Friday, 13 December 2019

Choosing “a” Database, not “the” Database

One thing I’ve run across a few times over the years is the notion that an application or system has one, and only one, database product. It’s as if the answer to the question about where we should store our data must be about where we store “all” our data.

Horses for Courses

I’ve actually touched on this topic before in “Deferring the Database Choice” where our team tried to put off the question as long as possible because of a previous myopic mindset and there was a really strong possibility that we might even have a need for two different styles of database – relational and document-oriented – because we had two different types of data to store with very different constraints.

In that instance, after eventually working out what we really needed, we decided to look at a traditional relational database for the transactional data [1], while we looked towards the blossoming NoSQL crowd for the higher-volume non-transactional data. While one might have sufficed for both purposes the organisational structure and lack of operational experience at the time meant we didn’t feel comfortable putting all our eggs in that one NoSQL basket up front.

As an aside the Solution Architect [2] who was assigned to our team by the client definitely seemed out of their comfort zone with the notion that we might want to use different products for different purposes.

Platform Investment

My more recent example of this line of reasoning around “the one size fits all” misnomer was while doing some consulting at a firm in the insurance sector, an area where mainframes and legacy systems pervade the landscape.

In this particular case I had been asked to help advise on the architecture of a few new internal services they were planning. Two were really just caches of upstream data designed to reduce the per-cost call of 3rd party services while the third would serve up flood related data which was due to be incorporated into insurance pricing.

To me they all seemed like no-brainers. Even the flood data service just felt like it was probably a simple web service (maybe REST) that looks up the data in a document oriented database based on the postcode key. The volume of requests and size of the dataset did not seem remarkable in any way, nor the other caches. The only thing that I felt deserved any real thought was around the versioning of the data, if that was even a genuine consideration. (I was mostly trying to think of any potential risks that might vaguely add to the apparent lack of complexity.)

Given the company already called out from its mainframe to other web services they had built, this was a solved problem, and therefore I felt there was no reason not to start knocking up the flood data service which, given its simplicity, could be done outside-in so that they’d have their first microservice built TDD-style (an approach they wanted to try out anyway). They could even plug it in pretty quickly and just ignore the responses back to the mainframe in the short term so that they could start getting a feel for the operational aspects. In essence it seemed the perfect learning opportunity for many new skills within the department.

An Undercurrent

However, while I saw this as a low-risk venture there were questions from further up effectively about choosing the database. I suspected there were concerns about the cost but some rudimentary calculations based around a three-node cluster with redundant disks versus storage for the mainframe showed that they weren’t even in the same ballpark and we’re not even talking SSDs here either. (This also ignores the fact that they were close to maxing out the mainframe anyway.)

One of the great things about databases in these modern times is that you can download the binaries and just fire one up and get playing. Given the dataset fitted the document-oriented paradigm and there were no transactions to speak of I suggested they pick either MongoDB or Couchbase and just get started as it was the paradigm they most needed to get acquainted with, the specific vendor (to me) was less of a concern in the shorter term as the data model was simple.

Nevertheless, rather than build something first and get a feel for what makes most sense, they wanted to invite the various big NoSQL vendors in and discuss contracts and products up-front. So I arranged for the three main contenders at the time to visit the company’s offices and give a pitch, followed by some Q&A time for the management to ask any burning questions. It was during the first of these three pitches that I began to realise where the disconnect lay between my vision and theirs.

While I had always been working on the assumption that the company was most comfortable with mainframes and relational databases and that they wanted to step outside that and move to a less monolithic architecture, perhaps using the Strangler Pattern to break out the peripheral services into independent self-contained ones, they still saw a single database product sitting at the heart. Yes, the services might be built separately, and the data may well be partitioned via namespaces or collections or whatever, but fundamentally the assumption was that the data storage was still effectively monolithic.

A False Economy

In retrospect I shouldn’t really have been that surprised. The reason the mainframe had probably survived for so long was that the data was seen as the crown jewels and the problems of redundancy and backup had been solved long ago and were pretty robust. In fact if anything went wrong the vendor could helicopter some experts in (which they had done in the past). This was not the level of service offered by the new kids on the block and the company was still far from getting comfortable with cloud hosting and managed service providers which were are starting to spring up.

Hence, where I was looking at the somewhat disposable nature of the new services purely as an opportunity for learning, others higher up were looking at it as a stepping stone to moving all their data across to another platform. Coupled with this was the old-fashioned view that the decision needed to be made up-front and needed to be the right one from the off [3].

A Different Investment

Even with this misconception acknowledged and the shining cost savings to be had there was still a heavy reluctance to go with something new. I believe that in the end they put their investment into more mainframe storage instead of investing in their people and the organisation’s longer term future.

 

[1] There was definitely an element of “availability bias” here as the organisation had a volume licensing agreement with a relational database vendor.

[2] A role which highlighted their Ivory Tower approach at the time but has since fallen away as architecture has thankfully started leaning more towards shared ownership.

[3] Some of the impetus for “Don’t Fail Fast, Learn Cheaply” came from conversations I had with this organisation about their approach to career development.

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