From Databases to Big Data

Published in May/June 2012 issue of IEEE Internet Computing by Sam Madden From Databases to Big Data My primary research community is focused on data management — the buttonedup world of business data, relational databases, carefully designed schemas, SQL, and strict…

Published in May/June 2012 issue of IEEE Internet Computing by Sam Madden

From Databases to Big Data

My primary research community is focused
on data management — the buttonedup
world of business data, relational
databases, carefully designed schemas, SQL,
and strict consistency (“ACID semantics”). As
the token database researcher at MIT, I’m often
asked questions like, “I heard databases can
store a lot of data. Does that mean they solve
the big data problem?” The answer to this question
is “no,” but before telling you why, let me
first try to define what I think the big data
problem is.

What Is Big Data?
Among all the definitions offered for “big data,”
my favorite is that it means data that’s too big,
too fast, or too hard for existing tools to process.
Here, “too big” means that organizations
increasingly must deal with petabyte-scale collections
of data that come from click streams,
transaction histories, sensors, and elsewhere.
“Too fast” means that not only is data big, but it
must be processed quickly — for example, to perform
fraud detection at a point of sale or determine
which ad to show to a user on a webpage.
“Too hard” is a catchall for data that doesn’t fit
neatly into an existing processing tool or that
needs some kind of analysis that existing tools
can’t readily provide. A similar breakdown is
being promulgated by Gartner (which is probably
a sign that I’m oversimplifying things),
citing the “three Vs” — volume, velocity, and
variety (a catchall similar to “too hard”).

On Databases and MapReduce
So, where do database management systems
(DBMSs) fall short on these metrics? With
respect to data size, commercial relational systems
actually do pretty well: most analytics vendors
(such as Greenplum, Netezza, Teradata, or Vertica)
report being able to handle multi-petabyte
databases. Although this might not be big
enough for a few massive Internet companies,
it probably is for almost everyone else. Unfortunately,
open source systems such as MySQL
and Postgres lag far behind commercial systems
in terms of scalability. It’s on the “too fast” and
“too hard” fronts where database systems don’t
fare well.
First, databases must slowly import data
into a native representation before they can be
queried, limiting their ability to handle streaming
data. The database community has widely
studied streaming technologies, which don’t
integrate well into the relational engines themselves.
Second, although engines provide some
support for in-database statistics and modeling,
these efforts haven’t been widely adopted and,
as a general rule, don’t parallelize effectively
to massive quantities of data (except in a few
cases, as I note later).
What about platforms such as MapReduce
or Hadoop? Like DBMSs, they do scale to large
amounts of data (although Hadoop deployments
generally need many more physical machines to
process the same amount of data as a comparable
relational system, because they lack many of
DBMSs’ advanced query-processing strategies).
However, they’re limited in many of the same
ways as relational systems. First, they provide
a low-level infrastructure designed to process
data, not manage it. This means they simply
provide access to a collection of files; users must
ensure that those files are consistent, maintain
them over time, and ensure that programs written
over the data continue to work even as the
data evolves. Of course, developers can build
data management support on top of these platforms;
unfortunately, a lot of what’s being built
(Hive or HBase, for instance) basically seems
to be recreating DBMSs, rather than solving
the new problems that (in my mind) are at the
crux of big data. Additionally, these
systems provide rather poor support
for the “too fast” problem because
they’re oriented toward processing
large blocks of replicated, disk-based
data at a time, which makes it difficult
to obtain low-latency responses.

