Choosing the right NoSQL database

Relational databases dominated the software industry for a long time and are very mature with mechanisms such as redundancy, transaction control and standard interfaces. However, they were initially only able to react moderately to higher demands on scalability and performance. Thus, from the beginning of 2010, the term NoSQL was increasingly used to describe new types of databases that better met these requirements.

NoSQL databases should solve the following problems:

  • Bridging the internal data structure of the application and the relational data structure of the database.
  • Moving away from the integration of a wide variety of data structures into a uniform data model.
  • The growing amount of data increasingly required clusters for data storage

Aggregated data models

Relational database modelling is very different from the types of data structures that application developers use. The use of data structures modelled by developers to solve different problem domains has led to a move away from relational modelling towards aggregate models. Most of this is inspired by Domain Driven Design. An aggregate is a collection of data that we interact with as a unit. These aggregates form the boundaries for ACID operations, where Key Values, Documents and Column Family can be seen as forms of an aggregator-oriented database.

Aggregates make it easier for the database to manage data storage on a cluster, as the data unit can now be on any computer. Aggregator-oriented databases work best when most data interactions are performed with the same aggregate, e.g. when a profile needs to be retrieved with all its details. It is better to store the profile as an aggregation object and use these aggregates to retrieve profile details.

Distribution models

Aggregator-oriented databases facilitate the distribution of data because the distribution mechanism only has to move the aggregate and doesn’t have to worry about related data, since all related data is contained in the aggregate itself. There are two main types of data distribution:

Sharding distributes different data across multiple servers so that each server acts as a single source for a subset of data.

Replication copies data across multiple servers so that the same data can be found in multiple locations. Replication takes two forms:

Master-slave replication makes one node the authoritative copy, processing writes, while slaves are synchronised with the master and may process reads.

Peer-to-peer replication allows writes to any node. Nodes coordinate to synchronise their copies of the data.

Master-slave replication reduces the likelihood of update conflicts, but peer-to-peer replication avoids writing all operations to a single server, thus avoiding a single point of failure. A system can use one or both techniques.

CAP Theorem

In distributed systems, the following three aspects are important:

  • Consistency
  • Availability
  • Partition tolerance

Eric Brewer has established the CAP theorem, which states that in any distributed system we can only choose two of the three options. Many NoSQL databases try to provide options where a setup can be chosen to set up the database according to your requirements. For example, if you consider Riak as a distributed key-value database, there are essentially the three variables

Number of nodes to respond to a read request before it is considered successful
number of nodes to respond to a write request before it is considered successful
Number of nodes on which the data is replicated, also called replication factor

In a Riak cluster with 5 nodes, we can adjust the values for r, w and n so that the system is very consistent by setting r = 5 and w = 5. However, by doing this we have made the cluster vulnerable to network partitions, as no write is possible if only one node is not responding. We can make the same cluster highly available for writes or reads by setting r = 1 and w = 1. However, now consistency may be affected as some nodes may not have the latest copy of the data. The CAP theorem states that when you get a network partition, you have to balance the availability of data against the consistency of data. Durability can also be weighed against latency, especially if you want to survive failures with replicated data.

Often with relational databases you needed little understanding of these requirements; now they become important again. So you may have been used to using transactions in relational databases. In NoSQL databases, however, these are no longer available to you and you have to think about how they should be implemented. Does the writing have to be transaction-safe? Or is it acceptable for data to be lost from time to time? Finally, sometimes an external transaction manager like ZooKeeper can be helpful.

Different types of NoSQL databases

NoSQL databases can be roughly divided into four types:

Key-value databases

Key-value databases are the simplest NoSQL data stores from an API perspective. The client can either retrieve the value for the key, enter a value for a key or delete a key from the data store. The value is a blob that the datastore just stores without caring or knowing what is inside. It is solely the responsibility of the application to understand what has been stored. Because key-value databases always use primary key access, they generally have high performance and can be easily scaled.

Some of the most popular key-value databases are

Riak KV
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Berkeley DB
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You need to choose them carefully as there are big differences between them. For example, while Riak stores data persistently, Memcached usually does not.

