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<NoSQL: Breaking free of structured data ⁄ >

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As companies use the Web to build new applications, and as the amount of data generated by them increases, they are reaching the limits of traditional relational databases. A set of alternatives, grouped under the umbrella label NoSQL (for not only SQL), has become more popular and a number of notable use cases, including social networking giants Facebook and Twitter, are leading the way in this arena.

Some of the datasets are enormous: for example, when Visa was looking to process two years' worth of credit card transactions -- some 70 billion of them, -- they turned to a NoSQL solution and were able to cut their processing time from a solid month using traditional relational solutions to just 13 minutes.

So what is NoSQL and why should you bother? SQL (for Structured Query Language) has been around for decades and has plenty of benefits. It's great for centrally managed database schemas, easy ad hoc queries, and data that can be indexed and normalized. There are lots of integrated SQL development environments, reporting tools, and ways to extract, import and transform SQL databases, and SQL has been taught to thousands of software engineers. Most SQL databases can easily run on common Intel hardware with RAM and disk storage in reasonable amounts (250 GB and 1 TB, respectively, are about right).

But SQL also has its limits, especially when you consider how modern Web apps are built. They have to perform and scale well, and handle large collections of documents and odd kinds of data -- and none of that plays to SQL's strengths. Think of your standard SQL database as a series of tables. Each row is a data record and the columns are fields for each record. This works well if the fields are all somewhat similar in terms of length and data types, such as the fields for a typical address record for a customer. But it falls apart when you have large blobs of data, such as a document that has to be attached to a particular record, or a comment field that can be open ended and contain hundreds or thousands of characters.

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