How To Choose A Database For Your Project

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Data has become the lifeblood of the digital age. But just like crude oil, raw data may not have much value without the right tools to refine it. Enter the database, the unsung hero powering everything from the iconic apps that are the favorites of masses worldwide to critical systems that shape business decisions.

Yet, with countless options vying for your attention, choosing the right database can feel overwhelming.

SQL or NoSQL? Open-source or proprietary? The choices seem endless — and that's a good thing. Because more choices translate to more chances of getting the right tool.

Yet, decisions must be made, and that's where this guide comes in. Let's understand the decision-making framework to power your project to success.

Understanding databases: fundamentals

It's not our intention to touch on the obvious basics of databases. But if this helps and especially if you are a beginner, it's important that we do away with these basics.

Important basic definitions

  • A database is an organized collection of data.

  • A Database Management System is actually what we are focusing on here and is essentially what is often shortened to database. A DBMS is simply a software designed to efficiently organize, store, and retrieve data within a database.

Types of databases

  • SQL (Relational) Databases:They use structured models with tables, rows, and columns. Relationships are defined through keys.

  • NoSQL (Non-Relational) Databases: These don't adhere to the relational model. There are various types that include graph databases, document databases, key-value stores, etc. Please check our comprehensive review of relational databases in comparison to graph databases

  • NewSQL Databases: These combine the scalability of NoSQL with the ACID guarantees of SQL.

  • Specialized databases: Designed for specialized functions. Examples include time-series databases, object oriented databases, and in-memory databases.

Go deep, learn the key differences between relational databases and non-relational databases

How to choose the right database for a project: key factors for decision-making

With the foundational knowledge of databases well in, let's now embark on the crucial journey of selecting the right database solution for your project.

To navigate this landscape, we'll delve into the multifaceted factors that should guide this critical decision.

1. Project needs: the foundation

Take a step back and assess the actual needs of the project. This important reflection will serve as the cornerstone of the selection process.

The aim here is so that you ensure the database you choose indeed aligns well with the objectives of the project.

Needs are defined largely by the elements of the data you are going to be handling. Here are the key elements:

i. Data types

By data types, we basically mean the nature of the data you'll be handling for the project. It can take these formats:

  • Structured data: Fitting into rows and columns, for example inventory data or financial transactions

  • Semi-structured data: The data has some structure, but not as rigid as structured data. For example social media posts or product descriptions.

  • Unstructured data: This data has some structure, but not as rigid as structured data. For example images, audio files or videos.

ii. Read/Write patterns: frequency and ratio

How often is the application going to be reading from or writing to the database?

Do you envision a read-heavy application such as blogs or news websites where users are constantly requesting data? Or are we looking at a write-heavy application that is constantly ingesting new data?

The frequency and ratio of the read/write operations will have a significant impact on the performance and optimization potential of the database you select.

iii. Speed and responsiveness

How crucial is speed and responsiveness. How fast should the application respond to queries?

In time-sensitive data, quick decisions are critical. Think of a high-frequency trading application where milliseconds can make or break a trade. Or consider an e-commerce site during a flash sale. Slow loading times can lead to frustrated customers and lost revenue.

Responsiveness matters even in less time-sensitive scenarios. Let's be honest, no one wants to wait for minutes while their banking app loads their account balance or their social media feed refreshes.

More considerations in understanding the project needs include:

  • Data relationships: Check if the project is likely to have complex relationships between data entities. If this is the case, a graph database option will be a good fit.

  • Real-time requirements: Is the project involving building an application that needs to process and analyze data in real-time? Think carefully about this because while some databases may be designed to handle streaming data and real-time analytics, others may not.

2. Scalability: growing with needs

You want a database that is capable of gracefully handling increasing amounts of user traffic and data.

NoSQL databases favor horizontal scaling, which involves the addition of more servers in order to distribute the load.

Relational databases, on the other hand, favor vertical scaling. This involves upgrading the hardware.

So if scalability is a paramount consideration and you prefer horizontal scaling, then you might want to narrow your options to NoSQL databases. If you desire vertical scaling, then this could mean narrowing your options to relational databases.

Most project teams tend to pay keen attention to the current data volume, but forget about future growth potential. 

In fact, if anything, your eyes need to be more on the future because that is when things happen. When you are guided by the potential increase in data volume, you get a good platform to see the full picture.

This is particularly important because we have come to discover that some databases are excellent at handling smaller datasets while others are great at handling massive data sizes. There are also those that are built for both ends of the data size spectrum.

3. Fundamental technical considerations

Every project has technical intricacies that will underpin database selection. Technical considerations often determines these items:

  • How smoothly the database integrates with the application

  • How efficiently the database system handles data

  • How well the database scales to meet evolving demands

Let’s look at the essential technical considerations:

i. Database architecture: the blueprint for functionality

A database architecture refers to the fundamental organization and structure of a database system. We like to look at it as the blueprint that dictates how the data is stored, accessed, and managed.

