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NOSQL Definition

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As soon as we started work on NosqlDistilled we were faced with a tricky conundrum - what are we writing about? What exactly is a NoSQL database? There's no strong definition of the concept out there, no trademarks, no standard group, not even a manifesto.

The term originally surfaced at an informal meetup on June 11 2009 in San Francisco organized by Johan Oskarsson. At the session there were presentations from Voldemort, Cassandra, Dynomite, HBase, Hypertable, CouchDB, VPork, and MongoDB. The term caught on rapidly and few people would argue that only the databases mentioned at that meeting should be called NoSQL.

Indeed there's often a twist in the name itself: many advocates of NoSQL say that it does not mean a "no" to SQL, rather it means Not Only SQL. On this point I think it's useful to separate an individual database from the kind of ecosystem that NoSQL advocates see as the future. When we say "x is a NoSQL database" I think it's silly to interpret NoSQL as "Not Only" because that would render the term meaningless. (You could then reasonably argue that SQL Server (say) is a NoSQL database.) So I think it's best to say a "NoSQL database" is a "no-sql" database. You should separately interpret the NoSQL ecosystem as a "not only" - although I prefer the term PolyglotPersistence for this usage. [1]

Even with this matter out of the way, it's still not easy to define a NoSQL database. Does any database that doesn't use SQL qualify? How about older database technologies such as IMS or MUMPS? How about a relational system that didn't have SQL (such as the early Ingres)? What happens if someone manages to bolt a SQL interface onto one of the original octet?

So for our book we took a view that NoSQL refers to a particular rush of recent databases. Some characteristics are common amongst these databases, but none are definitional.

  • Not using the relational model (nor the SQL language)
  • Open source
  • Designed to run on large clusters
  • Based on the needs of 21st century web properties
  • No schema, allowing fields to be added to any record without controls

While I'm used to the blurry lines of definitions in the software industry, I confess my heart sinks at yet another one. But the important thing is that these databases provide a important addition to the way we'll be building application in next couple of decades. A lack of a clear definition will be no more than a gnat bite on their future successes.

1: If we take the "not-only" interpretation, then we should write "NOSQL" rather than "NoSQL". I almost always see it written as "NoSQL".


Published at DZone with permission of Martin Fowler, author and DZone MVB.

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)



Christian Beute... replied on Thu, 2012/01/12 - 8:35am

Open Source is a weak criteria. It has no conceptual relationship with NoSQL AFAIK.


My guess would be:

- No traditional relational schema (not an implementation of



since those are common for all NoSQL databases I know.



Nigel Eiland replied on Thu, 2012/01/12 - 8:46am

Wasn't NoSQL invented by consultants in the first place? Isn't it a bit late to now be thinking about what it means ? Would have thought it ought to be ... do the categorisation, and then give it a name, not the other way around. What is wrong with terms like document-store, map-store, etc ? If some third party provides an SQL add-on to Cassandra, does that then make it no longer a NoSQL datastore? Back to real work ...

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