Posts tagged:

schema design

6 Rules of Thumb for MongoDB Schema Design: Part 3

Jun 11 • Posted 4 months ago

By William Zola, Lead Technical Support Engineer at MongoDB

This is our final stop in this tour of modeling One-to-N relationships in MongoDB. In the first post, I covered the three basic ways to model a One-to-N relationship. Last time, I covered some extensions to those basics: two-way referencing and denormalization.

Denormalization allows you to avoid some application-level joins, at the expense of having more complex and expensive updates. Denormalizing one or more fields makes sense if those fields are read much more often than they are updated.

Read part one and part two if you’ve missed them.

Whoa! Look at All These Choices!

So, to recap:

  • You can embed, reference from the “one” side, or reference from the “N” side, or combine a pair of these techniques
  • You can denormalize as many fields as you like into the “one” side or the “N” side

Denormalization, in particular, gives you a lot of choices: if there are 8 candidates for denormalization in a relationship, there are 2 8 (1024) different ways to denormalize (including not denormalizing at all). Multiply that by the three different ways to do referencing, and you have over 3,000 different ways to model the relationship.

Guess what? You now are stuck in the “paradox of choice” — because you have so many potential ways to model a “one-to-N” relationship, your choice on how to model it just got harder. Lots harder.

Rules of Thumb: Your Guide Through the Rainbow

Here are some “rules of thumb” to guide you through these indenumberable (but not infinite) choices

  • One: favor embedding unless there is a compelling reason not to
  • Two: needing to access an object on its own is a compelling reason not to embed it
  • Three: Arrays should not grow without bound. If there are more than a couple of hundred documents on the “many” side, don’t embed them; if there are more than a few thousand documents on the “many” side, don’t use an array of ObjectID references. High-cardinality arrays are a compelling reason not to embed.
  • Four: Don’t be afraid of application-level joins: if you index correctly and use the projection specifier (as shown in part 2) then application-level joins are barely more expensive than server-side joins in a relational database.
  • Five: Consider the write/read ratio when denormalizing. A field that will mostly be read and only seldom updated is a good candidate for denormalization: if you denormalize a field that is updated frequently then the extra work of finding and updating all the instances is likely to overwhelm the savings that you get from denormalizing.
  • Six: As always with MongoDB, how you model your data depends — entirely — on your particular application’s data access patterns. You want to structure your data to match the ways that your application queries and updates it.

Your Guide To The Rainbow

When modeling “One-to-N” relationships in MongoDB, you have a variety of choices, so you have to carefully think through the structure of your data. The main criteria you need to consider are:

  • What is the cardinality of the relationship: is it “one-to-few”, “one-to-many”, or “one-to-squillions”?
  • Do you need to access the object on the “N” side separately, or only in the context of the parent object?
  • What is the ratio of updates to reads for a particular field?

Your main choices for structuring the data are:

  • For “one-to-few”, you can use an array of embedded documents
  • For “one-to-many”, or on occasions when the “N” side must stand alone, you should use an array of references. You can also use a “parent-reference” on the “N” side if it optimizes your data access pattern.
  • For “one-to-squillions”, you should use a “parent-reference” in the document storing the “N” side.

Once you’ve decided on the overall structure of the data, then you can, if you choose, denormalize data across multiple documents, by either denormalizing data from the “One” side into the “N” side, or from the “N” side into the “One” side. You’d do this only for fields that are frequently read, get read much more often than they get updated, and where you don’t require strong consistency, since updating a denormalized value is slower, more expensive, and is not atomic.

Productivity and Flexibility

The upshot of all of this is that MongoDB gives you the ability to design your database schema to match the needs of your application. You can structure your data in MongoDB so that it adapts easily to change, and supports the queries and updates that you need to get the most out of your application.

