Bluffer's Guide to NoSQL Databases

"A DBA walks into a NoSQL bar, but turns and leaves because he couldn't find a table." Haha, ha, ha... what, you donít get it? You need to learn about modern databases!

As a group, the new database structures are known as "NoSQL" (or "Not only SQL"). They donít follow the conventional, relational database model. Data is organized using structures other than the familiar tables, and accessed with methods other than SQL. Why? Purposes vary, but most center on managing very large data stores for real-time applications.

Structures ideal for everyday operations are often slow and impractical for supporting conventional statistical analysis or data mining. So, when NoSQL comes into the picture, data analysts need to be actively involved to ensure that the data management plan provides adequate consideration to supporting analytics.

Major types of NoSQL databases include:

Column Families (Wide Column Store)

  • What is it? A database consisting of columns of related data. A group of columns (column family) serves a function similar to a table in a relational database.

  • Why use? Column families work well when distributing data across multiple computers is necessary. So, think of them when you have lots and lots and lots of data. They can also shrink query times by reducing the amount of data that must be traversed to reach the data of interest.

  • Names to know? Cassandra, HBase (the Hadoop database)


  • What is it? A database built around storing documents rather than structured data.

  • Why use? Document databases are appropriate for storing semi-structured or complex data that relational databases are not designed to store. Think of document databases when your data isnít fully structured.

  • Names to know? MongoDB, Couch DB


  • What is it? A database that uses a graph structure to store data. Instead of tables, columns, and cells, it has nodes, edges, and properties. Think of graph databases when you need to power low-latency (in other words, speedy), real-time business operations.

  • Why use? Graph databases donít depend on schemas, as relational databases do. They work well in applications where finding associations quickly is a key consideration. They scale to large datasets because graph databases do not depend heavily on computationally costly join operations.

  • Names to know? Neo4J, Horton

Key Value

  • What is it? Key-value stores are developed for extreme simplicity of their application programming interfaces (API). Think of them when you need to develop an application very quickly.

  • Why use? The simple APIs of key-value stores make them a good choice for rapid prototyping of applications. Some were developed specifically for supporting high-speed, high-availability applications.

  • Names to know? Riak, Redis


  • What is it? A native XML database uses XML as its fundamental unit of storage.

  • Why use? If you can put it into a computer, you can put it in an XML database.

  • Names to know? MarkLogic, Sedna

If you think "database equals relational database," youíre way behind the times. Much of the hottest action in tech today is in databases. Your organization may just have a business problem that could be solved with the right database technology.

Note: I found the joke that began this article at No-SQL, Your Ultimate Guide to the Non - Relational Universe! You can find information on dozens of NoSQL databases there.

Have you had experience with NoSQL databases? Tell us below.

Meta S. Brown, Business Analytics Consultant

Meta S. Brown is a consultant, speaker, and writer who promotes the use of business analytics. A hands-on analyst who has tackled projects with up to $900 million at stake, she is a recognized expert in cutting-edge business analytics. She has conducted more than 4,000 hours of presentations about business analytics, and written guides on neural networks, quality improvement, statistical process control, and many other statistical methods. Meta's seminars have attracted thousands of attendees from across the US and Canada, from novices to professors.

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Oldie but Goodies
  • 3/12/2013 1:06:52 PM

Thanks, Meta, nice post. 

Good to add some new arrows to the quiver of oldie but goody "anything but Oracle/MS SQL/Sybase" data stores: Teradata, Sand's Nucleus, Sqbase IQ, IBM Informix Redbrick, Alterian, et al. 

I remember back in 1999/2000 timie frame SPSS wrote a driver for Alterian.

I wonder if folks have some other favorite alternatvies to relational DB SQL?  I'd be very interested in learning if their are any standout popular choices.

Re: Thanks
  • 3/10/2013 2:56:24 PM

Loved this Meta and so did the friends I shared it with.

Re: Thanks
  • 3/9/2013 9:12:45 AM

It's a great primer, indeed. Wth so many variations being introduced, the NoSQL market  can become a forest very quickly.  Plus many of the platforms mentioned here have developed an entire community around their use, complete with training and developer plugins.  It can be confusing to compare which databases may best apply for a business. Meta's primer covers it just right.

Re: Thanks
  • 3/7/2013 8:37:33 PM

@ Good article for us non-experts to review when we know we have to have a conversation with an expert.  My personal experience is that I know a lot about tech theory and need to be able to communicate with techies, but I'm not one that actually does it.  Kind of like watching a lot of surgeries, but never having done one. 

Re: Thanks
  • 3/7/2013 4:18:22 PM

Yes! You are right, Meta

Re: Thanks
  • 3/7/2013 10:07:49 AM

"A DBA walks into a NoSQL bar, but turns and leaves because he couldn't find a table."


Love it. I'm using that one in the future.

Re: Thanks
  • 3/7/2013 8:54:36 AM


Congratulations! You have successfully raised a geek. Parents of the neighborhood freaks, goths and snobs all secretly envy you.

Re: Thanks
  • 3/7/2013 8:22:40 AM

FYI My 21-year-old son liked the joke. Guess we know where his head is at, right!

Re: Thanks
  • 3/7/2013 7:15:56 AM

Glad you liked it, Noreen.

I've attended several talks by NoSQL expertd, and taken notice that some are very direct about the issues regarding these databases and analytics, others gloss it over, even when asked. Clearlywe analysts need to be on our toes!

  • 3/7/2013 7:05:14 AM

Thanks for an easy to understand primer Meta