Document databases

These databases store and retrieve documents, which may be XML, JSON, BSON, etc. These documents are hierarchical tree data structures that can consist of maps, collections and scalar values. Document databases provide rich query languages and constructs such as databases, indexes, etc. that allow for an easier transition from relational databases.

Some of the most popular document databases are

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Column Family Stores

These databases store data in column families as rows assigned to a row key. They are excellent for groups of related data that are frequently accessed together. For example, this could be all of a person’s profile information, but not their activities.

While each Column Family can be compared to the row in an RDBMS table where the key identifies the row and the row consists of multiple columns, in Column Family Stores the different rows do not have to have the same columns.

Some of the most popular Column Family Stores are

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Cassandra can be described as fast and easily scalable because writes are distributed across the cluster. The cluster does not have a master node, so reads and writes can be performed by any node in the cluster.

Graph database

In graph databases you can store entities with certain properties and relationships between these entities. Entities are also called nodes. Think of a node as an instance of an object in an application; relationships can then be called edges, which can also have properties and are directed.

Graph models
Labeled Property Graph
In a labelled property graph, both nodes and edges can have properties.
Resource Description Framework (RDF)
In RDF, graphs are represented using triples. A triple consists of three elements in the form node-edge-node subject --predicate-> object, which are defined as resources in the form of a globally unique URI or as an anonymous resource. In order to be able to manage different graphs within a database, these are stored as quads, whereby a quad extends each triple by a reference to the associated graph. Building on RDF, a vocabulary has been developed with RDF Schema to formalise weak ontologies and furthermore to describe fully decidable ontologies with the Web Ontology Language.

Important algorithms for querying nodes and edges are:

Breadth-first search, depth-first search
Breadth-first search (BFS) is a method for traversing the nodes of a graph. In contrast to depth-first search (DFS), all nodes that can be reached directly from the initial node are traversed first. Only then are subsequent nodes traversed.
Shortest path
Path between two different nodes of a graph, which has minimum length with respect to an edge weight function.
In linear algebra, a vector different from the zero vector, whose direction is not changed by the mapping. An eigenvector is therefore only scaled and the scaling factor is called the eigenvalue of the mapping.
Query languages
a Java API for property graphs that can be used together with various graph databases.
a query language developed by Neo4j.
an SQL-like query language
an open source graph programming language that can be used with various graph databases (Neo4j, OrientDB).
query language specified by the W3C for RDF data models.
Distinction from relational databases

When we want to store graphs in relational databases, this is usually only done for specific conditions, e.g. for relationships between people. Adding more types of relationships then usually involves many schema changes.

In graph databases, traversing the links or relationships is very fast because the relationship between nodes doesn’t have to be calculated at query time.

Some of the most popular graph databases are

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Selecting the NoSQL database

What all NoSQL databases have in common is that they don’t enforce a particular schema. Unlike strong-schema relational databases, schema changes do not need to be stored along with the source code that accesses those changes. Schema-less databases can tolerate changes in the implied schema, so they do not require downtime to migrate; they are therefore especially popular for systems that need to be available 24/7.

But how do we choose the right NoSQL database from so many? In the following we can only give you some general criteria:

Key-value databases
are generally useful for storing sessions, user profiles and settings. However, if relationships between the stored data are to be queried or multiple keys are to be edited simultaneously, we would avoid key-value databases.
Document databases
are generally useful for content management systems and e-commerce applications. However, we would avoid using document databases if complex transactions are required or multiple operations or queries are to be made for different aggregate structures.
Column Family Stores
are generally useful for content management systems, and high volume writes such as log aggregation. We would avoid using Column Family Stores databases that are in early development and whose query patterns may still change.
Graph databases
are well suited for problem areas where we need to connect data such as social networks, geospatial data, routing information as well as recommender system.


The rise of NoSQL databases did not lead to the demise of relational databases. They can coexist well. Often, different data storage technologies are used to store the data to match your structure and required query.