6 Rules of Thumb for MongoDB Schema Design: Part 2

Jun 5 • Posted 4 months ago

By William Zola, Lead Technical Support Engineer at MongoDB

This is the second stop on our tour of modeling One-to-N relationships in MongoDB. Last time I covered the three basic schema designs: embedding, child-referencing, and parent-referencing. I also covered the two factors to consider when picking one of these designs:

  • Will the entities on the “N” side of the One-to-N ever need to stand alone?
  • What is the cardinality of the relationship: is it one-to-few; one-to-many; or one-to-squillions?

With these basic techniques under our belt, I can move on to covering more sophisticated schema designs, involving two-way referencing and denormalization.

Intermediate: Two-Way Referencing

If you want to get a little bit fancier, you can combine two techniques and include both styles of reference in your schema, having both references from the “one” side to the “many” side and references from the “many” side to the “one” side.

For an example, let’s go back to that task-tracking system. There’s a “people” collection holding Person documents, a “tasks” collection holding Task documents, and a One-to-N relationship from Person -> Task. The application will need to track all of the Tasks owned by a Person, so we will need to reference Person -> Task.

With the array of references to Task documents, a single Person document might look like this:

On the other hand, in some other contexts this application will display a list of Tasks (for example, all of the Tasks in a multi-person Project) and it will need to quickly find which Person is responsible for each Task. You can optimize this by putting an additional reference to the Person in the Task document.

This design has all of the advantages and disadvantages of the “One-to-Many” schema, but with some additions. Putting in the extra ‘owner’ reference into the Task document means that its quick and easy to find the Task’s owner, but it also means that if you need to reassign the task to another person, you need to perform two updates instead of just one. Specifically, you’ll have to update both the reference from the Person to the Task document, and the reference from the Task to the Person. (And to the relational gurus who are reading this — you’re right: using this schema design means that it is no longer possible to reassign a Task to a new Person with a single atomic update. This is OK for our task-tracking system: you need to consider if this works with your particular use case.)

Intermediate: Denormalizing With “One-To-Many” Relationships

Beyond just modeling the various flavors of relationships, you can also add denormalization into your schema. This can eliminate the need to perform the application-level join for certain cases, at the price of some additional complexity when performing updates. An example will help make this clear.

Denormalizing from Many -> One

For the parts example, you could denormalize the name of the part into the ‘parts[]’ array. For reference, here’s the version of the Product document without denormalization.

Denormalizing would mean that you don’t have to perform the application-level join when displaying all of the part names for the product, but you would have to perform that join if you needed any other information about a part.

While making it easier to get the part names, this would add just a bit of client-side work to the application-level join:

Denormalizing saves you a lookup of the denormalized data at the cost of a more expensive update: if you’ve denormalized the Part name into the Product document, then when you update the Part name you must also update every place it occurs in the ‘products’ collection.

Denormalizing only makes sense when there’s an high ratio of reads to updates. If you’ll be reading the denormalized data frequently, but updating it only rarely, it often makes sense to pay the price of slower updates — and more complex updates — in order to get more efficient queries. As updates become more frequent relative to queries, the savings from denormalization decrease.

For example: assume the part name changes infrequently, but the quantity on hand changes frequently. This means that while it makes sense to denormalize the part name into the Product document, it does not make sense to denormalize the quantity on hand.

Also note that if you denormalize a field, you lose the ability to perform atomic and isolated updates on that field. Just like with the two-way referencing example above, if you update the part name in the Part document, and then in the Product document, there will be a sub-second interval where the denormalized ‘name’ in the Product document will not reflect the new, updated value in the Part document.

Denormalizing from One -> Many

You can also denormalize fields from the “One” side into the “Many” side:

However, if you’ve denormalized the Product name into the Part document, then when you update the Product name you must also update every place it occurs in the ‘parts’ collection. This is likely to be a more expensive update, since you’re updating multiple Parts instead of a single Product. As such, it’s significantly more important to consider the read-to-write ratio when denormalizing in this way.

