By now it should be obvious that I’m quite fond of alternatives data stores (call them NoSQL if you must). I’ve given quite a few talks on the subjects recently, and had the honor of being a guest on the (German) heise Developer Podcast on NoSQL.

There’s some comments and questions that pop up every time alternative databases are being talked about, especially by people deeply rooted in relational thinking. I’ve been there, and I know it requires some rethinking, and also am quite aware that there are some controversial things that basically are the exact opposite of everything you learned in university.

I’d like to address a couple of those with some commentary and my personal experience (Disclaimer: my experience is not the universal truth, it’s simply that: my experience, your mileage may vary). When I speak of things done in practice, I’m talking about how I witnessed things getting done in Real Life™, and how I’ve done them myself, both good and bad. I’m focussing on document databases, but in general everything below holds true for any other kind of non-relational database.

It’s easy to say that all the nice features document databases offer are just aiming for one thing, to scale up. While that may or may not be true, it just doesn’t matter for a lot of people. Scaling is awesome, and it’s a problem everyone wants to solve, but in reality it’s not the main issue, at least not for most people. Also, it’s not an impossible thing to do even with MySQL, I’ve had my fun doing so, and it sure was an experience, but it can be done.

It’s about getting stuff done. There’s a lot more to alternative databases in general, and document databases in particular, that I like, not just the ability to scale up. They simply can make my life easier, if I let them. If I can gain productivity while still being aware of the potential risks and pitfalls, it’s a big win in my book.

What you’ll find, when you really think about it, is that everything below holds true no matter what database you’re using. Depending on your use case, it can even apply to relational databases.

Relational Databases are all about the Data

Yes, they are. They are about trying to fit your data into a constrained schema, constrained in length, type, and other things if you see fit. They’re about building relationships between your data in a strongly coupled way, think foreign key constraints. Whenever you need to add data, you need to migrate your schema. That’s what they do. They’re good at enforcing a set of ground rules on your data.

See where I’m going with this? Even though relational databases tried to be a perfect fit for data, they ended up being a pain once that data needed to evolve. If you haven’t felt that pain yet, good for you. I certainly have. Tabular data sounds nice in theory, and is pretty easy to handle in Excel, but in practice, it causes some pain. A lot of that pain stemmed from people using MySQL, yes, but take that argument to the guy who wrote it and sold it to people as the nicest and simplest SQL database out there.

It’s easy to get your data into a schema once, but it gets a lot harder to change the schema and the data into a different schema at a later point in time. While data sticks around, the schema evolves constantly. Something relational databases aren’t very good at supporting.

Relational Databases Enforce Data Consistency

They sure do, that’s what they were built for. Constraints, foreign keys, all the magic tricks. Take Rails as a counter-example. It fostered the idea that all that stuff is supposed to be part of the application, not the database. Does it have trade-offs? Sure, but it’s part of your application. In practice, that was correct, for the most part, although I can hear a thousand Postgres users scream. There’s always an area that requires constraints on the database level, otherwise they wouldn’t have been created in the first place.

But most web applications can live fine without it, they benefit from being free about their data, to shape it in whichever way they like, adding consistency on the application level. The consistency suddenly lies in your hands, a responsibility not everyone is comfortable with. You’re suddenly forced to think more about edge cases. But you sure as hell don’t have to live without consistent data, quite the opposite. The difference is that you’re taking care of the consistency yourself, in terms of your use case, not using a generic one-fits-all solution.

Relationships between data aren’t always strict. They can be loosely linked, what’s the point of enforcing consistency when you don’t care if a piece of data still exists or not? You handle it gracefully in your application code if you do.

SQL is a Standard

The basics of SQL are similar, if not the same, but under the hood, there’s subtle differences. Why? Because under the hood, every relational database works differently. Which is exactly what document databases acknowledge. Every database is different, trying to put a common language on top will only get you so far. If you want to get the best out of it, you’re going to specialize.

