To SQL or NoSQL? That’s the database question

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It’s a tangled, database web out there. (credit: Getty Images)

Poke around the infrastructure of any startup website or mobile app these days, and you’re bound to find something other than a relational database doing much of the heavy lifting. Take, for example, the Boston-based startup Wanderu. This bus- and train-focused travel deal site launched about three years ago. And fed by a Web-generated glut of unstructured data (bus schedules on PDFs, anyone?), Wanderu is powered by MongoDB, a “NoSQL” database—not by Structured Query Language (SQL) calls against traditional tables and rows.

But why is that? Is the equation really as simple as “Web-focused business = choose NoSQL?” Why do companies like Wanderu choose a NoSQL database? (In this case, it was MongoDB.) Under what circumstances would a SQL database have been a better choice?

Today, the database landscape continues to become increasingly complicated. The usual SQL suspects—SQL Server-Oracle-DB2-Postgres, et al.—aren’t handling this new world on their own, and some say they can’t. But the division between SQL and NoSQL is increasingly fuzzy, especially as database developers integrate the technologies together and add bits of one to the other.

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