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Martin Fowler Sees a Thaw in Frozen Thinking about Data Storage

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In a recent blog post, Martin Fowler, a renowned software thought leader, observed at last week's QCon that the deep freeze in thinking about databases in application architectures is thawing. The world has been stuck using RDBMS databases for every application use case, but the time has come to also consider RISC RDBMS or distributed document-oriented databases.   QCon had a keynote by Tim Bray about the changing storage spectrum and how it affects application architectures, as well a whole track on distributed document-oriented databases

After noting the failure of ODBMS databases, Martin expressed his opinion on why RDBMS succeeded: “their [RDBMS] dominance is due less to their role in data management than their role in integration”.  Continuing on:

For many organizations today, the primary pattern for integration is Shared Database Integration - where multiple applications are integrated by all using a common database. When you have these IntegrationDatabases, it's important that all these applications can easily get at this shared data - hence the all important role of SQL. The role of SQL as mostly-standard query language has been central to the dominance of databases.

The Internet is changing the landscape by offering new integration solutions:

The heating of the database space comes from the presence of alternatives to integration - in particular the rise of web services. Under various banners there's a growing movement for applications to talk to each other by passing text (mostly XML) documents over HTTP. The web, both in internet and intranet forms, has made this integration mode even more prevalent than SQL. This is a good thing, I've never liked the approach of multiple applications tightly coupled through a common database - you can't get bigger breach of encapsulation than that.

HTTP will affect the way databases are used, according to Martin:

If you switch your integration protocol from SQL to HTTP, it now means you can change databases from being IntegrationDatabases to ApplicationDatabases. This change is profound. In the first step it supports a much simpler approach to object-relational mapping - such as the approach taken by Ruby on Rails. But furthermore it breaks the vice-like grip of the relational data model. If you integrate through HTTP it no longer matters how an application stores its own data, which in turn means an application can choose a data model that makes sense for its own needs.

While Martin does not think RDBMS will disappear any time soon, he points out the a number of possible alternatives that Tim Bray had mentioned:

  • Drizzle is a form of relational database, but one that eschews much of the machinery of modern relational products. I think of it as a RISC RDBMS - supporting only the bare bones of the relational feature set.
  • Couch DB is one of many forays into a distributed key-value pair model. Although a sharply simple data-model (nothing more than a hashmap really) this kind of approach has become quite popular in high-volume websites.
  • Gemstone was one of the object database crowd, and I found the Gemstone-Smalltalk combination a very powerful development environment (superior to most of its successors). Gemstone is still around as a niche player, but may gain more traction through
  • Maglev - a project to bring its approach (essentially a fusion of database and virtual machine) to the Ruby world.

Martin is careful to conclude that RDBMS are not going away and are "the right choice for many situations." His blog does suggest however that given the increase in options these days, "application developers should think about what the right option is for their needs. As non-relational projects grow in popularity and maturity, more and more will go for other options."   What do you think?

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