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How the Database Can Hurt Your Startup

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Note: the following details a serious, expensive class of bugs that your project may have, but that many don't know about. Out of necessity, I'll lightly touch on technical details.

I was hiring developers for a large, complicated application. I happened to mention to one of the more promising candidates that the application was fairly write-heavy and we might experience some performance concerns later. This developer, with years of experience and skills across multiple technologies that might have been of use to us, replied "you're going to either need to shard your database or switch to NoSQL."

That was enough to guarantee they didn't get the job.

It's a distressingly common problem: with absolutely no understanding of how the database was designed or what the application did, an experienced developer made a strong declaration about how to fix a problem we didn't yet have. In fact, when companies hire me for consulting, one of the first things I do is examine the data storage layer. It's often in pretty bad shape and a constant source of bugs because developers learn SQL and think they understand databases.

If you take nothing else from this article, take this: learning how to write and optimize SQL has as much in common with designing a database as being an expert mechanic qualifies you to design a car.

Data Quality Woes

In many startups, there's not a lot of up front money, so a qualified DBA is viewed as a luxury rather than a necessity. As a result, the devs choose a data storage tool based on what they're comfortable with instead of what the project actually requires. MySQL is so popular and easy to use that many developers choose it out of habit, tune a few parameters for performance, and start developing.

As the project grows, data issues are noticed and get fixed on an ad hoc basis. Variants of the following bug abound:

mysql> create table example (tooshort varchar(3));
Query OK, 0 rows affected (0.00 sec)

mysql> insert into example (tooshort) values ("12345");
Query OK, 1 row affected, 1 warning (0.00 sec)

mysql> select tooshort from example;
| tooshort |
| 123      |

As you can see from the above, MySQL happily truncated the data, throwing away valuable information. It issued a warning, but most applications ignore database warnings. For one of our clients, we found two years of analytic data had to be thrown away because of this bug, even though this warning was issued on every insert.

Once developers learn about MySQL's strict mode, they often try to enable it, only to watch the application crash and burn because it was written with the assumption that division by zero produces NULL values instead of errors, "0000-00-00" is a real date, and many other tiny problems. These same applications usually lack foreign key constraints, or use them inconsistently. And more than one developer has solved deadlock issues by not using database transactions.

By the time strict mode is finally enabled, there's a layer of bugs in the database and a layer of related "strict mode workarounds" in the application level. It becomes expensive to maintain and much development effort is spent on correcting existing problems rather than build new features that could earn new business.

Those who use Oracle or SQL Server often have databases just as bad, so this isn't just a "MySQL thing." Curiously, we've noticed that our clients who use PostgreSQL tend to have better quality databases, possibly stemming from a database community which is obsessed with data quality.

Performance Woes

For one company, a domain name registrar, I was helping them work on fraud prevention tools when a project manager mentioned that a particular query took 15 minutes to return. The team lead explained that there was "too much data" to query efficiently. That "too much data" was only three million records. After running explain on the query, I discovered they weren't using indexes. A few minutes later, that 15 minute query took under two seconds to run. Were it not for the accident of my being there, they would have concluded the database was "too slow" and reached for a NoSQL solution.

Another common issue, endemic with ORMs, is fetching multiple columns, only to use two or three of them. Or discovering that MySQL often forces a disk sort when fetching rows with text or blob fields, even if you're not sorting on those fields. Or constantly updating only one column in a table when 20 other columns that never change, causing a lot of unexpected disk I/O. For these and many other issues, most of which are easy to solve, devs who are unfamiliar with databases often reach for NoSQL solutions without understanding why they had a problem in the first place. Quite often they've traded a set of known problems for a set of unknown problems. This is not a good business decision.

More to the point: before relational databases, all databases were NoSQL. That's why we have relational databases.

Data is King

So why is this a big deal? Well, the term "information economy" isn't bandied about for nothing. Consider that most applications have four phases, though their structure might obscure this.

  1. Initialization
  2. Input
  3. Calculation
  4. Output

Virtually every application has those phases, but what do they mean? Simply put:

  1. Initialization of data
  2. Input of data
  3. Calculation of data
  4. Output of data

Your application is all about data. For many people in management, they see the app or the web page, but they don't see the database hidden underneath. They understand that without their data the company is probably in serious trouble, but they don't give much thought to it. In fact, while total data loss will probably bankrupt your company, few give much thought to the the standard data quality issues that are a constant financial drain because it's assumed to be part of the cost of doing business. And the developers who don't understand how to use databases often tell management "that's just the way this technology works."

If there is one thing to take away from this article, it's to know that a properly designed database will still allow you to add incorrect data such as a misspelled first name, but it makes it hard to add invalid data, such as an order which references a non-existant customer, or a negative price for a product. Data maintenance costs drop significantly when you have a great database.

Even the barest minimum of work understanding how to design databases can tremendously improve quality. One of my most popular talks—rated 5 out of 5 stars at OSCON—is "How to Fake a Database Design."

You don't need to be an expert in databases to do a much better job of using them. First, learn the basics of database design. Understand that foreign key constraints, check constraints, and other tools are part of that design, and not just "nice to have" features. Once you have your data quality ensured, then you can worry about performance. As the old adage goes "first make it work, then make it fast."

NoSQL, sharding, and other techniques to get performance wins can wind up costing you a lot of money in the long run. Until you really understand why your current database isn't fast enough, don't reach for the shiny tools. You'll thank me later.

As an aside: I use and recommend NoSQL solutions from time to time (a shout-out to Redis: I love Redis). I am not "anti-NoSQL." I simply find that by properly designing databases and understanding the underlying causes of database issues, NoSQL solutions often offer us little value.

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