Wednesday 20 March 2013

NoSQL Journey

NoSQL has been a hot topic for a lot of people. There has been lots of things that I have learnt about their architecture and how distributed systems are built. Why was it that other companies started looking at other solutions?

Why NoSQL?

The story is a typical that I think we can all relate to. As data and transaction volumes started to grow, companies realised that they needed to scale their solutions.

So companies tried to address these challenges by trying to make it fit the relational model:

  1. Add more hardware or upgraded to faster hardware.
  2. Simplifying database schema, denormalising the schema, relaxing durability and referential integrity.
  3. Introducing various query caching layers, separating read-only from write-dedicated replicas.

These solutions drove the rise of what is now known as NoSQL. Scaling these kind of solutions we need to think about them in a different way. To understand large-scale distributed systems we need to understand the CAP theorem.

Brewer’s CAP Theorem

The theorem states that within a large-scale distributed data system, there are three requirements that have a relationship of sliding dependency: Consistency, Availability, and Partition Tolerance.

Consistency – All database clients will read the same value for the same query, even given con- current updates.
Availability – All database clients will always be able to read and write data.
Partition Tolerance – The database can be split into multiple machines; it can continue functioning in the face of network segmentation breaks.

Brewer’s theorem states that in any given system, you can strongly support only two of the three. So the traditional relational databases focus of Consistency and Availability, while the NoSQL movement tends to focus more on the Availability and Partition-tolerance (this is tunable in some of the systems). Due to this focus the NoSQL systems are said to be eventually consistent.

Eventually Consistent

Basically the storage system guarantees that if no new updates are made to the object, eventually all accesses will return the last updated value. If no failures occur, the maximum size of the inconsistency window can be determined based on factors such as communication delays, the load on the system, and the number of replicas involved in the replication scheme. The most popular system that implements eventual consistency is DNS (Domain Name System). Updates to a name are distributed according to a configured pattern and in combination with time-controlled caches; eventually, all clients will see the update.

When we look at all lot of our data needs one starts to wonder whether you really need it to be available then and there. How many of us have degraded a system because we were logging everything to the same database? Logs are a great example of data that can be eventually consistent (obviously depending what you are logging)

As stated in this great blog Eventual Consistency By Example

We may sum up the eventual consistency model in the following statement:

Given a total number on T nodes, we choose a subset of N nodes for holding key/value replicas, arrange them in a preference list calling the top node "coordinator", and pick the minimum number of writes (W) and reads (R) that must be executed by the coordinator on nodes belonging to the preference list (including itself) in order to define the write and read as "successful".

Here are the key concepts, extracted from the statement above:

  • N is the number of nodes defining the number of replicas for a given key/value.
  • Those nodes are arranged in a preference list.
  • The node at the top of the preference list is called coordinator.
  • W is the minimum number of nodes where the write must be successfully replicated.
  • R is the minimum number of nodes where the read must be successfully executed.

More specifically, values for N, W and R can be tuned in order to:

  • Achieve high write availability by setting: W < N
  • Achieve high read availability by setting: R < N
  • Achieve full consistency by setting: W + R > N

Final Thoughts

Hopefully you can se how powerful this information is and it really gets you thinking about the way you design your systems. I look forward going thought each of the NoSQL databases and see how these topics apply to them.


  1. Hello Alex,
    Nice post. I'm planning on migrate a solution from relational to NoSQL architecture.

    Will follow you on your path and try to share my thoughs with you.

    1. Thanks I'm just as excited about the journey. Good luck with yours :)