NewSQL and the curse of Old SQL database systems

database 2 by Tim Morgan (cc) (from Flickr)
database 2 by Tim Morgan (cc) (from Flickr)

There was some twitter traffic yesterday on how Facebook was locked into using MySQL (see article here) and as such, was having to shard their MySQL database across 1000s of database partitions and memcached servers in order to keep up with the processing load.

The article indicated  that this was painful, costly and time consuming. Also they said Facebook would be better served moving to something else. One answer was to replace MySQL with recently emerging, NewSQL database technology.

One problem with old SQL database systems is they were never architected to scale beyond a single server.  As such, multi-server transactional operations was always a short-term fix to the underlying system, not a design goal. Sharding emerged as one way to distribute the data across multiple RDBMS servers.

What’s sharding?

Relational database tables are sharded by partitioning them via a key.  By hashing this key one can partition a busy table across a number of servers and use the hash function to lookup where to process/access table data.   An alternative to hashing is to use a search lookup function to determine which server has the table data you need and process it there.

In any case, sharding causes a number of new problems. Namely,

  • Cross-shard joins – anytime you need data from more than one shard server you lose the advantages of distributing data across nodes. Thus, cross-shard joins need to be avoided to retain performance.
  • Load balancing shards – to spread workload you need to split the data by processing activity.  But, knowing ahead of time what the table processing will look like is hard and one weeks processing may vary considerably from the next weeks load. As such, it’s hard to load balance shard servers.
  • Non-consistent shards – by spreading transactions across multiple database servers and partitions, transactional consistency can no longer be guaranteed.  While for some applications this may not be a concern, traditional RDBMS activity is consistent.

These are just some of the issues with sharding and I am certain there are more.

What about Hadoop projects and its alternatives?

One possibility is to use Hadoop and its distributed database solutions.  However, Hadoop systems were not intended to be used for transaction processing. Nonetheless, Cassandra and HyperTable (see my post on Hadoop – Part 2) can be used for transaction processing and at least Casandra can be tailored to any consistency level. But both Cassandra and HyperTable are not really meant to support high throughput, consistent transaction processing.

Also, the other, non-Hadoop distributed database solutions support data analytics and most are not positioned as transaction processing systems (see Big Data – Part 3).  Although Teradata might be considered the lone exception here and can be a very capable transaction oriented database system in addition to its data warehouse operations. But it’s probably not widely distributed or scaleable above a certain threshold.

The problems with most of the Hadoop and non-Hadoop systems above mainly revolve around the lack of support for ACID transactions, i.e., atomic, consistent, isolated, and durable transaction processing. In fact, most of the above solutions relax one or more of these characteristics to provide a scaleable transaction processing model.

NewSQL to the rescue

There are some new emerging database systems that are designed from the ground up to operate in distributed environments called “NewSQL” databases.  Specifically,

  • Clustrix – is a MySQL compatible replacement, delivered as a hardware appliance that can be distributed across a number of nodes that retains fully ACID transaction compliance.
  • GenieDB – is a NoSQL and SQL based layered database that is consistent (atomic), available and partition tolerant (CAP) but not fully ACID compliant, offers a MySQL and popular content management systems plugins that allow MySQL and/or CMSs to execute using GenieDB clusters with minimal modification.
  • NimbusDB – is a client-cloud based SQL service which distributes copies of data across multiple nodes and offers a majority of SQL99 standard services.
  • VoltDB – is a fully SQL compatible, ACID compliant, distributed, in-memory database system offered as a software only solution executing on 64bit CentOS system but is compatible with any POSIX-compliant, 64bit Linux platform.
  • Xeround –  is a cloud based, MySQL compatible replacement delivered as a (Amazon, Rackspace and others) service offering that provides ACID compliant transaction processing across distributed nodes.

I might be missing some, but these seem to be the main ones today.  All the above seem to take a different tack to offer distributed SQL services.  Some of the above relax ACID compliance in order to offer distributed services. But for all of them distributed scale out performance is key and they all offer purpose built, distributed transactional relational database services.


RDBMS technology has evolved over the last century and have had at least ~35 years of running major transactional systems. But todays hardware architecture together with web scale performance requirements stretch these systems beyond their original design envelope.  As such, NewSQL database systems have emerged to replace old SQL technology, with a new, intrinsically distributed system architecture providing high performing, scaleable transactional database services for today and the foreseeable future.