Relational vs. NoSQL: The days of legacy databases are numbered


By Chris Harris, Vice President, Field Engineering at Couchbase.
The increased pressure of the pandemic means developers must ensure that they are equipped to meet the demands of today’s digital-first world. However, this doesn’t come without its challenges.
Many organisations still heavily rely on ageing legacy technology that isn’t built to accommodate the requirements of modern businesses, as they fear the cost and complexity of updating their systems. Some also still have an attitude of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” – but this can land them in hot water. If outdated systems are not upgraded, organisations will lag behind in their digital transformation projects, losing out on business value and potential revenue streams.

Blowing off the cobwebs of legacy

Most organisations were built on a foundation of legacy technology, and it can be tough to part with these tried and tested applications. Take databases, for example. It is well understood that legacy systems and infrastructure are holding back digital transformation initiatives – and legacy databases are one of the largest constraints to innovation. In fact, recent Couchbase research found that 61 percent of digital architects reported past technology decisions made completing digital transformation projects more difficult – in particular, cloud infrastructure (48%) and database (43%) decisions.
Traditional relational databases (RDBMS) were built in the 1980s and reflect the infrastructure reality of those times. While they perform very well for their core functions, they were not built with the cloud in mind, often lack mobile compatibility, have high maintenance costs, and can be inflexible. These legacy databases can be a major setback as they are not suited to modern-day business processes.
The needs of a modern organisation have now stretched beyond what legacy databases have to offer. Although relational databases have the familiarity and comfort of old legacy technology, architects are aware that their days are numbered. According to a recent survey, 79 percent of organisations are currently actively planning to reduce their reliance on relational databases – showing that the relational vs. NoSQL debate is very close to being over, once and for all.

Meeting the demands of a modern business

The perfect scenario to fix this problem is adopting technology that is as familiar as legacy, but brings all the benefits of modern infrastructure. Turning back to the database example, it won’t be difficult to convince developers of the benefits of modern databases – the challenge is making it as easy as possible for them to transfer their skills from one technology to the other (64 percent of organizations are locked into using legacy technology because they have invested heavily in the relevant skills, while the same percentage say legacy databases hold their systems of record).
This is where NoSQL steps in. The right NoSQL database can operate on the same principles as a legacy database, offering the familiar concepts of relational databases on a more modern system. IT teams now do not have to immediately adapt to new technology that requires a completely different skillset. This minimises the need for investment in new training for developers, as this technology complements their existing skills – therefore saving organisations time, resources, and money. Crucially, it is now easier than ever for developers to migrate their monolithic applications of the past into modern microservices that meet the current and future demands of a modern organisation.
Developers can now use modern NoSQL databases to step away from legacy and gain better performance, flexibility, and scalability – without having to compromise on any of their needs. NoSQL systems are designed to be reliable and perform at scale, enabling developers to quickly build new applications and meet the needs of a modern digital business.

Ending the debate

Databases play a key part in supporting the development of digital initiatives, and this is all the more important given the increased pace of digital transformation during the pandemic. Against this backdrop, we are likely to see the trend for widespread adoption of NoSQL databases continue over the next few years. While casting off the shackles of legacy databases may once have been a difficult task, the switch from relational to NoSQL can be a cleaner transition as organisations are now able to make technical improvements while still utilising their developers’ current skill sets.
While it doesn’t take much to convince developers of the benefits of NoSQL, the debate between relational vs. NoSQL is slowly coming to an end. Organisations must now bite the bullet and upgrade their ageing infrastructure – leaving relational back in the 1980s where it belongs.

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