Intermediate: Denormalizing With “One-To-Squillions” Relationships

You can also denormalize the “one-to-squillions” example. This works in one of two ways: you can either put information about the “one” side (from the ‘hosts’ document) into the “squillions” side (the log entries), or you can put summary information from the “squillions” side into the “one” side.

Here’s an example of denormalizing into the “squillions” side. I’m going to add the IP address of the host (from the ‘one’ side) into the individual log message:

Your query for the most recent messages from a particular IP address just got easier: it’s now just one query instead of two.

In fact, if there’s only a limited amount of information you want to store at the “one” side, you can denormalize it ALL into the “squillions” side and get rid of the “one” collection altogether:

On the other hand, you can also denormalize into the “one” side. Lets say you want to keep the last 1000 messages from a host in the ‘hosts’ document. You could use the $each / $slice functionality introduced in MongoDB 2.4 to keep that list sorted, and only retain the last 1000 messages:

The log messages get saved in the ‘logmsg’ collection as well as in the denormalized list in the ‘hosts’ document: that way the message isn’t lost when it ages out of the ‘hosts.logmsgs’ array.

Note the use of the projection specification ( {_id:1} ) to prevent MongoDB from having to ship the entire ‘hosts’ document over the network. By telling MongoDB to only return the _id field, I reduce the network overhead down to just the few bytes that it takes to store that field (plus just a little bit more for the wire protocol overhead).

Just as with denormalizing in the “One-to-Many” case, you’ll want to consider the ratio of reads to updates. Denormalizing the log messages into the Host document makes sense only if log messages are infrequent relative to the number of times the application needs to look at all of the messages for a single host. This particular denormalization is a bad idea if you want to look at the data less frequently than you update it.


In this post, I’ve covered the additional choices that you have past the basics of embed, child-reference, or parent-reference.

  • You can use bi-directional referencing if it optimizes your schema, and if you are willing to pay the price of not having atomic updates
  • If you are referencing, you can denormalize data either from the “One” side into the “N” side, or from the “N” side into the “One” side

When deciding whether or not to denormalize, consider the following factors:

  • You cannot perform an atomic update on denormalized data
  • Denormalization only makes sense when you have a high read to write ratio

Next time, I’ll give you some guidelines to pick and choose among all of these options.

Schema Design for Social Inboxes in MongoDB

Oct 31 • Posted 11 months ago

Designing a schema is a critical part of any application. Like most databases, there are many options for modeling data in MongoDB, and it is important to incorporate the functional requirements and performance goals for your application when determining the best design. In this post, we’ll explore three approaches for using MongoDB when creating social inboxes or message timelines.

If you’re building a social network, like Twitter for example, you need to design a schema that is efficient for users viewing their inbox, as well as users sending messages to all their followers. The whole point of social media, after all, is that you can connect in real time.

There are several design considerations for this kind of application:

  • The application needs to support a potentially large volume of reads and writes.
  • Reads and writes are not uniformly distributed across users. Some users post much more frequently than others, and some users have many, many more followers than others.
  • The application must provide a user experience that is instantaneous.
  • Edit 11/6: The application will have little to no user deletions of data (a follow up blog post will include information about user deletions and historical data)

Because we are designing an application that needs to support a large volume of reads and writes we will be using a sharded collection for the messages. All three designs include the concept of “fan out,” which refers to distributing the work across the shards in parallel:

  1. Fan out on Read
  2. Fan out on Write
  3. Fan out on Write with Buckets

Each approach presents trade-offs, and you should use the design that is best for your application’s requirements.

The first design you might consider is called Fan Out on Read. When a user sends a message, it is simply saved to the inbox collection. When any user views their own inbox, the application queries for all messages that include the user as a recipient. The messages are returned in descending date order so that users can see the most recent messages.

To implement this design, create a sharded collection called inbox, specifying the from field as the shard key, which represents the address sending the message. You can then add a compound index on the to field and the sent field. Once the document is saved into the inbox, the message is effectively sent to all the recipients. With this approach sending messages is very efficient.

