use agile development methods, which aim for continuous deployment and short development cycles, to allow for quick response to user demand for features.

The Need for NoSQL

Relational databases were never designed to cope with the scale and agility challenges that face modern applications – and aren't built to take advantage of cheap storage and processing power that's available today through the cloud. Relational database vendors have developed two main technical approaches to address these shortcomings:

Manual Sharding

Tables are broken up into smaller physical tables and spread across multiple servers. Because the database does not provide this ability natively, development teams take on the work of deploying multiple relational databases across a number of machines. Data is stored in each database instance autonomously. Application code is developed to distribute the data, distribute queries, and aggregate the results of data across all of the database instances. Additional code must be developed to handle resource failures, to perform joins across the different databases, for data rebalancing, replication, and other requirements. Furthermore, many benefits of the relational database, such as transactional integrity, are compromised or eliminated when employing manual sharding.

Distributed Cache

A number of products provide a caching tier for database systems. These systems can improve read performance substantially, but they do not improve write performance, and they add complexity to system deployments. If your application is dominated by reads then a distributed cache should probably be considered, but if your application is dominated by writes or if you have a relatively even mix of reads and writes, then a distributed cache may not improve the overall experience of your end users.

NoSQL databases have emerged in response to these challenges and in response to the new opportunities provided by low-cost commodity hardware and cloud-based deployment environments - and natively support the modern application deployment environment, reducing the need for developers to maintain separate caching layers or write and maintain sharding code.

Features of NoSQL Databases

NoSQL encompasses a wide variety of different database technologies but generally all NoSQL databases have a few features in common.

Dynamic schemas

Relational databases require that schemas be defined before you can add data. For example, you might want to store data about your customers such as phone numbers, first and last name, address, city and state – a SQL database needs to know this in advance.

This fits poorly with agile development approaches, because each time you complete new features, the schema of your database often needs to change. So if you decide, a few iterations into development, that you'd like to store customers' favorite items in addition to their addresses and phone numbers, you'll need to add that column to the database, and then migrate the entire database to the new schema.

If the database is large, this is a very slow process that involves significant downtime. If you are frequently changing the data your application stores – because you are iterating rapidly – this downtime may also be frequent. There's also no way, using a relational database, to effectively address data that's completely unstructured or unknown in advance.

NoSQL databases are built to allow the insertion of data without a predefined schema. That makes it easy to make significant application changes in real-time, without worrying about service interruptions – which means development is faster, code integration is more reliable, and less database administrator time is needed.

Auto-sharding, replication and integrated caching

Because of the way they are structured, relational databases usually scale vertically – a single server has to host the entire database to ensure reliability and continuous availability of data. This gets expensive quickly, places limits on scale, and creates a relatively small number of failure points for database infrastructure.

The solution is to scale horizontally, by adding servers instead of concentrating more capacity in a single server. Cloud computing makes this significantly easier, with providers such as Amazon Web Services providing virtually unlimited capacity on demand, and taking care of all the necessary database administration tasks. Developers no longer need to construct complex, expensive platforms to support their applications, and can concentrate on writing application code. In addition, a group of commodity servers can provide the same processing and storage capabilities as a single high-end server for a fraction of the price.

"Sharding" a database across many server instances can be achieved with SQL databases, but usually is accomplished through SANs and other complex arrangements for making hardware act as a single server. NoSQL databases, on the other hand, usually support auto-sharding, meaning that they natively and automatically spread data across an arbitrary number of servers, without requiring the application to even be aware of the composition of the server pool. Data and query load are automatically balanced across servers, and when a server goes down, it can be quickly and transparently replaced with no application disruption.

Most NoSQL databases also support automatic replication, meaning that you get high availability and disaster recovery without involving separate applications to manage these tasks. The storage environment is essentially virtualized from the developer's perspective.

Lastly, many NoSQL database technologies have excellent integrated caching capabilities, keeping frequently-used data in system memory as much as possible. This removes the need for a separate caching layer that must be maintained.