Thinking in Map/Reduce as CouchDB or Riak force you to is no piece of cake. It takes a while to get used to the ideas around it and what implications it has for you and your data. It’s worth it either way, but sometimes SQL is just a must, no question. Business reporting can be a big issue, if your company relies on supporting standard tools, you’re out of luck.

While standards are important, in the end it’s important what you need to do with your data. If a standard gets in your way, how is that helpful? Don’t expect a standard query language for document databases any time soon. They all solve different types of problems in different ways, and they don’t intend to hide that from you with a standard query language. If on the other hand, all you need is a dynamic language for doing ad-hoc queries, check out MongoDB.

Normalized Data is a Myth

I learned a lot in uni about all the different kinds of normalization. It just sounded so nice in theory. Model your data upfront, then normalize the hell out of it, until it’s as DRY as the desert.

So far so good. I noticed one thing in practice: Normalized data almost never worked out. Why? Because you need to duplicate data, even in e-commerce applications, an area that’s traditionally mentioned as an example where relational databases are going strong.

Denormalizing data is simply a natural step. Going back to the e-commerce example, you need to store a lot of things separately when someone places an order: Shipping and billing address, payment data used, product price and taxes, and so on. Should you do it all over the place? Of course not, not even in a document database. Even they encourage storing similar data to a certain extent, and with some of them, it’s simply a must. But you’re free to make these decisions on your own. They’re not implying you need to stop normalizing, it still makes sense, even in a document database.

Schemaless is not Schemaless

But there’s one important thing denormalization is not about, something that’s being brought up quite frequently and misunderstood easily. Denormalization doesn’t mean you’re not thinking about any kind of schema. While the word schemaless is brought up regularly, schemaless is simply not schemaless.

Of course you’ll end up with having documents of the same type, with a similar set of attributes. Some tools, for instance MongoDB, even encourage (if not force) you to store different types of documents in different collections. But here’s the kicker, I deliberately used the word similar. They don’t need to be all the same across all documents. One document can have a specific attribute, the other doesn’t. If it doesn’t, just assume it’s empty, it’s that easy. If it needs to be filled at some point, write data lazily, so that your schema eventually is complete again. It’s evolving naturally, which does sound easy, but in practice requires more logic in your application to catch these corner cases.

So instead of running migrations that add new tables and columns, and in the end pushing around your data, you migrate the data on the next access, whether that’s a read or a write is up to your particular use case. In the end you simply migrate data, not your schema. The schema will evolve eventually, but first and foremost, it’s about the data, not the constraints they live in. The funny thing: In larger projects, I ended up doing the same thing with a relational database. It’s just easier to do and gentler on the load than running a huge batch job on a production database.

No Joins, No Dice

No document database supports joins, simple like that. If you need joins, you have two options: Use a database that supports joins, or adapt your documents so that they remove the need for joins.

Documents have one powerful advantage: It’s easy to embed other documents. If there’s data you’d usually fetch using a join, and that’d be suitable for embedding (and therefore oftentimes: denormalizing), there’s your second option. Going back to the e-commerce example: Whereas in a relational database you’d need a lot of extra tables to keep that data around (unless you’re serializing it into single column), in a document database you just add it as embedded data to the order document. You have all the important data one in place, and you’re able to fetch it in one go. Someone said that relational databases are a perfect fit for e-commerce. Funny, I’ve worked on a market platform, and I’ve found that to be a ludicrous statement. I’d have benefited from a loser data storage several times, joins be damned.

It’s not always viable, sure, and it’d be foolish to stick with a document database if that’s an important criterion for your particular use case, then no dice. It’s relational data storage or bust.

Of course there’s secret option number three, which is to just ignore the problem until it’s a problem, just by going with a document database and see how you go, but obviously that doesn’t come without risks. It’s worth noticing though that Riak supports links between documents, and even fetching linked documents together with the parent in one request. In CouchDB on the other hand, you can emit linked documents in views. You can’t be fully selective about the document data you’re interested in, but if all you want is fetch linked documents, there is one or two ways to do that. Also, graph databases have made it their main focus to make traversal of associated documents an incredibly cheap operation. Something your relational database is pretty bad at.