Viewing an inbox, on the other hand, is less efficient. When a user views their inbox the application issues a find command based on the to field, sorted by sent. Because the inbox collection uses from as its shard key, messages are grouped by sender across the shards. In MongoDB queries that are not based on the shard key will be routed to all shards. Therefore, each inbox view will be routed to all shards in the system. As the system scales and many users go to view their inbox, all queries will be routed to all shards. This design does not scale as well as each query being routed to a single shard.

With the “Fan Out on Read” method, sending a message is very efficient, but viewing the inbox is less efficient.

Fan out on Read is very efficient for sending messages, but less efficient for reading messages. If the majority of your application consists of users sending messages, but very few go to read what anyone sends them — let’s call it an anti-social app — then this design might work well. However, for most social apps there are more requests by users to view their inbox than there are to send messages.

The Fan out on Write takes a different approach that is more optimized for viewing inboxes. This time, instead of sharding our inbox collection on the sender, we shard on the message recipient. In this way, when we go to view an inbox the queries can be routed to a single shard, which will scale very well. Our message document is the same, but now save a copy of the message for every recipient.

With the “Fan Out on Write” method, viewing the inbox is efficient, but sending messages consumes more resources.

In practice we might implement the saving of messages asynchronously. Imagine two celebrities quickly exchange messages at a high-profile event - the system could quickly be saturated with millions of writes. By saving a first copy of their message, then using a pool of background workers to write copies to all followers, we can ensure the two celebrities can exchange messages quickly, and that followers will soon have their own copies. Furthermore, we could maintain a last-viewed date on the user document to ensure they have accessed the system recently - zombie accounts probably shouldn’t get a copy of the message, and for users that haven’t accessed their account recently we could always resort to our first design - Fan out on Read - to repopulate their inbox. Subsequent requests would then be fast again.

At this point we have improved the design for viewing inboxes by routing each inbox view to a single shard. However, each message in the user’s inbox will produce a random read operation. If each inbox view produces 50 random reads, then it only takes a relatively modest number of concurrent users to potentially saturate the disks. Fortunately we can take advantage of the document data model to further optimize this design to be even more efficient.

Fan out on Write with Buckets refines the Fan Out on Write design by “bucketing” messages together into documents of 50 messages ordered by time. When a user views their inbox the request can be fulfilled by reading just a few documents of 50 messages each instead of performing many random reads. Because read time is dominated by seek time, reducing the number of seeks can provide a major performance improvement to the application. Another advantage to this approach is that there are fewer index entries.

To implement this design we create two collections, an inbox collection and a user collection. The inbox collection uses two fields for the shard key, owner and sequence, which holds the owner’s user id and sequence number (i.e. the id of 50-message “bucket” documents in their inbox). The user collection contains simple user documents for tracking the total number of messages in their inbox. Since we will probably need to show the total number of messages for a user in a variety of places in our application, this is a nice place to maintain the count instead of calculating for each request. Our message document is the same as in the prior examples.

To send a message we iterate through the list of recipients as we did in the Fan out on Write example, but we also take another step to increment the count of total messages in the inbox of the recipient, which is maintained on the user document. Once we know the count of messages, we know the “bucket” in which to add the latest message. As these messages reach the 50 item threshold, the sequence number increments and we begin to add messages to the next “bucket” document. The most recent messages will always be in the “bucket” document with the highest sequence number. Viewing the most recent 50 messages for a user’s inbox is at most two reads; viewing the most recent 100 messages is at most three reads.

Normally a user’s entire inbox will exist on a single shard. However, it is possible that a few user inboxes could be spread across two shards. Because our application will probably page through a user’s inbox, it is still likely that every query for these few users will be routed to a single shard.

Fan out on Write with Buckets is generally the most scalable approach of the these three designs for social inbox applications. Every design presents different trade-offs. In this case viewing a user’s inbox is very efficient, but writes are somewhat more complex, and more disk space is consumed. For many applications these are the right trade-offs to make.

