Ben Nadel
On User Experience (UX) Design, JavaScript, ColdFusion, Node.js, Life, and Love.
I am the chief technical officer at InVision App, Inc - a prototyping and collaboration platform for designers, built by designers. I also rock out in JavaScript and ColdFusion 24x7.
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Ben Nadel at cf.Objective() 2010 (Minneapolis, MN) with:

MongoDB: The Definitive Guide By Kristina Chodorow

By Ben Nadel on
Tags: Books, MongoDB

Last week, I got the urge to start learning more about NoSQL databases. I know they've been a hot technology for several years now; but, other than watching a few presentations at various conferences, I don't know much about them at all. So, after finding out that MongoLab - a hosted MongoDB service - had a free developer sandbox, I signed up and started to look for a book about MongoDB. I ended up going with MongoDB: The Definitive Guide by Kristina Chodorow; and, half-way through the book, I can tell you that it is an outstanding resource.


 
 
 

 
MongoDB: The Definitive Guide by Kristina Chodorow, review by Ben Nadel.  
 
 
 

Kristina Chodorow is a core contributor to the MongoDB project, so you know that she really knows her stuff! But, she also happens to be a fantastic writer and truly brings the MongoDB database to life in her epic 587 page book.

NOTE: The book is 587 pages according to the iBook app on my iPad. Your version may be different.

As of this blog post, I am only about half-way through the book. I decided to put the book on hold when I reached the Sharding chapter so that I could take some time to start applying the concepts that were outlined in the first few hundred pages. The first half of the book covers every aspect of MongoDB from connecting to databases, to creating, querying, updating, upserting, and deleting documents, indexing, extensive performance considerations, and replication.

It's a seriously robust book! It even talks about how documents are stored on the physical harddrive; and, how the size and mutability of a given document affects where on the drive it is stored and how often the document needs to be moved to a new disk location.

Since MongoDB - and document-oriented databases in general - are so new to me, I am approaching the subject matter with caution; I don't want to simply jump on the next "big thing." And, that's one reason that I really like MongoDB: The Definitive Guide - Kristina Chodorow doesn't sell MongoDB as the perfect solution to all your data persistance needs; instead, she very clearly talks about the pros and cons of using a document-oriented store as opposed to a more traditional relational database management system (RDMS). To quote page 227:

While MongoDB is a general-purpose database that works well for most applications, it isn't good at everything. Here are some tasks that MongoDB is not designed to do:

MongoDB does not support transactions, so systems that require transactions should use another data store. There are a couple of ways to hack in simple transaction-like semantics, particularly on a single document, but there is no database enforcement. Thus, you can make all of your clients agree to obey whatever semantics you come up with (e.g., Check the "locks" field before doing any operation) but there is nothing stopping an ignorant or malicious client from messing things up.

Joining many different types of data across many different dimensions is something relational databases are fantastic at. MongoDB isn't supposed to do this well and most likely never will.

Finally, one of the big (if hopefully temporary) reasons to use a relational database over MongoDB is if you're using tools that don't support MongoDB. From SQLAlchemy to Wordpress, there are thousands of tools that just weren't built to support MongoDB. The pool of tools that support MongoDB is growing but is hardly the size of relational databases' ecosystem, yet.

That second point, about Joining data, is another aspect of NoSQL databases that keeps me rather cautious. In my current applications, I JOIN records all the time. Heck, I even blog about the mindset I have when crafting INNER JOINs in a SQL statement. So, naturally, moving to a system that doesn't lend well to joining feels like it could be a considerable roadblock.

Luckily, Kristina Chodorow talks at length about application design and special considerations that should be taken in a MongoDB context. Specifically, she talks about normalization vs. denormalization and when it makes sense to embed one document within another; that is, when to use data duplication as opposed to embedding document references. According to her suggestions on page 216,

Embedding is better for:

  • Small subdocuments.
  • Data that does not change regularly.
  • When eventual consistency is acceptable.
  • Documents that grow by a small amount.
  • Data that you'll often need to perform a second query to fetch.
  • Fast reads.

References are better for:

  • Large subdocuments.
  • Volatile data.
  • When immediate consistency is necessary.
  • Documents that grow a large amount.
  • Data that you'll often exclude from the results.
  • Fast writes.

She also goes on to talk about half-way solutions that use partial-data duplication as well as when it makes sense to break a "Sub-collection" out into its own document. The chapter on application-design and collection-design were incredibly comforting and helped me feel much more confident that I may, one day, reach a NoSQL mindset. That said, I have a huge journey ahead of me.

Anyway, I definitely recommend MongoDB: The Definitive Guide. Kristina Chodorow did a wonderful job. And, if the first-half of the book is any indicator of quality, I know that the second-half will be time well spent.




Reader Comments

I've been teetering over the precipice that is noSQL. MongoDB was the loudest voice beckoning from the void. But you, Mr. Nadel, were the light in the darkness that finally made me feel safe enough to take the plunge.

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@Lovick,

Outstanding! Well, hopefully we can go through this journey together! I'll try to post what I can :)

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Yes! I'm excited to see that you're delving into MongoDB now. As I mentioned before, my introduction to MongoDB came by way of Meteor.com, after which I too started reading the definitive guide. I'm not quite half way through, where I've been stuck for some time while I focus on Titanium and improving my JavaScript skills (via Secrets of a JavaScript Ninja), but am super excited to know that in following your blog, I'll continue to be exposed to MongoDB. Bravo! And Thank you!

BTW, I'm sure you've probably seen this Google I/O 2012 discussing the pro/cons of SQL vs NoSQL, but if not... I recommend it...
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rRoy6I4gKWU

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ah! this is fantastic. I too started on the NoSQL journey and begun with Redis which was more like a super extended CF Struct (atleast to me).

For MongoDB, if you have time and place on resume to put a certification symbol, take the course at https://education.mongodb.com/ . Its a very nice and neat way to learn mongoDB. Also, its free too.

I did the course myself and feel very satisfied at the way they teach. The weekly homework is added plus to test the learning. Try it!

Reply to this Comment

@Chris,

I've seen bits and pieces of that presentation. I think I have watched it mostly all the way through, but in like 3 different sittings. I'll see if I can get it done in one go :)

I hope I have some good stuff to contribute. I just started actually playing around with actual code on Sunday:

http://www.bennadel.com/blog/2530-Getting-Started-With-MongoLab-And-The-MongoDB-Shell.htm

It definitely makes me feel like a total novice! Totally different mindset and syntax... gonna be a lot of flipping back and forth between the docs for a while :)

Reply to this Comment

@Sanjeev,

Thanks for the recommendation. I am looking at trying to take the Java one on Oct. 7th. I'd rather take the Node.js one as I think the syntax will be easier; but, the Java one is probably more appropriate for ColdFusion.

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