Navigating the database landscape: overview of SQL, MySQL, PostgreSQL, and NoSQL

An exploration of the SQL,MySQL,PostgreSQL, and NoSQL database options and discussion on where and when to use them.

Written by

J Edwards

Published on

July 25, 2023

Databases can be a pretty confusing subject. With all the different acronyms and the alphabet soup that is databases, it's not always easy to know what language or database system is best suited for your project. Even experienced developers can get overwhelmed.

This blog post provides a straightforward explanation of SQL, MySQL, PostgreSQL, and NoSQL, and delves into the features and use cases for each. In this blog we will address the questions:

  • What are the differences between SQL, MySQL, PostgreSQL, NoSQL?
  • What are some real-world scenarios where SQL, MySQL, PostgreSQL, or NoSQL work well?
  • What should you know about each database option?

Let's start by diving right into the root of it all - SQL


What is SQL?

SQL, or Structured Query Language, is really the go-to tool for anyone digging into data. SQL provides a standardized way to interact with databases and perform operations such as querying, inserting, updating, deleting, and indexing data. While it can be used for relational databases and some non-relational databases, it offers way more advantages when working with relational databases.

Let's take a moment to look at an example of SQL in action...

When working with a database, you need to first connect to it using a database tool or language. Once connected, you can use SQL queries to perform various tasks on the data via the database management system (DBMS), which parses the SQL query to understand its structure and intent.

In relational databases, where SQL is usually used, data is stored in tables made up of rows and columns; each row represents a single record of data. For example, a table of products might have columns for the product name, price, and description.

If you want to retrieve information from the table of products, you can use a SQL SELECT statement. Using the example table mentioned above, with columns for the product name, price, and description, you can use the following SQL query to retrieve the information:

SELECT product_name, price, description
FROM products;

This query selects the columns product_name, price, and description from the products table. It retrieves all the records (rows) in the table.

If you want to take it a step further and filter the results based on specific criteria, you can use the WHERE clause in SQL. For example, to retrieve only the products with a price less than 100, you can modify the query to reflect the following:

SELECT product_name, price, description
FROM products
WHERE price < 100;

This query will return the product name, price, and description for all products whose price is less than 100.

All in all, SQL is not tied to any specific database system but instead acts as a universal language that can be used with different database management systems (DBMS), such as MySQL and PostgreSQL (to name a few). This means that once you learn SQL, you can apply your knowledge to work with a variety of databases.

The thing is - though learning SQL basics can be relatively straightforward, there are different flavors, dialects, and versions of SQL out there, and it can be easy to get lost in the sauce.

SQL and NoSQL are two different approaches to data management, each with its own strengths and drawbacks. Like we mentioned above, SQL is not just any language; it's a specialized programming language designed specifically for managing and manipulating data in relational database management systems (RDBMS).

While SQL is fantastic for structured data, NoSQL (short for “not only SQL” or “non-SQL”) takes a more flexible approach to data management. NoSQL is not a language itself, but instead refers to a category of database management systems that share common characteristics. NoSQL databases break away from the traditional SQL approach and offer an alternative way to handle data that comes in different flavors - from document-oriented, key-value, columnar, and graph databases.

NoSQL databases, like MongoDB, Redis, DynamoDB, and Cassandra, usually have their own special query languages or APIs tailored to their data models and capabilities.

Since NoSQL is great for unstructured or semi-structured data, it can handle data like documents, key-value pairs, graphs, and time-series data. However, with this flexibility comes some trade-offs. NoSQL databases usually can’t provide the same level of transactional guarantees or complex querying capabilities as traditional SQL databases.

Let’s break things down a little more and look into the terms mentioned above as well as the good (and the bad) of a couple databases out there. You can also skip ahead if you just want a quick summary.

At the start of this post, we highlighted SQL, NoSQL, PostgreSQL, and MySQL. Now, let's delve into their details.

SQL databases, such as MySQL and PostgreSQL work well with data that follows a strict and organized structure. Officially pronounced as "ess-que-el", but sometimes referred to as "sequel," SQL was developed in the 1970s at IBM with the aim of creating a standardized language for dealing with RDBMS. It’s great at ensuring data integrity, handling complex relationships, and delivering excellent performance. So, when you're dealing with data that needs a well-defined framework, SQL is definitely helpful.

Benefits of SQL:

  • Data integrity: SQL databases use transactions, constraints, ACID compliance, as well as logging and recovery to ensure data consistency, accuracy, and reliability.
  • Strong relationships: SQL databases can easily handle complex relationships between different tables, which is important for efficient data retrieval. Think of SQL as an expert matchmaker for your data - it effortlessly connects related pieces of information, creating strong relationships between different tables.
  • Performance: SQL databases are like speedy wizards when it comes to processing queries; they are optimized for handling structured data, resulting in fast and efficient queries.