Schema design is one of the most important optimizations you can make for your application. We have a number of additional resources available on schema design if you are interested in learning more:

Fan out on Read
Fan out on Write
Fan out on Write with Buckets
Send Message Performance
Single write
Shard per recipient
Multiple writes
Shard per recipient
Appends (grows)
Read Inbox Performance
Broadcast all shards
Random reads
Single shard
Random reads
Single shard
Single read
Data Size
Message stored once
Copy per recipient
Copy per recipient

Schema design is one of the most important optimizations you can make for your application. We have a number of additional resources available on schema design if you are interested in learning more:

Schema Design for Time Series Data in MongoDB

Oct 30 • Posted 11 months ago

This is a post by Sandeep Parikh, Solutions Architect at MongoDB and Kelly Stirman, Director of Products at MongoDB.

Data as Ticker Tape

New York is famous for a lot of things, including ticker tape parades.

For decades the most popular way to track the price of stocks on Wall Street was through ticker tape, the earliest digital communication medium. Stocks and their values were transmitted via telegraph to a small device called a “ticker” that printed onto a thin roll of paper called “ticker tape.” While out of use for over 50 years, the idea of the ticker lives on in scrolling electronic tickers at brokerage walls and at the bottom of most news networks, sometimes two, three and four levels deep.

Today there are many sources of data that, like ticker tape, represent observations ordered over time. For example:

  • Financial markets generate prices (we still call them “stock ticks”).
  • Sensors measure temperature, barometric pressure, humidity and other environmental variables.
  • Industrial fleets such as ships, aircraft and trucks produce location, velocity, and operational metrics.
  • Status updates on social networks.
  • Calls, SMS messages and other signals from mobile devices.
  • Systems themselves write information to logs.

This data tends to be immutable, large in volume, ordered by time, and is primarily aggregated for access. It represents a history of what happened, and there are a number of use cases that involve analyzing this history to better predict what may happen in the future or to establish operational thresholds for the system.

Time Series Data and MongoDB

Time series data is a great fit for MongoDB. There are many examples of organizations using MongoDB to store and analyze time series data. Here are just a few:

  • Silver Spring Networks, the leading provider of smart grid infrastructure, analyzes utility meter data in MongoDB.
  • EnerNOC analyzes billions of energy data points per month to help utilities and private companies optimize their systems, ensure availability and reduce costs.
  • Square maintains a MongoDB-based open source tool called Cube for collecting timestamped events and deriving metrics.
  • Server Density uses MongoDB to collect server monitoring statistics.
  • Appboy, the leading platform for mobile relationship management, uses MongoDB to track and analyze billions of data points on user behavior.
  • Skyline Innovations, a solar energy company, stores and organizes meteorological data from commercial scale solar projects in MongoDB.
  • One of the world’s largest industrial equipment manufacturers stores sensor data from fleet vehicles to optimize fleet performance and minimize downtime.

In this post, we will take a closer look at how to model time series data in MongoDB by exploring the schema of a tool that has become very popular in the community: MongoDB Management Service (MMS). MMS helps users manage their MongoDB systems by providing monitoring, visualization and alerts on over 100 database metrics. Today the system monitors over 25k MongoDB servers across thousands of deployments. Every minute thousands of local MMS agents collect system metrics and ship the data back to MMS. The system processes over 5B events per day, and over 75,000 writes per second, all on less than 10 physical servers for the MongoDB tier.