So why is it important to comprehend the different architecture behind different databases? This is important because the architecture has a direct impact on the capabilities and limitations of any type of database.

Of course, the two main architectural paradigms are relational (SQL) and non-relational (NoSQL). As we highlighted earlier above, relational databases adhere to a structured schema whereas non-relational databases embrace flexibility and offer diverse data models. 

ii. Integration

Besides the database management system, a typical project will definitely need several other tools to bring it to life.

Think about the different technologies that will make up the application, and the integration requirements that will be necessary to ensure all the tools work in harmony. Will the database you choose connect seamlessly with these tools?

While some databases might have great performance, their libraries may not have sufficient support. Such databases could bring integration problems when working on large scale projects with complex integrations.

ii. Query language: the engine of data manipulation

The query language is the primary avenue of interacting with the database. It provides the means for manipulating data, including updating and retrieving.

Examples:

  • SQL is the standard query language for relational databases. 

  • NoSQL databases, on the other hand, use different query languages that are designed to address their unique data models.

So when making a decision around which database to use, you need to check and ensure you are familiar or comfortable with the query language employed by that specific database system.

iii. Throughput and latency

Earlier, we discussed the basic read/write pattern. But here is about considering the nuances of performance. Is the project the kind that will demand high throughput, handling a large volume of concurrent transactions? Or does it require low latency, delivering quick responses to individual queries?

Some databases are tailored for specific workloads, equipped with features such as specialized indexing or in-memory storage. Understanding these nuances is instrumental to choosing a database that aligns with your project's goals.

4. Data integrity and consistency: ACID vs. BASE tradeoff

The concept of data integrity and consistency has always been paramount in the realm of databases. Important because it ensures that data is constantly reliable and accurate, even when unexpected failures strike or during concurrent operations.

This is where the ACID vs. BASE tradeoff comes into play. Relational databases traditionally adhere to the ACID properties whereas non-relational databases embrace the BASE approach.

Let’s explore how these two approaches can influence your decision.

ACID: 

Atomicity (transactions are all-or-nothing)

Consistency (transactions leave the database in a valid state)

Isolation (concurrent transactions don't interfere with each other)

Durability (committed changes are permanent).

Strict adherence to ACID ensures strong consistency. ACID compliance database systems are ideal for applications where data integrity is absolutely critical. Examples here include financial systems or healthcare records.

However, there is a cost attached to this strong consistency. Since ACID properties require complex mechanisms like locking and coordination, performance and availability can be affected.

Eventual Consistency (BASE):

Basically Available: The system guarantees availability, even in the face of failures or other disruptions in the network.

Soft state: The state of the system may change over time, even without input. This is because replicas may not be immediately consistent.

Eventual consistency: The system will eventually become consistent once all updates have propagated.

The BASE approach is common with NoSQL databases, and is more relaxed. Here, updates may not be immediately reflected across all replicas of the database, but they will eventually propagate. This means that all copies become consistent over time, not at once. In other words this approach sacrifices immediate consistency in favor of improved performance and availability. It's suitable for applications where slight inconsistencies can be tolerated. Social media feeds and product catalogs are good examples.

ACID-compliant databases are suitable for data that demands absolute accuracy and consistency at all times, even if it means sacrificing some performance.

Eventually consistent databases are suitable for use cases that can tolerate slight inconsistencies for a short period while prioritizing availability, scalability,and performance. .

5. Security: safeguarding your data's Fort Knox

Database security is non-negotiable in this era where data breaches and cyberattacks are becoming rampant.

Remember the database is a treasure trove of sensitive information, and unauthorized actors are ever in the prowl. 

Some of the security features you need to look at when evaluating the security features offered by different databases include: encryption, access controls, and auditing capabilities.

Encryption:

Select a database that offers robust encryption both at rest (when data is stored) and in transit (when data is being transmitted).

Learn about zero-knowledge encryption, a powerful encryption method for the modern landscape.

Access Controls:

These controls determine who can access the database and what actions they are allowed to perform. Key features include:

  • User authentication (verifying user identity). Most organizations are embracing multi factor authentication

  • Authorization (granting specific permissions)

  • Role-based access control (RBAC)

Auditing Capabilities:

Choose a database that offers comprehensive auditing capabilities. This ensures you are able to maintain transparency and accountability.

Auditing essentially involves tracking and logging all activities within the database system, including:

  • Who accessed what data

  • When the data was accessed

  • What actions were performed during the access period

This audit trail becomes helpful in detecting suspicious activity as it provides the foundation to investigate security incidents and ensure compliance with regulations.

