A Basic Introduction to NoSQL

Recently the idea of a NoSQL solution for data storage has been gaining more and more momentum, but what does it actually mean? This article explains the meaning of NoSQL, the main types of NoSQL data stores, and when you would use each type. The overall message of the article is to choose the right data store for your data format.


The word “NoSQL” is commonly used to describe data stores which do not follow the conventional relational model. It first appeared in the 1990’s, used to describe a relational database management system (RDBMS) which did not use the SQL query language. In the present the term is used with a slightly different meaning, all apparently because of a twitter hashtag created for a single meeting in 2009 by Johan Oskarsson. When reading the word you would be tempted to think it means no SQL, however, the NoSQL communities prefer it to thought of as Not Only SQL, allowing scope for SQL like querying languages. So it seems NoSQL effectively means not relational, and actually is not a direct bashing of SQL.


So what types of NoSQL databases exist and what are the differences? Normally NoSQL databases are split into four key types: document, key-value, column and graph.


A key value database, as the name suggests, stores keys and values. Each value is associated with a key, and only the key can be queried. This is useful as there is no set schema for the data: a value can be anything. When using a RDBMS if the data you wish to store changes then there is likely to be a large amount of migration required, with a key value store this overhead is eliminated.

If you have ever made a mobile app for Android or iOS you are likely to have come across key value stores before without even realising. NSUserDefaults for iOS and SharedPreferences for Android are both key value stores. When you save a setting for an app in one of these stores you want to just give it a key and fetch it later, you don’t want to be messing around designing database schemas.

Things get complicated for a key value store when the value becomes complex, this is because the value cannot be queried meaning more and more information must be stored in the key, impacting performance. Key value stores therefore are best suited for less structured data, and are often used for caching.

Key Value


A document store can solve the problem of being unable to query the value within a key value store: by allowing you to query the value. Document stores are particularly good for two reasons.

  • Documents Can Contain Anything: There is again no hard schema for the contents of a document within a document store, although there will obviously be an implicit schema within the project context, defining what each type of document could contain. This is useful when the data you are storing has a lot of optional fields, which can’t easily or efficiently be modeled using a relational model.

  • Reducing Impedance Mismatch: If you have ever created a piece of software that interfaced with a datastore then you are likely to have built some sort of converter, to strip an Object within your program down to something that follows the relational model, and then another converter to convert it back again. This is called impedance mismatch, when the structure of an Object within your code does not match the structure of your data store, and conversions must be done. Of course, within most Object-Oriented languages there are classes, inheritance, and polymorphism, and with a RDBMS there is no way to model this. With a document store however the Object can be treated as an Aggregate, a single object. Martin Fowler shows a nice example of when a document database can be used to solve this problem, consider an invoice containing a customer ID, their bank information, and a list of items they have ordered. In the relational model this data would be stored across numerous tables as shown, in order to build an invoice all three of those tables must be queried and then the information put together in the correct way, with a document store the invoice is treated as an aggregate, meaning one query and less latency.



Column databases are kind of like 3D key value stores…take a key value store, and within the value have a key value store (I could make some lame inception pun here but will refrain). Each row key addresses whats called a “column family”, the column family is our aggregate. Each row can can address a different column family. This is a little more complex than the other models, but makes it easier to retrieve individual columns. Just like the document store this model means an Object (such as the invoice above) can be stored in one place and not across multiple records in multiple tables of a relational database.


Aggregate Oriented

The three categories of NoSQL database described above are often called aggregate orientated, as they all involve treating what would be, in a relational model, multiple records as one object. This makes sharding a hell of a lot easier than with an RDBMS. Aggregates can be grouped together so that instead of a single query needing to access multiple records, within multiple tables, on multiple nodes, everything can be done quickly by a single node in the cluster. This is what makes these NoSQL databases so horizontally scalable, and what prevents relational databases from being feasable for “Big Data”.


Graph databases are unlike the other types of NoSQL databases discussed here, in my programmer head I think of the other three as being at a higher level than an RDBMS, abstracting away complexity. I see a graph database as the opposite, digging deeper into the relationships between data. There are no aggregates with a graph database, nodes represent entities an edge between two nodes represents the relationship between them, both nodes and edges have properties. In the simple cases consider nodes which represent people, an edge between them could represent a friendship.

Graph database

The labels given to nodes are used for grouping, both “Tom” and “Jake” in the above diagram are of the same group, this aids querying as queries can be restricted to certain groups. A graph database is queried by traversing the graph, present the graph with an algorithm, for example if we wanted “all people that have friends over 21”, this identifies paths through the graph, of which nodes fitting the criteria can be returned.

Graph databases, unlike the other NoSQL databases are not normally as easily sharded across a cluster, as independent subgraphs are normally non existent. Data can however be structured so that the cuts in the graph (where the graph split between machines) are as small as possible, reducing the number of expensive traversals between machines in the cluster. One way to do this is to use a heuristic algorithm such as Kernighan-Lin, an algorithm originally designed to aid the splitting of tasks across multiple CPU cores.

So if it is difficult to shard a graph database across a cluster, why would you use one? The simple answer is that no other database format offers a way of easily representing relationships between entities. This is a powerful concept, it makes it incredibly easy to cluster similar data, imagine trying to find “all people that have friends over 21” in a relational database, it would be a pain. Graph databases like the other NoSQL databases are also schema-less, meaning adding new node types and identifying new relationships is easy and requires minimal migration.


In summary NoSQL databases can be awesome… providing you use the right one in the right place! They are not here to destroy the relational database model, but instead to work alongside it.

It’s important to consider the type of data you are storing and how it is going to be queried when deciding on the data store to use, if your data fits the relational model and will be queried as such, then use a RDBMS, if it doesn’t then don’t. The idea of polyglot persistence comes into play, using the right data for the right purpose in the right application: there is no one size fits all.