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Is SQL Toast? Or Is Java Being Stupid Again?
01/17/2010

A recent Techtarget posting by the SearchSOA editor picks up on the musings of Miko Matsumura of Software AG, suggesting that because most new apps in the cloud can use data in main memory, there’s no need for the enterprise-database SQL API; rather, developers should access their data via Java. OK, that’s a short summary of a more nuanced argument. But the conclusion is pretty blunt: “SQL is toast.”

I have no great love for relational databases – as I’ve argued for many years, “relational” technology is actually marketing hype about data management that mostly is not relational at all. That is, the data isn’t stored as relational theory would suggest. The one truly relational thing about relational technology is SQL: the ability to perform operations on data in an elegant, high-level, somewhat English-like mini-language.

What’s this Java alternative that Miko’s talking about? Well, Java is an object-oriented programming (OOP) language. By “object”, OOP means a collection of code and the data on which it operates. Thus, an object-oriented database is effectively chunks of data, each stored with the code to access it.

So this is not really about Larry Ellison/Oracle deciding the future, or the “network or developer [rather] than the underlying technology”, as Miko puts it. It’s a fundamental question: which is better, treating data as a database to be accessed by objects, or as data within objects?

Over the last fifteen years, we have seen the pluses and minuses of “data in the object”. One plus is that there is no object-relational mismatch, in which you have to fire off a SQL statement to some remote, un-Java-like database like Oracle or DB2 whenever you need to get something done. The object-relational mismatch has been estimated to add 50% to development times, mostly because developers who know Java rarely know SQL.

Then there are the minuses, the reasons why people find themselves retrofitting SQL invocations to existing Java code. First of all, object-oriented programs in most cases don’t perform well in data-related transactions. Data stored separately in each object instance uses a lot of extra space, and the operations on it are not optimized. Second, in many cases, operations and the data are not standardized across object classes or applications, wasting lots of developer time. Third, OOP languages such as Java are low-level, and specifically low-level with regard to data manipulation. As a result, programming transactions on vanilla Java takes much longer than programming on one of the older 4GLs (like, say, the language that Blue Phoenix uses for some of its code migration).

So what effect would storing all your data in main memory have on Java data-access operations? Well, the performance hit would still be there – but would be less obvious, because of the overall improvement in access speed. In other words, it might take twice as long as SQL access, but since we might typically be talking about 1000 bytes to operate on, we still see 2 microseconds instead of 1, which is a small part of response time over a network. Of course, for massive queries involving terabytes, the performance hit will still be quite noticeable.

What will not go away immediately is the ongoing waste of development time. It’s not an obvious waste of time, because the developer either doesn’t know about 4GL alternatives or is comparing Java-data programming to all the time it takes to figure out relational operations and SQL. But it’s one of the main reasons reason that adopting Java actually caused a decrease in programmer productivity compared to structured programming, according to some user feedback I once collected, 15 years ago.

More fundamentally, I have to ask if the future of programming is going to be purely object-oriented or data-oriented. The rapid increase in networking speed of the Internet doesn’t make data processing speed ignorable; on the contrary, it makes it all the more important as a bottleneck. And putting all the data in main memory doesn’t solve the problem; it just makes the problem kick in at larger amounts of data – i.e., for more important applications. And then there’s all this sensor data beginning to flow across the Web …

So maybe SQL is toast. If what replaces it is something that Java can invoke that is high-level, optimizes transactions and data storage, and allows easy access to existing databases – in other words, something data-oriented, something like SQL – then I’m happy. If it’s something like storing data as objects and providing minimal, low-level APIs to manipulate that data – then we will be back to the same stupid over-application of Java that croaked development time and scalability 15 years ago.

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Wayne Kernochan