Schema Design and Evolution

How do you store time series data in a database? In relational databases the answer is somewhat straightforward; you store each event as a row within a table. Let’s say you were monitoring the amount of system memory used per second. In that example you would have a table and rows that looked like the following:

timestamp memory_used
2013-10-10T23:06:37.000Z 1000000
2013-10-10T23:06:38.000Z 2000000

If we map that storage approach to MongoDB, we would end up with one document per event:

  timestamp: ISODate("2013-10-10T23:06:37.000Z"),
  type: ”memory_used”,
  value: 1000000
  timestamp: ISODate("2013-10-10T23:06:38.000Z"),
  type: ”memory_used”,
  value: 15000000

While this approach is valid in MongoDB, it doesn’t take advantage of the expressive nature of the document model. Let’s take a closer look at how we can refine the model to provide better performance for reads and to improve storage efficiency.

The Document-Oriented Design

A better schema approach looks like the following, which is not the same as MMS but it will help to understand the key concepts. Let’s call it the document-oriented design:

  timestamp_minute: ISODate("2013-10-10T23:06:00.000Z"),
  type: “memory_used”,
  values: {
    0: 999999,
    37: 1000000,
    38: 1500000,
    59: 2000000

We store multiple readings in a single document: one document per minute. To further improve the efficiency of the schema, we can isolate repeating data structures. In the ```timestamp_minute``` field we capture the minute that identifies the document, and for each memory reading we store a new value in the ```values``` sub-document. Because we are storing one value per second, we can simply represent each second as fields 0 - 59.

More Updates than Inserts

In any system there may be tradeoffs regarding the efficiency of different operations, such as inserts and updates. For example, in some systems updates are implemented as copies of the original record written out to a new location, which requires updating of indexes as well. One of MongoDB’s core capabilities is the in-place update mechanism: field-level updates are managed in place as long as the size of the document does not grow significantly. By avoiding rewriting the entire document and index entries unnecessarily, far less disk I/O is performed. Because field-level updates are efficient, we can design for this advantage in our application: with the document-oriented design there are many more updates (one per second) than inserts (one per minute).

