In the brave new world of MaybeSQL, we still need DBAs

Yesterday, Chuck Reeve’s tweeted an article from Daniel Lemire’s blog entitled Who will need database administrators in 2020?. The thesis is that with the advent of all these NoSQL technologies, the role of DBA will become unnecessary. I disagree with this for two reasons. First of all, NoSQL will not replace SQL. Secondly, your NoSQL data store probably needs a DBA, even if he has a different title.

Just a quick note, I’ve worked with enough SQL databases to make broad generalizations about them. The only NoSQL database I have experience with is MongoDB.

NoSQL will not completely replace RDBMSes

SQL databases are the primary practical implementation of the relational model. Most of the “trade school” explanations of the relational model and normal forms use SQL syntax as an example. Relational databases are great at storing data in an organized fashion. Through constraints you can enforce most business rules. Triggers will allow you to do the rest. Relational databases also usually have fine grained access control systems, and mechanisms for auditing changes. Finally, if you have to build a report from your data in a way you never did before or planned to, its usually nice to be able to start out with your data normalized.

Now there are a lot of things a NoSQL database like MongoDB does better than most RDBMSes. For example, MongoDB would be better suited for hosting a simple blog than MySQL. However, MongoDB has not been around all that long, and before MongoDB, relational databases did a good enough job. Now there are many things SQL is better at than MongoDB. For example, I would never use mongo for a complex inventory system. However, many technologists, like Daniel, have been focused on thing that NoSQL is good at, like blogs and simple ecommerce sites. These technologists recognize NoSQL as disruptive technology in the data management field. However, they make the mistake of assuming NoSQL will usurp the role of relational databases completely.

To put it another way, in the brave new MaybeSQL future, we will use SQL for some things and NoSQL for others. The things we will use SQL for, like complex inventory systems, will have complex schemas and need specialists to manage all that data. We already call those specialists DBAs.

Your NoSQL Database needs a DBA

Ok I lied. Your NoSQL database might not need a DBA, just like your relational database might not need one. In relational database shops without formal DBA positions,  there are usually defacto DBAs, senior developers who’ve made it their business to manage the companies databases because management would not allocate a dedicated salary to that function. Currently, I am serving as a defacto DBA for some small databases.

Now I’ve also been playing with MongoDB a lot. I’ve contributed to mongo, spoke about mongo, and been to three mongo conferences. I’ve talked to a lot of people using mongo, and I’ve made a lot of observations. My primary observation is mongo tends to get used in startups. These startups don’t have dedicated DBAs. However, they do have well rounded senior developers that perform DBA and sysadmin functions. Many of these NoSQL programmers also know more about relational databases than I do, which is why they didn’t fight “the mongo way” tooth and nail before accepting it like I did. Now as is the nature of startups, most of the businesses these programmers work at will fail. However, a few will succeed and get big enough to have to hire technologists with more specialized roles. I expect to see a mongo specialists role thats part sysadmin and part programmer evolving at these companies. For companies that use a a combination of a relational databases and MongoDB, I expect a DBA to be hired, learn MongoDB, and take ownership of managing the data stored in that companies MongoDB instances.

Conclusion

NoSQL databases were designed for different problems than relational databases. Relational databases were not designed for things like blogs and massive sites lie facebook. They were used for this role because they were the best tool at the time for the job. MongoDB on the other hand was founded by a founder of doubleclick, who wanted to build a database that scaled the way a database for websites should scale. MongoDB is taking a piece of the pie from relational databases, but not all of it. Also, just like not all relational databases have a full time DBA to maintain them, not all NoSQL databases have a full time administrator. However, that does not mean that a role similar to DBA for NoSQL databases is unnecessary.