RubyScale — Understanding the Cassandra Data Model from a SQL...

If you come from the SQL world, sometimes it can be difficult to understand the Cassandra Data Model and all that it implies in terms of management and scalability. For this post, we’re going to go backwards. Instead of writing an example application using Cassandra to understand it, I’ll describe implementing Cassandra on a traditional SQL database and what that would look like.

1. Mapping a Column Family to SQL Tables

In Cassandra, a Column Family has any number of rows, and each row has N column names and values. For this example, let’s assume that in Cassandra we have a Users Column Family with uuids as the row key and column name/value pairs as attributes such as username, password, email, etc. If we had 10000 such users, then in SQL we’d have 10000 tables that looked like the following where 91b56770-bf40-11df-969c-b2b36bca998e was the actual uuid of a user:

CREATE TABLE users-91b56770-bf40-11df-969c-b2b36bca998e (column_name varchar, column_value varchar) UNIQUE column_name PRIMARY KEY column_name;

INSERT INTO users-91b56770-bf40-11df-969c-b2b36bca998e VALUES ('username', 'joe'), ('password', 'weak'), ('email', 'joe@example.com');

  • 10000 tables! That’s right, 10000 tables. In SQL, that many tables would be absurd but Cassandra is designed to scale that way and lots of rows are encouraged as it helps load balancing and scalability. In fact, millions and billions of rows are the norm. You can think of Cassandra as a system that distributes these tables over many nodes with some consistency and replication guarantees.
  • You said N rows, but then said a table is on a single node. You don’t really mean N do you? No, not really. A row has to fit on a single node just like a table has to fit on a single machine for most SQL implementations. For older versions of Cassandra, a row also had to fit in RAM.
  • It looks like I can only query one user at a time and I already have to know his UUID. Is that true? In SQL terms, Cassandra can perform table ranges and row slices on table ranges. In Cassandra terms, you can get a slice of keys and a slice of columns within those keys. This is what is meant by ‘column-oriented key-value store’. One thing you don’t get to do is join. Cassandra does not join. Cassandra does not join. If you want to join, you do it in your application.
  • What is a Column Family for then? Just a table prefix? A Column Family has a number of settings that go with it that alter it’s behavior. There are cache settings for the keys (the UUIDs in this example), cache settings for the entire rows (the entire table in this example), and most importantly, sorting. In Cassandra there is no OFFSET, only LIMIT and the equivalent of BETWEEN. In this example, the column names are just strings but they could also be integers or timestamps and they are always stored in sort order. One Column Family might have timestamp-sorted data where you query things by time slice and another might be address book data where you query things in alphabetical order. The only sorting you get to do after the fact is reversing a particular slice. 
  • What if I want to sort by column value and by column name? Then you have two Column Families, one sorted by whatever datatype your column names are, and one sorted by whatever your column values are.
  • So if I wanted to find the user who had a particular email address, how would I do that? I don’t know what table to query! Exactly! If you want to answer that question, you’ll have to make another Column Family that keys on e-mail address and points to the UUID of the user that has it, then you can query the relevant users table. Think about it this way .. in SQL, you can CREATE INDEX for things you want to query and in Cassandra, you have to manually maintain that index. (Secondary indexes are present in 0.7+, but I’ll cover that another time.)
  • In SQL, I can still do a full table scan to pull out the information I’m looking for. Why can’t Cassandra do that? You can iterate with Cassandra and functionally get the same result, but I wouldn’t if I were you.
  • But if I have two Column Families with the same data sorted differently, that’s denormalized. I heard that was bad. Denormalization is the norm with Cassandra. This is a complicated topic but in short, denormalization is a requirement for linear horizontal scaling and many people were already doing this in their SQL databases to avoid joins anyway.
  • Wait, there is no OFFSET? How do I paginate with cassandra? Awkwardly. You have to start at the beginning, get N items, then on the next page you’d have to start at the last of the previous items and get N+1, throwing away the first one, etc. Alternately, you can create another Column Family which caches pages but in general, pagination is not what Cassandra was designed for.

2. Mapping a Super Column Family to SQL tables

A Super Column Family is exactly like a Column Family, except you get one more column in your table. For this example, we’ll make an address book.

CREATE TABLE addressbooks-91b56770-bf40-11df-969c-b2b36bca998e (super_column_name, column_name varchar, column_value varchar) UNIQUE (super_column_name, column_name) PRIMARY KEY super_column_name;

INSERT INTO addressbooks-91b56770-bf40-11df-969c-b2b36bca998e VALUES ('bob', 'street', '1313 Mockingbird Lane'), ('bob', 'city', 'Chicago'), ('bob', 'state', 'IL');

INSERT INTO addressbooks-91b56770-bf40-11df-969c-b2b36bca998e VALUES ('alice', 'street', '123 Foo St.'), ('alice', 'city', 'Kona'), ('alice', 'state', 'HI');

  • Do the column_names have to be the same for each Super Column? No.
  • Can the super_column_name and column_name be sorted differently? Yes.
  • Does the entire table still  have to fit on one node or does it split out the Super Columns? The entire row still has to fit on one node.
  • Is there a limit to how many Columns can be in a Super Column? Other than the space limitation already mentioned, theoretically, no. There is one gigantic caveat: Accessing a single Column in a Column Family is efficient and fast. Accessing a single Column in a Super Column ('city’ or 'state’ in this case) requires deserialization of the entire Super Column. For this example, this means that to get alice -> state, Cassandra has to load everything in the alice super column. For an addressbook, this doesn’t really matter but if you had 1000 columns and a read-heavy load, it could heavily impact performance since you’d have to deserialize all 1000 columns just to get one of them.
  • It sounds like Super Column Families can be dangerous if I’m not careful. Exactly! They were designed specifically for inverted indexing. If you aren’t doing that or don’t know what that is, don’t use them.

3. Transactions and/or Rollbacks

Cassandra does neither transactions nor rollbacks. I you want those, some other thing such as Cages/ZooKeeper has to do that.

Next Post

To learn more about how these tables would be replicated and queried, continue on to the next post, Replication Factor and Consistency Levels.