For example, if you wanted to maintain a count in your application, MongoDB provides a handy operator that increments or decrements a field. Instead of reading a value into your application, incrementing, then writing the value back to the database, you can simply increase the field using $inc:

```{ $inc: { pageviews: 1 } }```

This approach has a number of advantages: first, the increment operation is atomic - multiple threads can safely increment a field concurrently using $inc. Furthermore, this approach is more efficient for disk operations, requires less data to be sent over the network and requires fewer round trips by omitting the need for any reads. Those are three big wins that result in a more simple, more efficient and more scalable system. The same advantages apply to the use of the $set operator.

The document-oriented design has several benefits for writing and reading. As previously stated, writes can be much faster as field-level updates because instead of writing a full document we’re sending a much smaller delta update that can be modeled like so:

    timestamp_minute: ISODate("2013-10-10T23:06:00.000Z"),
    type: ”memory_used”
  {$set: {“values.59”: 2000000 } }

With the document-oriented design reads are also much faster. If you needed an hour’s worth of measurements using the first approach you would need to read 3600 documents, whereas with this approach you would only need to read 60 documents. Reading fewer documents has the benefit of fewer disk seeks, and with any system fewer disk seeks usually results is significantly better performance.

A natural extension to this approach would be to have documents that span an entire hour, while still keeping the data resolution per second:

  timestamp_hour: ISODate("2013-10-10T23:00:00.000Z"),
  type: “memory_used”,
  values: {
    0: 999999,
    1: 1000000, 
    3598: 1500000,
    3599: 2000000

One benefit to this approach is that we can now access an hour’s worth of data using a single read. However, there is one significant downside: to update the last second of any given hour MongoDB would have to walk the entire length of the “values” object, taking 3600 steps to reach the end. We can further refine the model a bit to make this operation more efficient:

  timestamp_hour: ISODate("2013-10-10T23:00:00.000Z"),
  type: “memory_used”,
  values: {
    0: { 0: 999999, 1: 999999, …, 59: 1000000 },
    1: { 0: 2000000, 1: 2000000, …, 59: 1000000 },
    58: { 0: 1600000, 1: 1200000, …, 59: 1100000 },
    59: { 0: 1300000, 1: 1400000, …, 59: 1500000 }
    timestamp_hour: ISODate("2013-10-10T23:00:00.000Z"),
    type: “memory_used”
  {$set: {“values.59.59”: 2000000 } }

MMS Implementation

In MMS users have flexibility to view monitoring data at varying levels of granularity. These controls appear at the top of the monitoring page:

These controls inform the schema design for MMS, and how the data needs to be displayed. In MMS, different resolutions have corresponding range requirements - for example, if you specify that you want to analyze monitoring data at the granularity of “1 hr” instead of “1 min” then the ranges also become less granular, changing from hours to days, weeks and months:

To satisfy this approach in a scalable manner and keep data retention easy to manage, MMS organizes monitoring data to be very efficient for reads by maintaining copies at varying degrees of granularity. The document model allows for efficient use of space, so the tradeoff is very reasonable, even for a system as large as MMS. As data ages out, collections that are associated with ranges of time are simply dropped, which is a very efficient operation. Collections are created to represent future ranges of time, and these will eventually be dropped as well. This cycle maintains a rolling window of history associated with the functionality provided by MMS.

In addition, to support the “avg/sec” display option the system also tracks the number of samples collected and the sum of all readings for each metric similar to the following example:

  timestamp_minute: ISODate(“2013-10-10T23:06:00.000Z”),
  num_samples: 58,
  total_samples: 108000000,
  type: “memory_used”,
  values: {
    0: 999999,
    37: 1000000,
    38: 1500000,
    59: 1800000

The fields “num_samples” and “total_samples” are updated as new readings are applied to the document:

    timestamp_minute: ISODate("2013-10-10T23:06:00.000Z"),
    type: “memory_used”
    {$set: {“values.59”: 2000000 }},
    {$inc: {num_samples: 1, total_samples: 2000000 }}

Computing the average/sec is straightforward and requires no counting or processing, just a single read to retrieve the data and a simple application-level operation to compute the average. Note that with this model we assume a consistent cadence of measurements - one per second - that we can simply aggregate at the top of the document to report a rolled-up average for the whole minute. Other models are possible that would support inconsistent measurements and flexible averages over different time frames.

Another optimization used in MMS is preallocating all documents for the upcoming time period; MMS never causes an existing document to grow or be moved on disk. A background task within the MMS application performs inserts of empty “shell” documents including the subdocument schema but with all zeroes for the upcoming time periods before they are recorded. With this approach fields are always incremented or set without ever growing the document in size, which eliminates the possibility of moving the document and the associated overhead. This is a major performance win and another example of ensuring in-place updates within the document-oriented design.


MongoDB offers many advantages for storing and analyzing time series data, whether it’s stock ticks, tweets or MongoDB metrics. If you are using MongoDB for time series data analysis, we want to hear about your use case. Please continue the conversation by commenting on this post with your story.

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How MongoDB makes custom e-commerce easy

Sep 17 • Posted 2 years ago

