Does it matter if your SQL is bad?

IBM Introduces its new BLU architecture, continuing the convergence of relational, columnar, distributed, and variant schema database approaches.

This guest post comes courtesy of Tony Baer’s OnStrategies blog. Tony is a principal analyst covering Big Data at Ovum.

Tony Baer. Image: Seeking Alpha

The title of this post is a paraphrase of a question raised, by IDC analyst Carl Olofson at an IBM Big Data analyst event earlier this week. Carl's question neatly summarized our impressions from the session, which centered around some big data announcements that IBM had made. It concerned some new performance improvements that IBM has made that might render some issues with poorly formed SQL moot. More about that in a moment.

The question was all the more fitting and ironic given the setting — the event was held at IBM's Almaden research facility, which happened to be the same place where Edgar (Ted) Codd invented SQL; IBM will video webcast excerpts on April 30.

Specifically, IBM made a series of announcements; while much of the press focused on the announcement of a preview for IBM's PureData for Hadoop appliance, to us the highlight was unveiling of a new architecture, branded BLU acceleration. Independent DB2 consultant Dave Beulke, whom we met at the launch, has published one of the best post mortems on the significance of the announcement.

BLU is supposed to be lightning fast. BNSF railroad, a BLU beta customer, reported performing a 4-billion row join in 8 milliseconds.

So what does this all mean?

Databases are assuming multiple personalities

BLU acceleration consists of a new engine that accelerates database performance. Let’s dissect that seemingly innocuous — and ambiguous — statement. Traditionally, the database and the underlying engine were considered one and the same. But increasingly, databases are evolving into broader data platforms with multiple personalities that are each designed for a specific form of processing or compute problem scenarios. Today's DB2, Exadata, and Teradata 14 are not your father's row-based data stores — they also have columnar support; even Microsoft SQL Server Parallel Warehouse Edition supports columnar indexing that can double as full-blown data tables alongside your row store. So you run rows for your existing applications (probably most of them are transactional) and run new analytic apps against the column store. Or if you're a Pivotal HD (nee EMC Greenplum), run your SQL analytic queries against the relational engine, which happens to use Hadoop's HDFS as the back end file system. And for Hadoop, new frameworks are emerging alongside MapReduce that are adding interactive, graph, and stream processing faces.

This week's announcements by IBM of the BLU architecture marked yet another milestone in this trend. BLU is an engine that can exist side by side with DB2's traditional row-based data store (it will be supported inside DB2 10.5). So you can run existing apps on the row store while migrating a select few to tap BLU. BLU is also being made available for IBM's Informix TimeSeries 12.1, and in the long run, you're likely to see it going into IBM’s other data platforms (think PureData for Analytics, Operational Analytics, and Hadoop models).

From IBM: More mixing and matching

In the same spirit, we expect to see IBM (and its rivals) do more mixing and matching in the future. We’re waiting for IBM to release an appliance that combines SQL analytics side by side with an instance of Hadoop, where you could run blended analytic queries (think: analytics from your CRM system alongside social, weblog, and mobile data harvested by Hadoop).

And while we're on the topic of piling on data engines, IBM announced a preview of a JSON data store (think MongoDB style); it will become yet another engine to sit under the DB2 umbrella. We don’t expect MongoDB users to suddenly flock to buy DB2 licenses, but it will be a way to for existing DB2 shops to add an engine for developers who would otherwise implement their own Mongo one-off projects. The carrot is that IBM JSON takes advantage of data protection and security services of the DB2 platform that is not available from Mongo.

Dissecting BLU

BLU includes a number of features that individually, are not that unique (although there may be debates regarding degree of optimization). But together, they form a well-rounded approach to not only accelerating processing inside a SQL platform, but allowing new types of analytic processing. For instance, think about applying some of the late-binding schema practices from the Hadoop world to SQL (don’t believe for a moment that analytics on Hadoop doesn’t involve structuring data, but you can do it on demand, for the specific problem).

Put another way, in the Hadoop world, the competitive spotlight currently is on convergence with SQL. And now in the SQL world, styles of analytic processing from the NoSQL side are bleeding into SQL. Consider it a case of man bites dog.

The laundry list for BLU includes:

  • Columnar and in-memory processing — most Advanced SQL (or NewSQL) analytic platforms such as Teradata Aster, Pivotal HD (and its Greenplum predecessors), Vertica, ParAccel, and others incorporate columnar as a core design. Hadoop’s HBase database also uses column storage. And of course as noted above, columnar engines are increasingly being incorporated alongside existing row-oriented stores inside relational warhorses. Columnar lends itself well to analytics because it reduces table scanning (you only need to look at specific columns rather than across entire rows) and focuses on aggregate data rather than individual records

  • Data compression — compression and columnar tend to go together because, when you focus on representing aggregates, you can greatly reduce the number of bits for providing the data you need, such as averages, means, or outliers. Almost every column store employs some form of compression with ratios in the double-digit territory common. BLU is differentiated by a feature that IBM calls "actionable": You can read compressed data without de-compressing it first, which significantly boosts performance because you can avoid de-compress/re-compress compute cycles

  • Data skipping — many analytic data stores incorporate algorithms for minimizing data scans, with BLU’s algorithms doing so by ferreting out non-relevant data.

There are more optimizations under the hood. For instance, BLU tiers active columnar data into and out of memory and/or Flash (solid state disk) drives. And while in memory, BLU optimizes processing so that several columns can be crammed into a single memory register; that may sound quite geeky, but this design pattern is a key ingredient to accelerating throughput.

IBM contends that its in-memory and Flash optimizations are "good enough" to the point that a 100% in-memory PureData appliance to counter SAP HANA is not likely. But for Flash, never say never. In our view, given rapidly declining prices, we wouldn’t be surprised to see IBM at some point come out with an all-Flash unit.

Again, what does this mean for SQL and the DBA?

Now, back to our original question: When performance is accelerated to such an extent, does it really matter whether you’ve structured your tables, tuned your database, or formed your SQL statements properly? At first blush, that sounds like a rather academic question, but consider that time spent modeling databases and optimizing queries is time diverted from taking on new problems that could cut into the development backlog. And there is historical precedent; in SQL’s early days, conventional wisdom was that it required so much processing overhead (compared to hierarchical file systems that prevailed at the time) that it would never scale for the enterprise. Well, Moore’s Law brute forced the solution; SQL processing didn't get that much more efficient, but hardware got much more powerful. Will on-demand SQL acceleration do the same for database modeling and SQL querying? Will optimization and automation make DBAs obsolete?

It seemed sacrilegious that, nearing the 40th anniversary of SQL, that such a question was posed at the very place where the technology was born.

But matters aren't quite so black and white; as one set of problems get solved, broader ones emerge. For the DBA, the multiple personalities of data platforms are changing the nature of problem-solving: instead of writing the best SQL statement, focus on defining and directing the right query, to the right data, on the right engine, at the right time.

For instance, a hot new mobile device is released to the market with huge fanfare, sales initially spike before unexpectedly dropping through the floor. Such a query might fuse SQL (from the CRM analytic system) with sentiment analysis (to see what customers and prospects were saying), graph analysis (to understand who is friends with, and influences, whom), and time series (to see how sentiment changed over time). The query may run across SQL, Hadoop, and possibly another specialized data store.

Admittedly, there will be a significant role for automation to optimize such queries, but the trend points to a bigger reality for DBAs where they don’t worry as much about SQL schema or syntax per se, but focus more on optimizing (with the system’s help) data and queries in more global terms.