neovintage by Rimas Silkaitis

From Postgres to Cassandra

I’m a huge fan of Postgres and I have been for many years along with many other people. It’s one of the best open-source communities dedicated to building a fast, standards compliant database. Despite my desire to use Postgres for everything, some situations require a different style of data store especially in situations where apps need very high write throughput. To be clear, I see these two data stores as being complementary not mutually exclusive.

In this post, we’ll cover some history and high-level conceptual differences between Cassandra and Postgres. In subsequent posts we’ll dive into the specifics of creating tables, data modeling, and data types, just to name a few. Throughout this series, I’ll do my best to apply a set of scenarios where using Cassandra would make sense. Furthermore, I’ll use the most recent versions of Cassandra Query Language (CQL) and Cassandra to illustrate the appropriate concepts, 3 and 2.2 respectively

History

From a historical perspective, Postgres, a featureful and standards compliant database, has been around since the early 1980s and is written in C. I’m not going to spend a lot of time spelunking Postgres history but if you’re looking for more, postgres.org has a great summary. Cassandra, on the other hand, is a relative new-comer having been released to the public in 2008 and written in Java.

Cassandra was originally conceived by Avinash Lakshman and Prashant Malik at Facebook. The original problem they were trying to solve was storing reverse indices of messages for their users inboxes. But, additional constraints were added including the storage of a large amount of data, handling a large rate of data growth, and to serve the information within strict limits. The initial release was put up on Google code in 2008. But, it wasn’t until 2009 where the first non-Facebook committer was added to the project and Cassandra started picking up steam.

The Cassandra codebase eventually moved from Googlecode to an Apache incubator project ultimately graduating to a top-level Apache project. The community is still fairly young, as compared to Postgres, but is growing through the backing of many individuals and corporate sponsors, like Datastax and Instaclustr.

Why do you even need Cassandra?

Most applications that I’ve seen usually start out with a Postgres database and it serves the application very well for an extended period of time. Typically, based on type of application, the data model of the app will have a table that tracks some kind of state for either objects in the system or the users of the application. For the sake of keeping things simple, let’s just call this table “events”. The growth in the number of rows in this table is not linear as the traffic to the app increases, it’s typically exponential.

Traffic vs Events

Over time, the events table will increasingly become the bulk of the data volume in Postgres, think terabytes, and become increasingly hard to query. In this situation, it makes sense to move that table out of Postgres and into Cassandra. Cassandra will be able to handle the nonlinear nature of the events that need to be created and will scale with minimal changes to the application.

What Makes Cassandra So Special?

At a high level, relational databases, like Postgres, define the data model in terms of two-dimensional tables with the dimensions being rows and columns. When tables are defined, typically the intention is to reduce the amount of data duplication by normalizing the data model. To illustrate this concept, let’s use an example application that stores event information for users. Each user in the system will belong to one account and users can have many events.

Postgres ERD

Cassandra, on the other hand, is a partitioned key-value store. In some programming languages, a key-value structure is called a hash or a dictionary. Each “row”, is defined by a unique key with the value being any kind of data structure itself.

Cassandra Key-Value

While Postgres is typically run on just a single instance (I’ll save sharding and clustering for another post), Cassandra requires that it be run as a cluster of multiple machines. This is where the partitioned-part of the definition comes into play. Conceptually, Cassandra looks something like this:

Cassandra Cluster

Partitioning is done on a partition key. This key defines how data should be distributed across the cluster. The simplest definition is that it’s the key of the key-value pair we had defined earlier. But, the partition key can be more complex than just a single field. Typically, the fields that are used to define a partition key are hashed together by a partitioner and the resulting value defines which node in the cluster the data should live. The best part about the partitioner is that it takes care of the hashing behind the scenes. You can loosely think of the partition key as you would a primary key in Postgres for any particular row of information. I’ll dive more into the Cassandra primary key later on in this series.

As for the value part of the key-value pair, it’s more than just one piece of information. Instead, the value is actually a column family. A column family is itself a series of names and values (tuples) that are associated with a partition key.

Cassandra Column Family

In Postgres, depending on the table constraints, when a record is created, each row has a defined value for each column. In a column family in Cassandra, only those columns that have data as part of the column family are actually written to the data store. I talk about column families here because that was what they were originally called in versions of Cassandra prior to 3.0. From 3.0 forward, column families are called tables. This brings the concept a little closer to Postgres and SQL.

What’s Next

This was a very high level overview of Cassandra touching on the history and conceptual architecture with one main use case for using Cassandra in concert with Postgres. There’s way more that I didn’t cover, topics like data modeling, querying and best practices which can be lengthy posts in their own right.

If you have any questions or comments please feel free to reach out to me via email or twitter.