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The NOSQL Debate

I have attended the Stanford InfoLab conference, and there are 2 panel discussions in Cloud computing transaction processing and analytic processing.

The session turns out to be a debate between people from the academia side with the open source developer. Both sides have their points ...

Background of RDBMS


RDBMS is based on a clear separation between application logic and data management. This loose coupling allows application and DB technologies to be evolved independently.

This philosophy drives the DBMS architecture to be more general in order to support a wide range of applications. Over many years of evolution, it has a well-defined data model + query model based on relational algebra. On the other hand, it also have a well-defined transaction processing model.

On the other hand, applications also benefit from having a unified data model. They have more freedom to switch their DB vendor without too much of code changes.

For OLTP applications, the RDBMS model has been proven to be highly successful in many large enterprises. The success of both Oracle and MySQL can speak to that.

For Analytic applications, the RDBMS model is also used widely for implementing data warehousing based on a STAR schema model (composed of Facts table and Dimension tables).

This model also put DBA into a very important position in the enterprise. They are equipped with sophisticated management tools and specialized knowledge to control the commonly shared DB schema.

Background of NOSQL


In the last 10 years, there are a very few of highly successful web2.0 companies whose applications have gone beyond what a centralized RDBMS can handle. Partition data across many servers and spread the workload across them seems to be a reasonable first thing to try. Many RDBMS solution provides a Master/Slave replication mechanism where one can spread the READ-ONLY workload across many servers, and it helps.

In a partitioned environment, application needs to be more tolerant to data integrity issues, especially when data is asynchronously replicated between servers. The famous CAP theorem from Eric Brewer capture the essence of the tradeoff decisions for highly scalable applications (which must have partition tolerance), they have to choose between "Consistency" and "Availability".

Fortunately, most of these web-scale application have a high tolerance in data integrity, so they choose "availability" over "consistency". This is a very major deviation from the transaction processing model of RDBMS which typically weight "consistency" much higher than "availability".

On the other hand, the data structure used in these web-scale application (e.g. user profile, preference, social graph ... etc) are much richer than the simple row/column/table model. Some of the operations involves navigation within a large social graph which involves too many join operations in a RDBMS model.

The "higher tolerance of data integrity" as well as "efficiency support for rich data structure" challenges some of the very fundamental assumption of RDBMS. Amazon has experimented their large scale key/value store called Dynamo and Google also has their BigTable column-oriented storage model, both are designed from the ground up with a distributed architecture in mind.

Since then, there are many open source clones based on these two models. To represent the movement of this trend, Eric Evans from Rackspace coin a term "NOSQL". This term in my opinion is not accurately reflecting the underlying technologies but nevertheless provide a marketing term for every non RDBMS technologies to get together, even those (e.g. CouchDB, Neo4j) who is not originally trying to tackle the scalability problem.

Today, NOSQL provides an alternative approach for Non-Relational Database.

For analytical application, they also take a highly-parallel brute-force processing model based on the Map/reduce model.

The Debate


There are relatively few criticism on the data model aspects. Jun Rao from IBM Lab summarized the key difference between the philosophy. The traditional RDBMS approach is first to figure out the right model, and then provide an implementation and hope it is scalable. The modern NOSQL approach is doing the opposite by first figuring out how a highly scalable architecture looks like and then layer a data model on top of that. Basically people on both camps agree that we should use a data model that is optimized for the application's access patterns, weakening the "one-size-fits-all" philosophy of RDBMS.

Most of the debate is centered around the transaction processing model itself. Basically RDBMS proponents thinks NOSQL camp hasn't spent enough time to understand the theoretical foundation of the transaction processing model. The new "eventual consistency" model is not well-defined and different implementations may differs significantly with each other. This means figuring out all these inconsistent behavior lands on the application developer's responsibilities and make their life much harder. Hard to reason about the DB's behavior can be very dangerous if the application made wrong assumption about the underlying data integrity guarantees.

While agree that application developers now have more to worry about, the NOSQL camp argues that this is actually a benefit because it gives the domain-specific optimization opportunities back to the application developers who now no longer constrained by a one-size-fits-all model. But they admit that making such optimization decision requires a lot of experience and can be very error-prone and dangerous if not done by experts.

On the other hand, the academia also make a note that the movement to NOSQL may deem fashionable and cool to new technologists who may not have the expertise and skills. The community as a whole should articular the pros and cons of NOSQL.

Notice that this is not the debate of the first time. StoneBraker has written a very good article from the RDBMS side.

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