The State of the Art
So, where does this leave us? Existing
tools don’t lend themselves to
sophisticated data analysis at the
scale many users would like. Tools
such as SAS, R, and Matlab support
relatively sophisticated analysis,
but they aren’t designed to scale to
datasets that exceed even a single
machine’s memory. Tools that are
designed to scale, such as relational
DBMSs and Hadoop, don’t support
these methods out of the box.
Additionally, neither DBMSs nor
MapReduce are good at handling
data arriving at high rates, providing
little out-of-the-box support for
techniques such as approximation,
single-pass/sublinear algorithms, or
sampling that might help users ingest
massive data volumes.
Several research projects are trying
to bridge the gap between largescale
data processing platforms
such as DBMSs and MapReduce, and
analysis packages such as SAS, R, and
Matlab. These typically take one of
three approaches: extend the relational
model, extend the MapReduce/
Hadoop model, or build something
entirely different.
In the relational camp are traditional
vendors such as Oracle, with
products like its Data Mining extensions,
as well as upstarts such as
Greenplum with its MadSkills project
vldb09-madskills.pdf). These efforts
seek to exploit relational engines’
extensibility features to implement
various data mining, machine learning,
and statistical algorithms inside
the DBMS. This approach enables
operations to happen inside the DBMS,
near the data, and to sometimes run
in parallel. However, many users
would rather not be SQL programmers,
and some iterative algorithms
aren’t easily expressible as parallel
operations in SQL.
On the MapReduce front, numerous
efforts are under way. Probably
the best-known is Apache Mahout,
which provides a framework for
executing many machine learning
algorithms (mostly) on top of MapReduce.
Other MapReduce-like systems
include UC Berkeley’s Spark, the
University of Washington’s HaLoop,
Indiana University’s Twister, and Microsoft’s
Project Daytona. These systems
provide better support for certain
types of iterative statistical algorithms
inside a MapReduce-like programming
model, but still lack database
systems’ data management features.
Finally, on the new systems front,
packages such as GraphLab from Carlos
Guestrin’s group at Carnegie Mellon
University or the SciDB project (with
which I’m involved) aim to provide a
scalable platform for addressing some
or all of these concerns. Although
these systems might eventually solve
the problem, they still have a long way
to go. GraphLab provides a scalable
framework for solving some graphbased
iterative machine learning algorithms,
but it isn’t a data management
platform, and it requires that data
sets fi t into memory. SciDB is a grand
vision that will support integration
with high-level imperative languages,
a variety of algorithms, massive scale,
disk resident data, and so on, but it’s
still in its infancy.

What’s Left?
These systems all represent a great
step in the right direction. Much more
is needed, however. First, part of the
big data craze is that CIOs and their
ilk are demanding “insight” from data;
actually generating that insight can be
very tricky. Machine learning algorithms
are powerful but often require
considerable user sophistication, especially
with regard to selecting features
for training and choosing model
structure (for instance, for regression
or in graphical models). Many of our
students learn the mathematics behind
these models but don’t develop the
skills required to use them effectively
in practice on large datasets.
Second, I believe these tools all
fall short on the usability front.
DBMSs do a great job of helping a
user maintain and curate a dataset,
adding new data over time, maintaining
derived views of the data,
evolving its schema, and supporting
backup, high availability,
and consistency in various ways.
However, forcing algorithms into a
declarative, relational framework is
unnatural, and users greatly prefer
more conventional, imperative ways
of thinking about their algorithms.
Additionally, many databases provide
a painful out-of-the-box experience,
requir ing a slow “impor t” phase
before users can do any data exploration.
Tools based on Map Reduce
provide a more conventional programming
model, an ability to get going
quickly on analysis without a slow
import phase, and a better separation
between the storage and execution
engines. However, they lack many of
a database’s data management niceties.
Furthermore, none of these platforms
provide necessary exploratory
tools for visualizing data and models,
or understanding where results came
from or why models aren’t working.
In summary, although databases
don’t solve all aspects of the big data
problem, several tools — some based
on databases — get part-way there.
What’s missing is twofold: First, we
must improve statistics and machine
learning algorithms to be more robust
and easier for unsophisticated users to
apply, while simultaneously training
students in their intricacies. Second,
we need to develop a data management
ecosystem around these algorithms
so that users can manage and
evolve their data, enforce consistency
properties over it, and browse, visualize,
and understand their algorithms’