Documents killed my Model

There’s this myth that you just stop thinking about how to model your data with document databases or key-value storage. That myth is downright wrong. Just because you’re using schemaless storage doesn’t mean you stop thinking about your data, quite the opposite, you think even more about it, and in different ways, because you simply have more options to model and store it. Embedding documents is a nice luxury to have, but isn’t always the right way to go, just like normalizing the crap out of a schema isn’t always the way to go.

It’s a matter of discipline, but so is relational modelling. You can make a mess of a document database just like you can make a mess of a relational database. When you migrate data on the fly in a document database, there’s more responsibility in your hands, and it requires good care with regards to testing. The same is true for keeping track of data consistency. It’s been moved from the database into your application’s code. Is that a bad thing? No, it’s a sign of the times. You’re in charge of your data, it’s not your database’s task anymore to ensure it’s correct and valid, it’s yours. With great power comes great responsibility, but I sure like that fact about document databases. It’s something I’ve been missing a lot when working with relational databases: The freedom to do whatever the heck I want with my data.

Read vs. Write Patterns

I just like including this simply because it always holds true, no matter what kind of database you’re using. If you’re not thinking about how you’re going to access your data with both reads and writes, you should do something about that. In the end, your schema should reflect your business use case, but what good is that when it’s awkward to access the data, when it takes joins across several tables to fetch the data you’re interested in?

If you need to denormalize to improve read access, go for it, but be aware of the consequences. A schema is easy to build up, migrating on the go, but if document databases force you to do one thing, and one thing only, it’s to think about how you’re reading and writing your data. It’s safe to say that you’re not going to figure it all out upfront, but you’re encouraged to put as much effort into it as you can. When you find out you’re wrong down the line, you might be surprised to find that they make it even easier to change paths.

Do your Homework

Someone recently wrote a blog post on why he went back to MySQL from MongoDB, and one of his reasons was that it doesn’t support transactions. While this is a stupid argument to bring up in hindsight, it makes one thing clear: You need to do research yourself, noone’s going to do it for you. If you don’t want to live up to that, use the tools you’re familiar with, no harm done.

It should be pretty clear up front what your business use case requires, and what tools may or may not support you in fulfilling these requirements. Not all tool providers are upfront about all the downsides, but hey, neither was MySQL. Read up, try and learn. That’s the only thing you can do, and noone will do it for you. Nothing has changed here, it’s simply becoming more obvious, because you suddenly have a lot more options to work with.

Polyglot Data Storage

Which brings me to the most important part of them all: Document databases (and alternative, non-relational data stores in general) are not here to replace relational databases. They’re living alongside of them, with both sides hopefully somewhat learning from each other. Your projects won’t be about just one database any more, it’s not unlikely you’re going to end up using two or more, for different use cases.

Polyglot persistence is the future. If there’s one thing I’m certain of, this is it. Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that their database is the only one you’ll need, they all have their place. The hard part is to figure out what place that is. Again, that’s up to you to find out. People ask me for particular use cases for non-relational databases, but honestly, there is no real distinction. Without knowing the tools, you’ll never find out what the use cases are. Other people can just give you ideas, or talk about how they’re using the tools, they can’t draw the line for you.

Back to the Future

You shouldn’t think of it as something totally new, document databases just don’t hide these things from you. Lots of the things I mentioned here are things you should be doing anyway, no matter if you’re using a relational or a non-relational data store. They should be common sense really. We’re not trying to repeat what went wrong in history, we’re learning from it.

If there’s one thing you should do, it’s to start playing with one of the new tools immediately. I shouldn’t even be telling you this, since you should hone your craft all the time, and that includes playing the field and broadening your personal and professional horizon. Only then will you be able to judge what use case is a good fit for e.g. a document database. I’d highly suggest starting to play with e.g. CouchDB, MongoDB, Riak or Redis.