10 NoSQL Misconceptions by Adam Fowler

NoSQL is a rapidly evolving market with products undergoing constant change. Having so many NoSQL databases available is a double-edged sword. With so many differences out there, common misconceptions form and become lore.

NoSQL is a single type of database

NoSQL is a catch-all term for a variety of database types that exhibit common architectural approaches. These databases aren't intended for related table, rows, and columns data. They are highly distributed, which means data is spread across several servers, and they're tolerant of data structure changes (that is, they're schema agnostic).

You can find several types of databases under the NoSQL banner:

Key-value stores provide easy and fast storage of simple data through use of a key.

Column stores provide support for very wide tables but not for relationships between tables.

Document stores support JSON and/or XML hierarchical structures.

Triple (and graph) stores provide the same flexibility to relationships that document NoSQL databases provide to record structures.

NoSQL databases aren't ACID-compliant

ACID compliance is the gold standard of data safety. By ensuring that operations are atomic, views of data are consistent, operations don't interfere with each other, and data is durably saved to disk, you protect your data. People often think NoSQL databases do not provide ACID compliance.

ACID (atomicity, consistency, isolation, durability) is a set of properties of database transactions intended to guarantee data validity despite errors, power failures, and other mishaps. - Wikipedia

Many NoSQL databases provide full ACID support across clusters. MarkLogic Server, OrientDB, Aerospike, and Hypertable are all fully ACID-compliant, providing either fully serializable or read-commit ACID compliance.

Many other NoSQL databases can provide ACID-like consistency by using sensible settings in client code. This typically involves a Quorum or All setting for both read and write operations. These databases include Riak, MongoDB, and Microsoft DocumentDB.

NoSQL databases lose data

This misconception occurs when NoSQL databases are used incorrectly or when less mature products are used. Some NoSQL products are less mature, having only been around for fewer than five years, so they haven't developed data loss prevention features yet.

The guarantee of durability in ACID compliance is vital for enterprise systems, and ACID-compliant NoSQL databases provide this guarantee. Therefore, you're assured that no data is lost once the database confirms the data is saved.

Furthermore, eventually consistent databases can also provide data durability by careful use of a write ahead logging (WAL). Many NoSQL databases provide this capability.

NoSQL databases aren't ready for mission-critical enterprise applications

On the contrary, many organizations are using NoSQL databases for mission-critical workloads, including the following:

Defense and intelligence agencies storing and sharing information

Media companies storing all their digital assets for publication and purchasing in NoSQL databases

Media companies providing searchable metadata catalogs for their video and audio media

Banks using NoSQL databases as primary trade stores or back office anti-fraud and risk-assessment systems

Government agencies using NoSQL databases as the primary back ends for their health care systems

These are not small systems or simple caches for relational systems. They are cases for which NoSQL is well suited. Of course, some NoSQL databases are more ready for enterprise systems than others.

NoSQL databases aren't secure

Not so! Many NoSQL databases now provide record-level and even data-item-level (cell) security. Microsoft DocumentDB, MarkLogic Server, OrientDB, AllegroGraph, and Accumulo all provide fine-grained role-based access control (RBAC) to access records stored within these NoSQL databases.

Many NoSQL databases provide integration to existing Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP), Kerberos, and certificate-based security systems. Support for encryption over the wire in all client-to-server communications, and internode communications within a cluster, is also provided by these databases.

Some NoSQL databases are even accredited and used by defense organizations. Accumulo came from a National Security Agency (NSA) project. MarkLogic Server is independently accredited under the U.S. Department of Defense's (DoD) Common Criteria certification.

Not all NoSQL databases provide this functionality, though the majority of them probably will in the future. For now, you have choices that enable you to secure information.

All NoSQL databases are open-source

There are numerous open-source databases in the NoSQL world. Many commercial companies have attempted to replicate Red Hat's success by offering a subset of their products' capabilities to be used for free under an open-source license.

Many of these companies' platforms don't support open standards, though. Also, most of the code is contributed by those companies. Limited features are provided in the base version by these “open-source” companies.

There are many fully commercial companies in the NoSQL space. Microsoft, MarkLogic, Franz (Allegrograph), Hypertable, and Aerospike are all great commercial companies offering NoSQL databases, and they're being very successful doing so.

NoSQL databases are only for Web 2.0 applications

Their use in new web and mobile application stacks have made NoSQL databases popular. They're easy to use from the start, and many operate under a for-free license agreement, making them attractive to startups.

Social media applications commonly use NoSQL databases. Social media applications bring in web published data and aggregate it together in order to discover valuable information.

The vast majority of use cases, though, aren't Web 2.0-type applications. They're the same applications that have been around a long time, but where relational databases no longer provide an adequate solution. This includes scenarios where the data being stored is very sparse, with many blank (null) values, or where there is frequent change over time of the structure of the information being stored.

NoSQL is just hype

Microsoft, Oracle, and IBM each have their own NoSQL database on the market right now. Although susceptible to bluster, these companies invest in technology only when they see a profit.

Established players like MarkLogic with years on the market have also proved that NoSQL technology isn't just hype and is valuable to a range of real-world customers across industries in mission-critical systems.

NoSQL developers don't understand how to use an RDBMS

There is a common misconception (by evil relational database application developers; you know who you are!) that NoSQL is used because developers don't have a grasp on the fundamentals needed to configure relational databases so that they perform well.

This is completely incorrect. NoSQL comprises a range of approaches brought together to answer fundamentally different data problems than a relational database management system (RDBMS) solves.

If you're comparing an RDBMS to a NoSQL database, then you're comparing apples to motorbikes! NoSQL databases will not replace RDBMS. They are intended for data that's structured fundamentally different, as well as for different data problems.

Updated RDBMS technology will remove the need for NoSQL

Many of the highly distributed approaches of NoSQL are being blended with RDBMS technology, which has resulted in the emergence of many NewSQL databases.

Although NewSQL is helping to deal with NoSQL developers' criticisms of RDBMS technology, NewSQL is organized around the same data structures as an RDBMS is.

NoSQL databases are for different data problems, with different data structures and use cases.

About the Book Author

Adam Fowler is a principal sales engineer with MarkLogic, Inc. He has previously worked for IPK, FileNet, and IBM as well as smaller companies. Adam writes for and runs a popular blog on NoSQL and big data, which is republished on He's a frequent speaker at NoSQL conferences.

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