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Neo4j for PHP

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Note: I've put a lot of effort into Neo4jPHP since this post was written. It's pretty full-featured and covers almost 100% of the Neo4j REST interface. Anyone interested in playing with Neo4j from PHP should definitely check it out. I would love some feedback!

Lately, I've been playing around with the graph database Neo4j and its application to certain classes of problems. Graph databases are meant to solve problems in domains where data relationships can be multiple levels deep. For example, in a relational database, it's very easy to answer the question "Give me a list of all actors who have been in a movie with Kevin Bacon":

> desc roles;
| Field       | Type         | Null | Key | Default | Extra          |
| id          | int(11)      | NO   | PRI | NULL    | auto_increment |
| actor_name  | varchar(100) | YES  |     | NULL    |                |
| role_name   | varchar(100) | YES  |     | NULL    |                |
| movie_title | varchar(100) | YES  |     | NULL    |                |

> SELECT actor_name, role_name FROM roles WHERE movie_title IN (SELECT DISTINCT movie_title FROM roles WHERE actor_name='Kevin Bacon')

Excuse my use of sub-queries (re-write it to a JOIN in your head if you wish.)

But suppose you want to get the names of all the actors who have been in a movie with someone who has been in a movie with Kevin Bacon. Suddenly, you have yet another JOIN against the same table. Now add a third degree: someone who has been in a movie with someone who has been in a movie with someone who has been in a movie with Kevin Bacon. As you continue to add degrees, the query becomes increasingly unwieldy, harder to maintain, and less performant.

This is precisely the type of problem graph databases are meant to solve: finding paths between pieces of data that may be one or more relationships removed from each other. They solve it very elegantly by modeling domain objects as graph nodes and edges (relationships in graph db parlance) and then traversing the graph using well-known and efficient algorithms.

The above example can be very easily modeled this way: every actor is a node, every movie is a node, and every role is a relationship going from the actor to the movie they were in:

Now it becomes very easy to find a path from a given actor to Kevin Bacon.

Neo4j is an open source graph database, with both community and enterprise licensing structures. It supports transactions and can handle billions of nodes and relationships in a single instance. It was originally built to be embedded in Java applications, and most of the documentation and examples are evidence of that. Unfortunately, there is no native PHP wrapper for talking to Neo4j.

Luckily, Neo4j also has a built-in REST server and PHP is very good at consuming REST services. There's already a good Neo4j REST PHP library out there, but I decided to write my own to get a better understanding of how the REST interface actually works. You can grab it here and all the code examples below are written using it. The concepts can easily be ported to any Neo4j REST client.

First, we need to initialize a connection to the database. Since this is a REST interface, there is no persistent connection, and in fact, no data communication happens until the first time we need to read or write data:

use Everyman\Neo4j\Client,

$client = new Client(new Transport('localhost', 7474));

Now we need to create a node for each of our actors and movies. This is analogous to the INSERT statements used to enter data into a traditional RDBMS:

$keanu = new Node($client);
$keanu->setProperty('name', 'Keanu Reeves')->save();
$laurence = new Node($client);
$laurence->setProperty('name', 'Laurence Fishburne')->save();
$jennifer = new Node($client);
$jennifer->setProperty('name', 'Jennifer Connelly')->save();
$kevin = new Node($client);
$kevin->setProperty('name', 'Kevin Bacon')->save();

$matrix = new Node($client);
$matrix->setProperty('title', 'The Matrix')->save();
$higherLearning = new Node($client);
$higherLearning->setProperty('title', 'Higher Learning')->save();
$mysticRiver = new Node($client);
$mysticRiver->setProperty('title', 'Mystic River')->save();

Each node has `setProperty` and `getProperty` methods that allow storing arbitrary data on the node. No server communication happens until the `save()` call, which must be called for each node.

Linking an actor to a movie means setting up a relationship between them. In RDBMS terms, the relationship takes the place of a join table or a foreign key column. In the example, the relationship always starts with the actor pointing to the movie, and is tagged as an "acted in" type relationship:

$keanu->relateTo($matrix, 'IN')->save();
$laurence->relateTo($matrix, 'IN')->save();

$laurence->relateTo($higherLearning, 'IN')->save();
$jennifer->relateTo($higherLearning, 'IN')->save();

$laurence->relateTo($mysticRiver, 'IN')->save();
$kevin->relateTo($mysticRiver, 'IN')->save();

The `relateTo` call returns a Relationship object, which is like a node in that it can have arbitrary properties stored on it. Each relationship is also saved to the database.

The direction of the relationship is totally arbitrary; paths can be found regardless of which direction a relationship points. You can use whichever semantics make sense for your problem domain. In the example above, it makes sense that an actor is "in" a movie, but it could just as easily be phrased that a movie "has" an actor. The same two nodes can have multiple relationships to each other, with different directions, types and properties.

The relationships are all set up, and now we are ready to find links between any actor in our system and Kevin Bacon. Note that the maximum length of the path is going to be 12 (6 degrees of separation multiplied by 2 nodes for each degree; an actor node and a movie node.)

$path = $keanu->findPathsTo($kevin)

foreach ($path as $i => $node) {
    if ($i % 2 == 0) {
        echo $node->getProperty('name');
        if ($i+1 != count($path)) {
            echo " was in\n";
    } else {
        echo "\t" . $node->getProperty('title') . " with\n";

A path is an ordered array of nodes. The nodes alternate between being actor and movie nodes.

You can also do the typical "find all the related movies" type queries:

echo $laurence->getProperty('name') . " was in:\n";
$relationships = $laurence->getRelationships('IN');
foreach ($relationships as $relationship) {
    $movie = $relationship->getEndNode();
    echo "\t" . $movie->getProperty('title') . "\n";

`getRelationships` returns an array of all relationships that a node has, optionally limiting to only relationships of a given type. It is also possible to specify only incoming or outgoing relationships. We've set up our data so that all 'IN' relationships are from an actor to a movie, so we know that the end node of any 'IN' relationship is a movie.

There is more available in the REST interface, including node and relationship indexing, querying, and traversal (which allows more complicated path finding behaviors.) Transaction/batch operation support over REST is marked "experimental" for now. I'm hoping to add wrappers for more of this functionality soon. I'll also be posting more on the different types of problems that can be solved very elegantly with graphing databases.

The next post dives into a bit more detail about path-finding and some of the different algorithms available. 

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