Drawbacks of SQL:

  • Rigid structure: SQL databases usually require a predefined schema, which can limit flexibility when dealing with unstructured or evolving data.
  • Challenges with scaling: While SQL databases can handle large amounts of data, scaling them horizontally (across multiple servers) can be challenging. Yet, they can scale horizontally by sharding.

Here are a few cases of when to choose SQL:

  • Building an e-commerce platform: With SQL, you can easily create and manage product catalogs, storing important details like product names, descriptions, prices, and inventory levels. SQL's ability to handle complex queries allows for the easy retrieval of specific products or product categories. Also, SQL databases are perfect for securely storing and managing customer information, such as user profiles, addresses, and purchase history - for a personalised experience.
  • Running a social network: Using SQL databases are great for social networking. They offer a reliable and scalable solution for managing user profiles, storing user information like names, usernames, and profile pictures. It does a superb job at handling relationships between users, such as managing friend lists, followers, and connections. Plus, it can also organize activity feeds, where user interactions and updates can be effectively stored and retrieved.
  • Analyzing financial apps: SQL databases support advanced functions for mathematical operations, aggregations, and data manipulation. SQL databases offer transactional support, which can allow for the processing of financial transactions that adhere to ACID rules.

MySQL is a widely-used open-source relational DBMS that uses the SQL language for querying. Initially developed in 1979 as UNIREG, MySQL was later acquired by Sun Microsystems in 2008 and then Oracle in 2010. Many popular applications use it because it’s agile, straightforward, easy to set up, and has been around for a while.

MySQL is known for its simplicity and user-friendly design, which makes it accessible for many. However, while it may be an easy-to-use option for some projects or basic applications, more complex or enterprise-level systems may require a more feature-rich solution.

Benefits of MySQL:

  • Reliable: MySQL is stable and robust. It’s optimized query execution, efficient indexing mechanisms, and caching techniques contribute to it’s speedy processing capabilities and popularity.
  • Flexible: MySQL supports various replication methods, which can enable the creation of multiple copies of a database for load balancing and fault tolerance. MySQL's partitioning feature distributes data across multiple servers, making it easy to scale horizontally. This scalability makes MySQL a great fit for both small projects and large enterprises alike.
  • Wide adoption: MySQL has a vibrant community and has been around for a long time, so there are resources, documentation, forums, and user contributions galore. Also, many applications already use MySQL, so projects that also use it have company.

Drawbacks of MySQL:

  • Limited capabilities: While MySQL is great for some applications, it may not have all the bells and whistles you might find in some other database systems. MySQL generally performs well with large volumes of data, but faces challenges with extremely large datasets or complex queries. For more involved, complex data operations or specialized needs like advanced analytics or spatial capabilities, consider alternative options.
  • Reduced performance: MySQL's performance can be affected when dealing with a very large number of concurrent connections or heavy traffic - there is a threat of serious performance degradation. MySQL can handle a significant number of concurrent users, but it's important to carefully monitor and tune the database configuration to ensure optimal performance

Here are a few cases of when to choose MySQL:

  • Creating a content-based websites: If you're building a content-based website like an online magazine, or knowledge base, MySQL works well. It excels at efficiently organizing and retrieving articles, media files, and user-generated content. Handling large amounts of content and speedy access to information are easy with MySQL.
  • Developing a content management systems (CMS): MySQL powers the storage and retrieval of articles, media files, and user-generated content in CMS platforms. Many popular CMS platforms, including the beloved WordPress, rely on MySQL. It powers the storage and retrieval of articles, media files, user profiles, and user-generated content.
  • Analyzing business intelligence BI: As mentioned earlier, in general SQL is well-suited for online transactions analytics and business intelligence apps, so it’s no surprise MySQL is too. Its performance and scalability make it suitable for facilitating data-driven decision-making.
Database engine rankings
Database engine rankings

PostgreSQL (also known as Postgres) is like that reliable friend who never lets you down, no matter what. It's an open-source RDBMS that provides advanced features like support for complex queries, full-text search, and even geographical data. While MySQL is purely relational, Postgres is an object-relational database that offers more complex data types, object inheritance, and is easy to work with.

Initially developed as POSTGRES in 1986, it evolved from the INGRES project and was released as PostgreSQL in 1996. For decades Postgres has cultivated a dynamic community. While it may not be as widely used as MySQL, it’s steadily moving up the ladder in popularity and application. Its active and vibrant community is growing (as seen in the graph above) - fostering knowledge sharing, support, and collaborative efforts. More users are discovering the benefits and potential of Postgres.

