Beyond SQL and Database Technology

People have been thinking about databases recently. Even I've been thinking about databases, and I'm not particularly prone to thinking about databases. It's fair given the ongoing drama of the Oracle/Sun, and even mainstream press of the NoSQL Movement. I'd like to take a step back and think a bit more honestly and holistically about the database application, aboth this "NoSQL" phenomena, and about the evolving role of relational database management systems in our technology "ecosystems."

(Seriously folks this is what I think about for fun in my free time.)

I've been milling over the notion that databases, like MySQL and PostgreSQL and Oracle's RDBM products, are not particularly "Unix-like." Sure they run on Unix systems, and look and feel like Unix applications, but the niche fulfill--providing quick access to structured data with a specialized query language, doesn't jive with the Unix philosophies: small specialized tools for precise tasks. "Plain text" as lingua franca of system tools, and so forth.

Databases solve a problem. Indeed they solve a problem in a very functional and workable manner. I don't want to suggest that the relational database model is somehow broken; however, I would like to suggest that industrial strength database systems are over utilized, and have become the go-to solution for storing and interacting with data of any kind, even in cases where they're not a good fit for the job at hand.

I'm not the first person to suggest this, not by a long shot. The NoSQL "movement," addresses this issue from a couple different direction. It's true that NoSQL refers to a collection of practices and approaches related to providing systems for storing data that goes above and beyond the type and model of a database system. In the end NoSQL is about addressing the scaling problem: what happens when we have so much data that it can't easily fit in one database system, or in situations where centralized model is untmaintable for any number of reasons. I think NoSQL is also relevant as we think about storing data that doesn't easily fit into RDBMs'es: I've seen a lot of very poorly architected database systems, that suffer from a "square peg in round hole" problem.

Indeed, as we try and put all of our data in these RDBMs systems, particularly data that doesn't fit very well, these databases loose their ability to scale. The complex logic required to pull more complex data back out of a database and reassemble it for use and analysis is computationally expensive and doesn't scale particularly well.

But let's focus for a moment on the scaling question, apart from the data modeling and storage question. The real problem at the core of the scaling question is: we need a way, a thing, that allows multiple systems to access a shared data store in a reliable and consistent manner.

The ongoing work around clustered file systems seems to address this issue from a much different direction, and perhaps a more interesting perspective. Beyond a certain point--and its a fuzzy point--database systems basically become file system replacements. So rather than work on making databases more like file systems, the thought is (I assume) lets make file systems a bit more "database like." Like I said, I don't know a lot about the ins-and-outs of clustered file systems, but I think, in addition to worrying and thinking the future of current database systems, we need to also think about the future of these very scalable and clustered manner.

I'm not sure what the next-generation data storage technology really looks like, the NoSQL stuff is a step in the right direction, but I'm not sure if it's a large enough step in a lot of ways, as its focus is a bit narrow. To be honest, I'm not incredibly familiar with the work that's going on in the clustered file system space. Nonetheless, I think it's important to not just think about the future of the relational database platforms as such, but the model and the underlying problems that these kinds of data storage methods address, and to think about other possible ways of addressing the original issues.

comments powered by Disqus