The market for open source e-commerce software has gone through a lot of stages already, as you might know it by popular platforms like osCommerce, Magento, Zen Cart, PrestaShop, Spree, just to name a few. These platforms are frequently used as a basis for custom e-commerce apps, and they all require a SQL database. Given the inherent challenge in adapting open source software to custom features, it would seem that MongoDB is poised to play an important role in the next wave of e-commerce innovation.

Kyle Banker was one of the first to blog about MongoDB and e-commerce in April 2010, and there’s been surprisingly little written about it since then. In his blog, Kyle writes about Magento and other SQL based platforms: “What you’ll see is a flurry of tables working together to provide a flexible schema on top of a fundamentally inflexible style of database system.”

To this we must ask, why is a flexible schema so important in e-commerce?

Open source platforms are meant to be adapted to many different designs, conversion flows, and business processes. A flexible schema helps by giving developers a way to relate custom data structures to the platform’s existing model. Without a flexible schema, the developer has to get over high hurdles to make a particular feature possible. When the cost of creating and maintaining a custom feature is too high, the options are: give up the feature, start over with a different platform, or build a platform from scratch. That’s an expensive proposition.

There is a better way

For the past year we’ve been developing Forward, a new open source e-commerce platform combined with MongoDB. It’s been in production use since March 2012, and finally reached a point where we can demonstrate the benefits that MongoDB’s schema-less design brings to custom feature development.

The following examples demonstrate Forward’s REST-like ORM conventions, which are only available in the platform itself, but the underlying concepts map directly to MongoDB’s document structure. In this case, think of get() as db.collection.find() — put() as insert/update() — post() as insert() — and delete() as… delete().

Prototype faster

The majority of e-commerce sites represent small businesses, where moving fast can be the most important aspect of a web platform. When the flexible document structure of MongoDB is carried through the platform’s model interface, adding custom fields becomes easier than ever.

For example, let’s say you need a simple administrative view for adding a couple custom attributes to a product. Here’s a basic example for that purpose, written in Forward’s template syntax:

{args $product_id}

{if $}
    {$product = put("/products/$product_id", [
        spec => $params.spec,
        usage => $params.usage
    {flash notice="Saved" refresh=true}
    {$product = get("/products/$product_id")}

<for method="post">
    <div class="field">
        <label>Product specification</label>
        <textarea name="spec">{$product.spec|escape}</textarea>
    <div class="field">
        <label>Product usage instructions</label>
        <textarea name="usage">{$product.usage|escape}</textarea>
    <button type="submit">Save product</button>

It might be obvious what this template does, but what might be less obvious is that the platform knows nothing about the “spec” or “usage” fields, and yet they are treated as if the e-commerce data model was designed for them. No database migration necessary, just code.

You may argue this can be accomplished with a fuzzy SQL database structure, and you would be correct, but it’s not pretty, or readable with standard database tools. Ad-hoc queries on custom fields would become difficult.

Query on custom fields

If all we needed were custom key/value storage, you might not benefit that much from of a flexible schema. Where MongoDB really shines is in its ability to query on any document field, even embedded documents.

{get $oversized_products from "/products" [
    oversized => true,
    active => true

There are {$oversized_products.count} active oversized products

These fields may or may not be known by the e-commerce API, but in this case MongoDB’s query syntax finds only the documents with matching fields.

No more relational complexity

For those who spent years writing relational SQL queries, this is a big change. How do we create data relationships without joins? There are many different strategies, but Forward defines a field as either a static value or a callback method. This allows a field to return another document or collection based on a query. The result is a data model that can walk through relationships without joins. For example (PHP):

// class Accounts extends AppModel
$this->fields => array(
    'orders' => function ($order) {
        return get("/orders", array('account_id' => $account['id']));

This relationship can be used in a template like this:

{get $account from "/accounts/$session.account_id"}

You’ve placed

    {foreach $account.orders as $order}
            <td>{$order.items|count} item(s)</td>

Relationships can be defined by simple or complex queries. Results are lazy-loaded, making this example possible:

{get $order from "/orders/123"}

{$} placed {$order.account.orders.count} orders since {$order.account.orders.first.date_created|date_format}

// Output: John Smith placed 3 orders since Jun 14, 2012

What about transactions?

Many people bring up MongoDB’s lack of atomic transactions across collections as evidence that it’s not suitable for e-commerce applications. This has not been a significant barrier in our experience so far.

There are other ways to approach data integrity. In systems with low-moderate data contention, optimistic locking is sufficient. We’ll share more details about these strategies as things progress.

In conclusion

The future of e-commerce software looks bright with MongoDB. It’s time to blaze new trails where convoluted schemas, complex relational queries, and hair raising database migrations are a thing of the past. If you’re interested in working with Forward before public release, please consider joining the private beta and help us reinvent open source e-commerce as the world knows it.

A guest post from Eric Ingram, developer/founder @getfwd

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