NoSQL Database Types

Since "NoSQL" just means non-relational and not SQL, there are many different ways to implement NoSQL technology. Generally, NoSQL databases include the following families:

  • Key-value stores are the simplest NoSQL databases. Every single item in the database is stored as an attribute name, or key, together with its value. Examples of key-value stores are Riak and Voldemort. Some key-value stores, such as Redis, allow each value to have a type, such as "integer", which adds functionality.

  • Document databases pair each key with a complex data structure known as a document. Documents can contain many different key-value pairs, or key-array pairs, or even nested documents.

  • Wide-column stores such as Cassandra and HBase are optimized for queries over large datasets, and store columns of data together, instead of rows.

  • Graph stores are used to store information about networks, such as social connections. Graph stores include Neo4J and HyperGraphDB.

NoSQL vs SQL Summary

 SQL DatabasesNoSQL Databases
TypesOne type (SQL database) with minor variationsMany different types including key-value stores, document databases, wide-column stores, and graph databases
Development HistoryDeveloped in 1970s to deal with first wave of data storage applicationsDeveloped in 2000s to deal with limitations of SQL databases, particularly concerning scale, replication and unstructured data storage
ExamplesMySQL, Postgres, Oracle DatabaseMongoDB, Cassandra, HBase, Neo4j
Data Storage ModelIndividual records (e.g., "employees") are stored as rows in tables, with each column storing a specific piece of data about that record (e.g., "manager," "date hired," etc.), much like a spreadsheet. Separate data types are stored in separate tables, and then joined together when more complex queries are executed. For example, "offices" might be stored in one table, and "employees" in another. When a user wants to find the work address of an employee, the database engine joins the "employee" and "office" tables together to get all the information necessary.Varies based on NoSQL database type. For example, key-value stores function similarly to SQL databases, but have only two columns ("key" and "value"), with more complex information sometimes stored within the "value" columns. Document databases do away with the table-and-row model altogether, storing all relevant data together in single "document" in JSON, XML, or another format, which can nest values hierarchically.
SchemasStructure and data types are fixed in advance. To store information about a new data item, the entire database must be altered, during which time the database must be taken offline.Typically dynamic. Records can add new information on the fly, and unlike SQL table rows, dissimilar data can be stored together as necessary. For some databases (e.g., wide-column stores), it is somewhat more challenging to add new fields dynamically.
ScalingVertically, meaning a single server must be made increasingly powerful in order to deal with increased demand. It is possible to spread SQL databases over many servers, but significant additional engineering is generally required.Horizontally, meaning that to add capacity, a database administrator can simply add more commodity servers or cloud instances. The NoSQL database automatically spreads data across servers as necessary
Development ModelMix of open-source (e.g., Postgres, MySQL) and closed source (e.g., Oracle Database)Open-source
Supports TransactionsYes, updates can be configured to complete entirely or not at allIn certain circumstances and at certain levels (e.g., document level vs. database level)
Data ManipulationSpecific language using Select, Insert, and Update statements, e.g. SELECT fields FROM table WHERE…Through object-oriented APIs
ConsistencyCan be configured for strong consistencyDepends on product. Some provide strong consistency (e.g., MongoDB) whereas others offer eventual consistency (e.g., Cassandra)

Implementing a NoSQL Database in Your Organization

The advantages of NoSQL databases versus SQL databases make them an excellent fit for modern data storage challenges, and one that’s often far more cost- and time-effective than relational database solutions.

Often, organizations will begin with a small-scale trial of a NoSQL database in their organization, which makes it possible to develop an understanding of the technology in a low-stakes way. Most NoSQL databases are also open-source, meaning that they can be downloaded, implemented and scaled at little cost. Many organizations find that there are substantial advantages to using a NoSQL database for a wide variety of projects. Because development cycles are faster, organizations can innovate more quickly and deliver superior customer experience at a lower cost.

MongoDB is the Leading NoSQL Database

There are many NoSQL databases, though MongoDB is widely recognized as the leading NoSQL database. For developers and database administrators, MongoDB provides agility, scalability, performance and high availability. MongoDB also provides immense business value: enabling new applications, as well as providing dramatically improved customer experience, time to market and total cost of ownership (TCO). Read our MongoDB overview to learn more about these features.

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