Traditional relational databases are not suitable for cloud services anymore. Its vertical scaling model imposes a relatively low scaling limit to your services. Complicated sharding and replication schemes could be used to go beyond the capacity of the largest database machine, adding complexity to your system, reducing engineering velocity, and risking your service to human-induced failure. Besides, database management for relational databases remains a complicated process, even with managed database offering from cloud providers. Expensive DBAs must be hired and trained to maintain in-house databases, and the velocity is only as fast as they can move. Even with managed database services, major version upgrades still requires manual intervention, and minor updates, though automated, still results in minor downtime and disruption to services.

Thus, more and more services are moving towards NoSQL. NoSQL databases are designed for large-scale database clustering in cloud and web applications. In these applications, requirements for performance and scalability outweighed the need for the immediate, rigid data consistency that the relational databases provide to transactional enterprise applications. Essentially, NoSQL trades the structural data and transactional operation support for much larger scale. Such a shift creates challenges in design and implementations of business logic.

In recent years, so-called “NewSQL” databases start to emerge, such as Amazon Web Services’ Aurora and Google Cloud’s Spanner. These databases are designed to bring together NoSQL’s scalability and SQL’s transactional support, providing both scalability and ease of use. However, they are relatively new, less stable and mature compared to SQL and NoSQL databases. As a managed offering, they may not be available in all geolocations, have all the features you need, or other constraints that hinder adoption and engineering velocity.

When I architected the data store layer for AWS Transit Gateway, constraints on Aurora, especially regional availability, were hard adoption blockers. We chose Amazon DynamoDB as the data store engine as it has been in existence for close to 10 years, and its performance, availability, and scalability are exceptional. However, changing the team’s mindset from many years of SQL experience to a key-value store was not an easy task. We have learned a few lessons and I humbly summarize them in this post. Note that the design was completed before re:Invent 2017, so features released later, e.g. DynamoDB transactions was not incorporated.

Organize Data by Correlation, not by Relation

In SQL world, many books teach you how to break your business logic into small segments of data and relationships among them, and translate them into tables and mapping tables. Then you add indexes to data columns to support all kinds of joins. You are not afraid of creating many tables, as long as you can efficiently join them to produce meaningful data.

However, in the NoSQL world, it becomes tricky to work with many tables at the same time. Without native transactional support, atomic updates across multiple items/rows in multiple tables are difficult to implement correctly. There are libraries out there, such as Amazon DynamoDB Transactions, allowing you to do that, but it is complicated and inefficient. You would be essentially managing commit, rollback, and appliers yourself that are taken care of by the RDBMS engine, and paying overheads in operations. For example, the DynamoDb Transactions perform \(7N+4\) operations per \(N\) writes without contending.

Thus, key-value NoSQL can only guarantee atomic writes on a per-item level. By aggregating all closely-correlated data into the same item, you can eliminate transactional operations across tables and items. Instead of organizing the data by their relations, you should identify clusters of highly correlated data but are loosely correlated with each other and aggregate each cluster into one table.

One classic example of having multiple tables in the relational world is to represent one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many relationships. Three tables are created for \(A\), \(B\), and the mapping between \(A\) and \(B\). But what to do in NoSQL world?

Composite Data or Separate Tables

There are two ways: composition or separation.

In a one-to-one relationship between \(A\) and \(B\), you can combine them into a single item identified with a single key. For example, let \(A\) be a resource that your service provides to your customers, and \(B\) be the metadata that comprises of resource \(A\). You can collapse \(B\) into \(A\).

The one-to-many relationship is a bit more complicated. NoSQL database may impose a size limit on each item. For example, DynamoDB imposes a maximum item size of 400 KB. The existence of such limit requires a well-defined upper bound of the number of items collapsed into the main item. For example, if there can be no more than \(x\) \(B\)s for each \(A\), and the size of \(A+xB\) is guaranteed to be within the size limit of each item, then it is recommended to collapse a list of \(B\) into \(A\). However, if such upper bound cannot be established, then they must be in separate tables.

One particular type of tables in a one-to-many relationship is the common utility table for multiple other tables. Each row in such utility table comprises a primary key of table name and identifier in each table, along with common data fields. In RDBMS a simple join can relate the data in the utility table to the main table, and the existence of such a utility table helps with querying common data across many tables. However, each row only maps to a single row in another table. Therefore, it can be duplicated into each data table and eliminate the need for joins.

Many-to-many relationships are more complicated. Depends on your use case, you may want to store them in different types of NoSQL database engines, such as graph database if the complex relationships between items are useful. Another way is to reduce them into a one-to-many relationship if one party can be grouped into static groups. Another way is to store the relationship in one side. For example, for a many-to-many relationship between \(A\) and \(B\), the list of \(B\) can be stored in each \(A\), given that there is an upper bound for number of \(B\) mapped to each \(A\), and capability of querying the list of \(A\) mapped to each \(B\) can be forgone.

Composition can be implemented by string serialization or binary serialization. I recommend using JSON-based string serialization for its cross-language interoperability, readability, and conciseness. You can use Gson to serialize collections of Java POJO or Json4s to serialize collections of Scala case classes into a string field.