Benefits of PostgreSQL:

  • Advanced features: PostgreSQL provides a rich set of features, including support for complex queries, full-text search, and even geographical data. It's a versatile database that can handle various data requirements. PostgreSQL offers a robust set of querying capabilities, including support for complex queries, advanced join algorithms, window functions, common table expressions (CTEs), and recursive queries. Also, it has robust options for scaling and replication, including built-in replication mechanisms like streaming replication and logical replication.
  • Highly customizable: You can create custom data types, operators, and functions, providing the flexibility to adapt a database to your specific needs. PostgreSQL supports a wide range of advanced data types, such as arrays, JSON, XML, geometric types, and custom types. This allows for more sophisticated data modeling and storage capabilities. It also offers support for concurrent transactions and provides different levels of transaction isolation, including serializable, repeatable read, and read committed. This ensures data integrity and consistency in multi-user environments.
  • Extensible: PostgreSQL is highly extensible, allowing users to define their own data types, operators, and functions. This feature provides flexibility in customizing the database to suit specific project requirements, making it an excellent choice for complex applications. PostgreSQL offers a robust set of querying capabilities, including support for complex queries, advanced join algorithms, window functions, common table expressions (CTEs), and recursive queries.

Drawbacks of PostgreSQL:

  • Not as straightforward: PostgreSQL has a wider range of features and options, so it can be a bit a more complex to set up and configure. It can have a steeper learning curve for developers who are new to databases or have experience primarily with simpler systems.
  • Can be resource intensive: PostgreSQL can consume more system resources, such as memory and CPU, compared to lightweight databases. It is optimized for performance and data integrity, but this can lead to higher resource utilization, particularly in high-volume or high-concurrency scenarios.

Here are a few cases of when to choose PostgreSQL:

  • Building web apps of all sizes: PostgreSQL is great for web applications of all sizes, whether it's a small personal website or a large-scale enterprise system. You can use it whether you're building an e-commerce platform, a content management system, or a social network. Its reliability, transaction support, and advanced querying capabilities make it very reliable for handling structured data.
  • Exploring data in financial apps: PostgreSQL offers various optimization techniques, such as query optimization, indexing, and parallel query execution. These features enhance the efficiency of financial data analysis. PostgreSQL's support for advanced data types, such as numeric, monetary, and timestamp, also ensures accurate representation and manipulation of financial information. Plus, it’s ability to be adapted to your needs through user-defined functions, custom aggregates, and stored procedures gives you the flexibility to implement specialized financial calculations and algorithms.
  • Powering mobile apps: PostgreSQL can serve as a reliable backend database for mobile applications, by offering scalable storage and synchronization capabilities. It allows mobile apps to store and retrieve user data, synchronize information across devices, and handle offline data synchronization.

NoSQL, as the name suggests, stands for "Not Only SQL." NoSQL refers to databases that are not based solely on the traditional SQL relational model. These databases are designed to handle unstructured or evolving data.

The history of NoSQL dates back to the early 2000s when companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook faced challenges in scaling their data infrastructure. The rise of NoSQL databases was a response to some of the limitations of traditional SQL databases in dealing with increasing volume and velocity. However, SQL databases, such as Postgres, have also evolved and come a long way since then.

Benefits of NoSQL:

  • Versatile: NoSQL databases can handle unstructured or semi-structured data, making them suitable for projects with changing data requirements. The databases also offer various data models, such as key-value, document, columnar, or graph databases. They can handle unstructured, semi-structured, and diverse data types without the need for predefined schemas., which allows developers to iterate quickly
  • Scalable: NoSQL databases are specifically designed for horizontal scaling, so they can handle large volumes of data and high traffic loads. Also, NoSQL databases often have built-in caching mechanisms that enhance performance and reduce the load on underlying storage.
  • Fault-tolerant: NoSQL databases can replicate data across multiple nodes, providing fault tolerance during hardware failures or network issues. This replication strategy ensures that data remains accessible even during node failures, offering high availability, improved resilience, and durability.

Drawbacks of NoSQL:

  • Lack of transactions: NoSQL databases sacrifice some traditional transactional guarantees to achieve scalability and performance. While some NoSQL databases support transactions (such as DynamoDB or MongoDB), they are not super strict about ensuring every change happens in a perfectly synchronized way.
  • Limited query capabilities: NoSQL databases typically have limited query capabilities compared to SQL databases, which can make complex querying more challenging, especially when dealing with multiple data relationships or advanced filtering.

Here are a few cases of when to choose NoSQL:

  • Handling Internet of Things (IoT) apps: NoSQL databases are good at storing and processing unstructured or semi-structured data due to their flexible data model and scalability. These databases are adept at storing and handling data from IoT devices, such as managing sensor readings, processing telemetry data, and organizing device logs for IoT app integration.
  • Processing real-time analytics: NoSQL databases can be used to analyze streaming data or generate real-time insights. They can handle the velocity and volume of data as well as log data and time-series data, in which events or data points are associated with timestamps. Examples include monitoring systems, application logging, and financial market data analysis.
  • Optimizing content caching: NoSQL databases can store and retrieve frequently accessed data, which can enhance performance and user experiences. For example, caching frequently accessed web pages or session data in a NoSQL database can significantly reduce response times.