6. Compliance: taking care of regulatory responsibilities

Today's business landscape is increasingly driven by data, and this has transformed compliance into a strategic business imperative — not just a legal obligation as it were.

Adherence to compliance regulations will protect the organization from hefty fines — funds that you can direct to better business use. But even more important, compliance fosters trust with stakeholders and customers. The latter is critical because it enhances the brand reputation and ultimately drives long term growth.

In brief, here is how you can look at compliance from a business perspective and a factor in choosing a database for your project:

Compliance as a cost factor:

Investment in certain aspects will be necessary as part of meeting regulatory requirements. Some of these features could include:

  • Legal Counsel: Consulting with legal experts to interpret regulatory implications relating to the database systems once implemented for the project.

  • Compliance Officers: You may need to get the services of a compliance officer that is an expert in regulations that touch on databases.

  • Training and awareness: While you may already have a training and awareness program, the employees involved in the project might require extra training so they understand their obligations in relation to compliance.

Examples of compliance requirements include PCI DSS and SOC 2

7. Alignment with business goals: cost, resources

Another mistake that we constantly come across is where many think that the choice of a database is solely a technical decision. This is a wrong assumption.

Instead, the choice of a database for your project is in fact a strategic business move, meaning the choice will have practical implications on the business.

Consider these factors to ensure your choice is well aligned with your business goals:

i. Cost: the financial reality of database ownership

Think about the financial side of owning or using a database system relative to the magnitude of the project. There will be both upfront and ongoing costs to look at, including the following that are key:

  • Licensing fees: Proprietary databases will often require licensing fees. The fees can vary significantly depending not just on the vendor but also the number of users and the features that are critical for the project.

  • Hardware and infrastructure: Databases that require on-premise installations require servers, storage, and networking infrastructure.

  • Maintenance and support: Ongoing contracts for maintenance and support can increase the total cost of ownership.

Most databases these days offer cost-effective alternatives, including free versions. So this can really be a huge win for resource sensitive projects.

Additionally, cloud-based databases offer a pay-as-you-go model. This model is quite attractive for organizations with fluctuating workloads.

ii. Talent: the people and expertise behind the technology

Regardless of the choice, skilled personnel will be required for implementing and maintaining the database. Consider the following:

  • Expertise: Do you have a team of database administrators who are skilled enough in the chosen database? If not, are they willing to learn the new database system and run it comfortably? Is there a budget for the additional training? If not, you may need to hire external consultants.

  • Community support: Vibrant communities are an invaluable resource. They offer timely support, documentation, and troubleshooting.

  • Vendor support: Look at the quality and responsiveness of the support that is offered by the vendors.

8. Evaluating database options

So far, we have explored the key factors that influence database selection. But it would be inadequate if we do not mention some of the options you will be meeting in the market. 

There are many and we may not highlight all here, but these few mentions here are part of the common pool from which you will likely pick an option.

SQL Databases (Relational)

  • MySQL

  • PostgreSQL

  • SQL Server

  • Oracle Database

  • IBM DB2

  • SQLite

NoSQL Databases (Non-Relational)

  • NebulaGraph

  • MongoDB

  • Neo4j

  • Cassandra

  • Redis

DB-Engine have an elaborate analysis of the databases we have in the market today. Please have a look at their comprehensive coverage for a much deeper dive. 

Database Decisions Table

In this table, we have summarized the areas you need to look at when choosing a database solution for your project. Feel free to use it as a template to guide the decision making process. Add more factors that are critical to the project, adjust some, etc. 

Project needs

Data types

Read/Write patterns

Speed and responsiveness

Technical considerations

Database architecture

Integration

Query language

Throughput and latency

Scalability

Horizontal scalability

Vertical scalability

Security

Encryption

Access Controls

Auditing Capabilities

Alignment with business goals

Cost

Talent

Compliance

Legal Counsel

Compliance Officers

Training and awareness

Evaluating database options

Relational databases (SQL)

Non-Relational databases (NoSQL)

Others

More than experience!

Often, we might be tempted to be quick to go for a database that we know well perhaps because you have experience working with it. Be careful not to make experience the only factor to consider. Every project is unique, and these unique needs might be best met by a database you might not have worked with before.

The combination of the factors we have discussed should guide you towards an option that is a perfect fit for your project. Sometimes it might just be as simple as adding one or more databases to the one you are already using. 

Finally, we would like to emphasize the importance of looking at the database choice decision as more than a technical decision.

This single decision is going to be a strategic investment in the future of the project.

Essentially, the database (s) you are going to select will become the bedrock upon which the functionality, performance, and scalability of your application will stand.

There are over 300 database management systems in the market, and this number keeps growing. So take time to explore, experiment, and ask questions. Choose wisely, and your database will become a powerful ally!

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