Think about Access Pattern

NoSQL only implements a limited set of query operations, and unindexed queries (“scan”) are far more expensive than an unindexed query in RDBMS. For example, DynamoDB only supports query by Hash Key, Hash Key and Range Key (if Range Key presents), and range query by Hash Key and Range Key. These operations can be performed on the primary key and secondary indexes, but there is a limit on the number of secondary indexes for each table. RDBMS supports flexible indexing schemes, and the number of indexes per table is higher than NoSQL. For example, all MySQL storage engines support at least 16 indexes per table.

To effectively design your tables, especially on keys and indexes, you should think hard on the access pattern:

  • What are the criteria used to locate items in a table?
  • For range queries, how many distinct values are there in the range? Is it possible to convert it into several disjoint queries of the same type?
  • For each criterion and range query, are there any supplemental criteria that can be obtained without much effort?
  • Do we care about ordering in query response?

Based on the answers, design the primary key and secondary indexes in a way that supports most of the queries by having some of them use supplemental data. For example, one query is to find the item by its resource ID. However, this query is for an API that also provides the owner ID as part of the input parameter. Then you could design a Hash Key of owner ID and Range Key of resource ID so that it supports three use cases:

  1. query by owner ID;
  2. query by resource ID and owner ID (which always presents);
  3. query by owner ID and a range on resource ID, such as paginated queries.

Also, think about the consistency requirement for your access pattern.

  • What kind of consistency requirement each access pattern require? If eventual consistency is enough, what is the maximum tolerance for outdated data? Some queries, such as BI queries, may be OK to work with stale data within hours or even days, and they can be run off of the NoSQL data store entirely using backups and secondary storage engines.
  • Can write operations can be broken into multiple steps such that failure occurred in any of them requires no rollback? One example is to
    1. increment a counter to obtain an unused ID,
    2. create a mapping for an ID,
    3. save the actual item for the given ID.

1 and 2 don’t require rollback if 2 or 3 fails, and thus they can be broken down into separate tables/items, giving more flexibility in table designs.

Use Primary Key for Uniqueness Guarantee

Unlike a SQL database where a UNIQUE KEY clause provides uniqueness guarantees on arbitrary columns with no cost, uniqueness guarantee is difficult to achieve in the NoSQL database, primarily due to its design. NoSQL databases use distributed storage engines that are often sharded across many machines using a simple sharding scheme, and compute engines are remote to storage engines. Therefore, they don’t provide arbitrarily-defined uniqueness guarantees. For example in DynamoDB, only the primary key guarantees uniqueness.

If you need a strong uniqueness guarantee across a column or a combination of two columns, you have no choice but make them as the primary key. You may find it awkward at the beginning since it places additional restrictions on access patterns, but you would find it is easier to deal with queries than duplicates due to race conditions or consistency issues.

Dealing with Read Consistency

Many operations are not strong consistent in NoSQL, due to its replication and sharding scheme. For example, DynamoDB shards data by Hash Key and replicates three times for each item. The writes succeed if two of the three copies are updated. Consistent reads access at least two replicas, while inconsistent reads access only one replica.

You may choose to use consistent reads across the board. However, it effectively reduces the throughput of your data store by half or increases the cost by 100%. In many cases, you can live by with slightly outdated data by using inconsistent reads.

Besides, updates to secondary indexes may not be strongly consistent. Read-after-write operations using secondary indexes return slightly outdated data all the time. Thus, it is crucial to embrace eventual consistency when using NoSQL database. It is a losing battle trying to enforce strong consistency.

There are many ways of getting strong consistency. For example, you can define a few access patterns using consistent reads from the primary key if they always require strong consistency. Alternatively, you can load the items again using its primary key after reading it from secondary indexes using inconsistent reads, as the primary key is immutable.

Write Consistency

Unlike reads, write operations must be consistent, or you are at risk of overriding existing data or newer updates. One common way of enforcing write consistency is to use conditional updates.

By defining a column, version of a numeric value, and two write operations:

  • saveNew that sets version = 0 and expects either the item with the given primary key or the column version does not exist upon write. It prevents overriding previously-created values.
  • saveUpdate that expects version to be the same as returned by the read operation, and increments the value of version.

A sample implementation using DynamoDB’s document library is as follows:

void putItemNew(String tableName, PutItemSpec spec) {
  try {
    putItemImpl(tableName, spec
                .withExpected(new Expected(VERSION).notExist())
  } catch (ConditionalCheckFailedException e) {
    throw new ItemVersioningException("Request=" + spec.getRequest().toString(), e);

void putItemUpdate(final String tableName, final PutItemSpec spec) {
  long curVersion = getVersion();
  try {
    putItemImpl(tableName, spec
                .withExpected(new Expected(VERSION).eq(curVersion))
  } catch (ConditionalCheckFailedException e) {
    throw new ItemVersioningException("Request=" + spec.getRequest().toString(), e);

private void putItemImpl(final String tableName, final PutItemSpec spec) {

Out-of-order writes will fail and return an ItemVersioningException.

Drive Multiple Operations to Completion

In some cases, you need a way to drive multiple operations to completion reliably because there is no way to achieve atomic updates. You can do so by using asynchronous workflows. There are multiple scenarios where workflows are written to insert, update, or delete multiple items in multiple tables in Transit Gateway’s services. I have written another post on how to design a reliable and efficient workflow engine in another post.