TL;DR Here's a concise table which outlines the main points of comparison among SQL, MySQL, PostgreSQL, and NoSQL.

OverviewA language used to manage and manipulate structured data in relational databases.An open-source RDBMS that uses SQL as its query language.An advanced open-source RDBMS that uses SQL as its query language.A category of databases that diverge from the traditional SQL and relational database model, designed to handle unstructured or evolving data.
HistoryInitially developed in 1979Developed in 1979; released in 1995Developed in 1986; released in 1996Emerged around 2009
Data modelRelationalRelationalRelationalFlexible (Document, Key-Value, Columnar, Graph, etc.)
Primary languageSQLSQLSQLVaries based on the specific NoSQL database
ACID complianceSupports ACID propertiesSupports ACID propertiesSupports ACID propertiesVaries depending on the specific NoSQL database
SchemaRequires predefined schemaPredefined schema (can emulate schema-less)Predefined schema or flexible schema (can emulate schema-less)Schema-less or flexible schema
QueryingSupports SQL queries with join, aggregate, and filtering capabilities.Supports SQL queries.Supports SQL queries with advanced querying capabilities.Querying capabilities vary depending on the specific database and its data model.
ScalabilityCan scale vertically and horizontally, but horizontal scaling can be challenging for some SQL databases.Can scale vertically (horizontal scaling/sharding is possible, but difficult).Can scale vertically (horizontal scaling/sharding is possible and third-party extensions address this).Designed for horizontal scalability and supports vertical scalability.
Use casesIdeal for structured data and complex querying, suitable for a wide range of applications such as e-commerce, analytics, and content management systems.Widely used in web apps, content management systems.Well-suited for both simple and complex applications, data warehousing, content management systems, financial apps, web apps, geospatial data, and analytical use cases.Suitable for handling unstructured, evolving, or high-velocity data. Used in IoT applications and content caching.

The table below provides a very concise (and basic) summary comparing MySQL and PostgreSQL:

Data modelRelationalRelational / Object-relational
Process modelSingle processMultiprocess
LicensingDual-licensing model (commercial and open source editions)Open Source
DevelopmentOwned by Oracle CorporationDeveloped and maintained by the PostgreSQL Global Development Group
PerformanceRead performanceBalanced high read/write performance
IndexingB-tree, hash, full-text indexesB-tree, hash, full-text, spatial indexes, GiST, SP-GiST, GIN, and BRIN
Supported data typesNumeric, date/time, character, spatial, JSONNumeric, date/time, character, boolean, enumerated, geometric, network address, JSON, XML, HSTORE, arrays, ranges, composite
ReplicationMaster-slave replication, Group replicationAsynchronous and synchronous streaming replication
JSON supportBasic supportAdvanced support with JSONB data type
Full-text searchSupported (limited)Fully supported
ACID complianceACID-compliant (only when used with InnoDB and NDB cluster engines)Always ACID-compliant
Supported languagesC/C++, Delphi, Erlang, Go, Java, Lisp, Node.js, Perl, PHP, RC/ C++, Delphi, Erlang, Go, Java, Javascript, JSON, Lisp, .NET, Perl, PHP, Python, R, Tcl, others…
TriggersSupported (limited)Fully supported

To sum up, whether you need structured data management, scalability, advanced querying, or flexibility for unstructured data, there is a suitable database option available.

SQL and NoSQL databases each have their own strengths and best-fit scenarios. SQL databases like MySQL and PostgreSQL are great for organized, structured data in applications like e-commerce platforms, content management systems, and analytics systems. They ensure data integrity, support transactions, and offer advanced query capabilities. While MySQL is known for its simplicity, PostgreSQL adds advanced features, versatility, and flexibility to projects.

On the other hand, NoSQL databases are good at handling unstructured or semi-structured data - which works well for real-time analytics and IoT applications. These databases however, sacrifice some traditional transaction guarantees and have limited querying capabilities compared to SQL databases, such as PostgreSQL.

If you’re seeking the best of both worlds, PostgreSQL emerges as the right choice. It blends the reliability, transaction support, and advanced querying of SQL databases with the flexibility to handle unstructured or semi-structured data. PostgreSQL offers an array of features, support for various data types, and a very active community that is continuously contributing to its development and improvement. Developers can harness PostgreSQL's scalability, security, and comprehensive feature set to build high-performance and future-proof apps.

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