In a non-relational database, one piece of stored data might have different fields or attributes from the piece of data next to it in the same database. If you picture a spreadsheet of ice cream flavors, you know that each row is going to look approximately the same. There will be a column for the ice cream flavor name, a column for the brand, a column for the ingredients and so on. Each row in the spreadsheet will have some value for each of these columns.

A non-relational database doesn’t have to take this shape at all. One ice cream flavor entry might have information about its prize-winning recipe, another might have a list of celebrities who have listed that flavor as their favorite and a third might have tasting notes. In short, there is a lot more flexibility with storing data in a non-relational database.

Why Use a Non-Relational Database? 

Non-relational databases are really helpful when there are a lot of unknowns about exactly what data you need to store, or when there is a large volume of data that might hold different attributes but that you still need to compare side-by-side. 


Which Non-Relational Database Should I Use?

Just like any other tool you select for an application, it’s important to choose the right database in order to reduce latency, complexity, stability and price. Future-proofing the application is also something to consider, as databases scale differently. For example, non-relational databases are known for scaling well horizontally and being better suited to distributed systems than relational databases. Scaling horizontally means adding more machines, whereas vertical scaling means adding more processing power to the existing machine. With the advent of cloud infrastructure, which provides the ability to spin up additional servers relatively cheaply and easily, non-relational databases have a distinct advantage.

How Do Non-Relational (NoSQL) Databases Work? | Built In


What Is the Difference Between a Relational and Non-Relational Database?

To better understand what a non-relational database is, it’s helpful to clarify what a relational database is. Relational databases are a way to store data that rely on each piece of that data being structured in a specific way (typically using tables like our hypothetical ice cream spreadsheet above). Each piece of data is like a row in a spreadsheet wherein we define the column types in advance and normalize the data, which means that each row has either an entry or a null value for each column. 

In a relational database, each separate type of data needs its own table. For example, a hotel would have one table for guests and another table for reservations. Each entry in the guests table would have the same attributes – let’s say guest_ID, name and address. Meanwhile each entry in the reservations table would have the attributes IDstay_date and guest_id

Note that the last attribute of the reservations table (guest_id) is actually a reference to a row in the guests table. This type of relationship between data in different tables is how we are able to relate disparate data types to each other. These types of relationships, as well as the rigid table structures are what allows SQL (Structured Query Language) to work in relational databases.

If the hotel wanted information about all of the reservations a particular guest had, the lookup would require accessing both tables. In contrast, a non-relational database could store all data related to a guest (including reservations) in one entry, which can make lookups faster in many cases.

Related Reading From Built In ExpertsSQL vs. NoSQL: Which One Should You Choose?


How Do Non-Relational Databases Work?

As we’ll see below, the term non-relational database actually encompasses four major types of database, which each work differently. The four types are:


1. Graph Database

Each piece of data is stored as a node and relationships between nodes, called edges, are stored with equal importance. Graph databases are well suited to analyzing a large volume of data points that may seem unrelated and finding the relationships between those points. Some applications include financial institutions needing to detect fraud, healthcare providers who need to better understand disease trajectory and, of course, social networks to manage relationships between users. Neo4j is a popular graph database. 

Non-relational database example of how a graph database works using Ben & Jerry's and Jeni's ice cream as sample data. Each attribute appears in a yellow, green or orange circle. Each circle contains a piece of data with a directional arrow showing how that data relates to other data in the graph database.
Example of how a graph database works using ice cream as sample data. | Image: Julia Zolotarev

In the example above, we have some ice cream flavors, ingredients and brands mapped onto our graph. The relationships formed in the graph (CONTAINS, SELLS) are how we can traverse the graph, make connections and query our data. Depending on the tool you use, the query language will look a bit different, but you can see what a sample query might look like and what data it could return. 


2. Key-Value Store

Each piece of data has a unique key that points to some value. The structure of this database is very similar in concept to a Javascript object or Python dictionary. Key-value databases are typically very fast; we use them to store data that will probably be quite disparate and have no schema at all. Since the latency is so low in key-value databases, they are best used for caching, message queues or managing user profiles, to name a few. Redis and Amazon DynamoDB are popular examples of key-value databases.

Non-relational database example: key-value database visualization using pink rectangles. The keys are on the left and have directional arrows pointing to the values on the right.
Example of how a key-value database works using ice cream as sample data. | Image: Julia Zolotarev

If we were to query our example database above with a key of honey_lavender, we would get back the whole JSON object that is its value. Querying for chocolate_gooey_brownie will return that entire description string. 


3. Document-Oriented Store

Document databases are arguably the most multi-purpose databases of these four. Each piece of data is stored as a document, commonly in JSON, where the keys are exposed for querying. The shape of each document could be different. Each document can be of a different structure, but there is also an option to create groupings of documents called collections. These collections can be organized hierarchically, which creates ways to query the data relationally without losing flexibility. 

Document databases are used in many different settings such as online shopping carts, gaming and content management. MongoDB and Amazon DynamoDB are popular examples of document-oriented databases. Amazon DynamoDB is a hybrid, so it’s considered both a key-value and document-oriented database. 

Non-relational database example: document-oriented store. The top box is orange and contains information about a flavor profile while the bottom box (green) also includes brand information
Example of how a document-oriented database works using ice cream as sample data. | Image: Julia Zolotarev

As you can see in this example, the two documents have different structures and can hold different information. You can add or remove fields from any of the documents as needed.


4. Wide-Column Database

Each piece of data is stored in a table-like structure. Wide column databases are most similar to relational databases. The data can be unstructured though, and doesn’t need to have a rigid schema. Wide-column databases are almost like a hybrid of a key-value database and a relational database. Each piece of data is stored with a unique key that points to a series of column types that can vary from row to row. 

This type of database is commonly used when there is a large number of data points with different column types. For example, records from an IoT device will have frequent entries but potentially different data types. Cassandra and HBase are popular options for wide column databases. 

Non-relatonal database example. Yellow rectangles. On the left, there are two stacked rectangles, one marked chocolate and the other marked vanilla. Each flavor has a directional arrow pointing to attributes related to those flavors in columns similar to a spredsheet
Example of how a wide-column database works using ice cream as sample data. | Image: Julia Zolotarev

Even though the rows in this example have different values, they can still be in the same database. 

Expert Contributors

Built In’s expert contributor network publishes thoughtful, solutions-oriented stories written by innovative tech professionals. It is the tech industry’s definitive destination for sharing compelling, first-person accounts of problem-solving on the road to innovation.

Learn More

Great Companies Need Great People. That's Where We Come In.

Recruit With Us