The rise of NoSQL is an opportunity for new RDBMS solutions

written by Francis Pelland on July 18, 2014 with no comments

It should come as no surprise that NoSQL has become popular over the past few years. This popularity has been driven in large part by the app revolution. Many new apps are hitting millions of users in less than a week, some in a day. This presents a scaling problem for app developers who seek a large audience.

Scaling a typical RDBMS system like MySQL or MS SQL Server from 0 to 1 million users has never been easy.  You have to setup master and slave servers, shard and balance the data, and ensure you have resources in place for any unexpected events. NoSQL is being touted as the solution to those problems. It shouldn’t be.

NoSQL’s use cases have been mistakenly focused on scalability because of the complexities of putting up an RDBMS and scaling it. Application developers aren’t necessarily interested in becoming server side wizards.  They prefer to focus on building out their apps, not scaling the servers powering those apps.  These developers are looking for something low cost that can keep up with their needs as they grow. Developers have flocked to NoSQL for these very reasons.

However, when developers look to grow their apps and introduce more complex functionality, they sometimes hit roadblocks due to the way data is stored in NoSQL.  A solution to one of those roadblocks is MapReduce.  MapReduce brings index-like functionality to NoSQL.

My goal isn’t to dispute the importance of NoSQL, but to promote the reality that not all database systems are alike – many serve their specific purposes. NoSQL’s benefits are to bring terrific key-value access with great performance.  To some the lack of schema is a benefit that allows the application to control how the data is stored, limiting the need to interface with and configure the database.

Over the years I’ve been looking to put up products that need RDBMS-like storage that scales. NoSQL just couldn’t do it for me.  Many would agree, but do not know of anything better. Lucky for me, I found VoltDB. To this day, sales people continue to contact me to use their NoSQL solution. I ask: How can NoSQL solve my problems? Are you ACID compliant? How can I merge data from multiple tables? How can I use my data to build out analytics? Most of the time, the sales teams can only sell me on one problem, scaling. They often forget that I have to sacrifice functionality to solve my scaling problems. One should never have to compromise.

If NoSQL is known for scale, how well does VoltDB do it? A picture is worth a thousand, or in this case, a million words.

VoltDB Benchmarks from May 2013

VoltDB benchmarks from May 2013.

The chart above shows VoltDB achieving 1m transactions per second (it’s a 1 year-old benchmark). Place this benchmark next to the top NoSQL solutions and you will find yourself with an equal or better performing solution.  Best of all, VoltDB does it without sacrificing the common features we need from relational database systems.

The switch from a traditional database like MySQL or MS SQL Server to VoltDB is simple and can often be measured in hours or days.  A switch from a traditional RDBMS to NoSQL on the other hand is likely to be measured in weeks, days if you are lucky.

VoltDB is a NewSQL solution. NewSQL is a term used to avoid the poor scaling stigmata attributed to RDBMS or typical SQL solutions.

NewSQL’s solution solves today’s data problems without creating new complexities.  Ever heard of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole? NoSQL is that square peg, and it is doing its best to go through that round hole by solving scaling problems with a different solution, causing new complexities. Complexities that arise when trying pulling complex data sets for analytic purposes, adding BI support, updating schema, or normalizing data.

Many of today’s biggest companies, including Twitter, use NoSQL systems. Had NewSQL been around when they had issues scaling would the problem still be solved with NoSQL? Chances are NewSQL would also be their solution. NewSQL builds on the decades of research and innovation attributed to relational databases. They have matured and have been solving many of the world’s most complex data problems.

In case this argument for NewSQL doesn’t quite bring it home for you, I will be writing another article supported by detailed use cases. Until then, please let me know what you think here or on Twitter @francispelland.