Why SQL is becoming the goto language for Big Data analysis

Since the term big data first appeared in our lexicon of IT and business technology it has been intrinsically linked to the no-SQL, or anything-but-SQL, movement. However, we are now seeing that SQL is experiencing a renaissance. The term “noSQL” has softened to a much more realistic approach - a "not-only-SQL" approach. And now there is an explosion of SQL-based implementations designed to support big data. Leveraging the Hadoop ecosystem, there is: Hive, Stinger, Impala, Shark, Presto and many more. Other NoSQL vendors such as Cassandra are also adopting flavors of SQL. Why is there a growing level of interest in the reemergence of SQL? Probably, a more pertinent question is: did SQL ever really go away? Proponents of SQL often cite the following explanations for the re-emergence of SQL for analysis:

  1. There are legions of developers who know SQL. Leveraging the SQL language allows those developers to be immediately productive.
  2. There are legions of tools and applications using SQL today.
  3. Any platform that provides SQL will be able to leverage the existing SQL ecosystem.

However, despite the virtues of these explanations, they alone do not explain the recent proliferation of SQL implementations. Consider this: how often does the open-source community embrace a technology just because it is the corporate orthodoxy? The answer is: probably not ever. If the open-source community believed that there was a better language for basic data analysis, they would be implementing it. Instead, a huge range of emerging projects, as mentioned earlier, have SQL at their heart The simple conclusion is that SQL has emerged as the de facto language for big data because, frankly, it is technically superior. Let’s examine the four key reasons for this:

  1. SQL is a natural language for data analysis.
  2. SQL is a productive language for writing queries.
  3. SQL queries can be optimised.
  4. SQL is extensible.

 

1. SQL is a natural language for data analysis.

The concept of SQL is underpinned by the relational algebra - a consistent framework for organizing and manipulating sets of data - and the SQL syntax concisely and intuitively expresses this mathematical system.

Most business users, data analysts and even data scientists think about data within the context of a spreadsheet. If you think about a spreadsheet containing a set of customer orders then what do most people do with that spreadsheet? Typically, they might filter the records to look only at the customer orders for a given region. Alternatively, they might hide some columns: maybe the customer address is not needed for a particular piece of analysis, but the customer name and their orders are important data points. Finally, they might add calculations to compute totals and/or perhaps create a cross tabular report.

Within the language of SQL these are common steps: 1) projections (SELECT), 2) filters and joins (WHERE), and 3) aggregations (GROUP BY). These are core operators in SQL. The vast majority of people have found the fundamental SQL query constructs to be straightforward and readable representation of everyday data analysis operations.

 

2. SQL is a productive language for writing queries.

When a developer writes a SQL query, he or she simply describes the results that they want. The developer does not have to get into any of the nitty-gritty of describing how to get the results 

This type of approach is often referred to as  'declarative programming,’ and it makes the developer's job easier. Even the simplest SQL query illustrates the benefits of declarative programming:

SELECT day, prcp, temp FROM weather
WHERE city = 'San Francisco' AND prcp > 0.0;

SQL engines may have multiple ways to execute this query (for example, by using an index). Fortunately the developer doesn't need to understand any of the underlying database processing techniques. The developer simply specifies the desired set of data using projections (SELECT) and filters (WHERE).

This is perhaps why SQL has emerged as such an attractive alternative to the MapReduce framework for analyzing HDFS data. MapReduce requires the developer to specify, at each step, how the underlying data is to be processed. For the same “query", the code is longer and more complex in MapReduce. For the vast majority of data analysis requirements, SQL is more than sufficient, and the additional expressiveness of MapReduce introduces complexity without providing significant benefits.


3. SQL queries can be optimized

The fact that SQL is a declarative language not only shields the developer from the complexities of the underlying query techniques, but also gives the underlying SQL engine has a lot of flexibility in how to optimize any given query. 

In a lot of programming languages, if the code runs slow, then it's the programmer's fault. For the SQL language, however, if a SQL query runs slow, then it's the SQL engine's fault.

This is where analytic databases really earn their keep – databases can easily innovate ‘under the covers’ to deliver faster performance; parallelization techniques, query transformations, indexing and join algorithms are just a few key areas of database innovation that drive query performance.

 

4. SQL is extensible

SQL provides a robust framework that adapts to new requirements

SQL has stayed relevant over the decades because, even though its core is grounded in universal data processing techniques, the language itself can be extended with new processing techniques and new calculations. Simple time-series calculations, statistical functions, and pattern-matching capabilities have all been added to SQL over the years. 

Consider, as a recent example, what many organizations realized as they started to ask queries such as 'how many distinct visitors came to my website last month?' These organizations realized that it is not vital to have a precise answer to this type of query ... an approximate answer (say, within 1%) would be more than sufficient. This has requirement has now been quickly delivered by implementing the existing hyperloglog algorithms within SQL engines for 'approximate count distinct' operations. 

More importantly, SQL is a language that is not explicitly tied to a storage model. While some might think of SQL as synonymous with relational databases, many of the new adopters of SQL are built on non-relational data. SQL is well on its way to being a standard language for accessing data stored in JSON and other serialized data structures.  

 

Summary

SQL is an immensely popular language today … and if anything its popularity is growing as the language is adopted for new data types and new use cases. The primacy of SQL for big data is not simply a default choice, but a conscious realization that SQL is the best suited language for basic analysis

PS. Next week, many sessions at this year’s OpenWorld will focus on the power, richness and performance of SQL for sophisticated data analysis including the following:

Monday September 28

Using Analytical SQL to Intelligently Explore Big Data @ 4:00PM Moscone North 131

Joerg Otto - Head of Database Engineering, IDS GmbH
Marty Gubar - Director, Oracle
Keith Laker - Senior Principal Product Manager, Data Warehousing and Big Data, Oracle


YesSQL! A Celebration of SQL and PL/SQL @ 6:00PM Moscone South 103

Steven Feuerstein - Architect, Oracle
Thomas Kyte - Architect, Oracle


Tuesday September 29

SQL Is the Best Development Language for Big Data @ 10:45AM Moscone South 104

Thomas Kyte - Architect, Oracle

 

Enjoy OpenWorld 2014 and if you have time please come and meet the Analytical SQL team in the Moscone South Exhbition Hall. We will be on the Parallel Execution and Advanced SQL Processing demo booth (id 3720).

 

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