NoSQL vs SQL: What’s The Difference and How To Choose


As the rate of Big Data continues to exponentially increase each year, the limitations of traditional forms of data storage and management have become apparent. With these highlights, experts are realizing we may need to start to focus our attention on new methods that will address volume issues as well as the variety of structured and unstructured data organization come across.

Ever since the 1970s, relational databases have proven to be an integral part of the IT infrastructure. As technology continuously evolves, however, the new buzzword of the times is NoSQL, a different option for data structure.

When it comes to choosing a database, one of the biggest decisions an organization may come across is whether to pick a relational (SQL) or non-relational (NoSQL) data structure. While both of these are good choices, each have clear advantages and disadvantages which must be kept in mind. We have broken down the most important differences between SQL and NoSQL as well as highlighted the benefits of each.

What is SQL?

SQL (Structured Query Language) is a programming language that is used to manage data in relational databases. Relational databases use relations, which are typically called tables, to store data and then match that data by using common characteristics within the dataset. Some common relational database management systems that use SQL are: Oracle, Sybase, Microsoft SQL Server, Access, and Ingres.

What is NoSQL?

NoSQL, on the other hand, is a database technology that is different from SQL because it doesn’t involve the Structured Query Language. NoSQL refers to high-performance, non-relational databases that utilize a wide variety of data models. These databases are highly recognized for their ease-of-use, scalable performance, strong resilience, and wide availability. NoSQL database examples include MongoDB, MarkLogic, Couchbase, CloudDB, and Amazon’s Dynamo DB.

Major Differences

There are many differences between SQL and NoSQL, all of which are important to understand when making a decision about what might be the best data management system for your organization. These include differences among the:

  • Language
  • Scalability
  • Community
  • Structure

The Language

One of the major differences between SQL relational and NoSQL non-relational databases is the language. As mentioned, SQL databases use Structured Query Language for defining and manipulating data. This allows SQL to be extremely versatile and widely-used, however, it also makes it more restrictive. SQL requires that you use predefined schemas to determine the structure of your data before you even begin to work with it. Your data must also follow the same structure, as well, which can entail both significant up-front preparation along with careful execution.

A NoSQL database features a dynamic schema for unstructured data and the data can be stored in many different ways, whether it be graph-based, document-oriented, column-oriented, or organized as a KeyValue store. This extreme flexibility allows you to create documents without first having to carefully plan and define their structure, add fields as you go, and vary the syntax from database to database. It also allows you to give each document its own unique structure, giving you more freedom overall.

The Scalability

Another big difference between SQL and NoSQL is their scalability. In most SQL databases, they are vertically scalable, which means that you can increase the load on a single server by increasing components like RAM, SSD, or CPU. In contrast, NoSQL databases are horizontally scalable, which means that they can handle more traffic simply by adding more servers to the database. NoSQL databases have the ability to become larger and much more powerful, making them the preferred choice for large or constantly evolving data sets.

The Community

Due to SQL’s maturity, it has a much stronger and more developed community compared to NoSQL. There are thousands of chats and forums available where experts can share knowledge and discuss SQL best practices, continuously enhancing skills. Although NoSQL is growing rapidly, its community is not as well defined as SQL due to the fact that it is still relatively new.

The Structure

Finally, a last thing to consider when debating SQL versus NoSQL is their structures. SQL database are table-based which makes them a better option for applications that require multi-row transactions. Samples of these may be accounting systems or even legacy systems that were originally built for a relational structure. NoSQL databases can be key-value pairs, wide-column stores, graph databases, or document-based.

So Which Database Is Right For Your Business?

The best way to determine which database is right for your business is to analyze what you need its functions to be. SQL is a good choice for any organization that will benefit from a predefined structure and set schemas, particularly if they require multi-row transactions. It is also a good option if all data must be consistent without leaving room for error, such as with accounting systems.

NoSQL is a good choice for those companies experiencing rapid growth with no clear schema definitions. NoSQL offers much more flexibility than a relational database and is a solid option for companies who must analyze large quantities of data or whose data structures they manage are variable.


No matter what field you are in, choosing the correct database for your organization is an important decision. NoSQL databases are quickly becoming a major part of the database landscape today, and they are proving to be a real game-changer in the IT arena. They have numerous benefits, including lower cost, open-source availability, and easier scalability, which make NoSQL an appealing option for anyone thinking about integrating in Big Data. They are a young technology, however, which makes them slightly more volatile.

On the other hand, SQL databases have proven themselves for over 40 years and use long-established standards that are well defined. They have a huge community of experts behind them and the opportunity for collaboration is limitless.

Overall, the decision of using SQL versus NoSQL for business is not entirely black and white; it requires some comparing and contrasting to determine which database best fits your specific needs. With the proper amount of research and preparation, however, you will ensure that the database you choose provides an efficient and streamlined management system for your organization.

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These postings are my own and do not necessarily represent BMC's position, strategies, or opinion.

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Laura Shiff

Laura Shiff

Laura Shiff is a researcher and technical writer based in the Twin Cities. She specializes in software, technology, and medicine. You can reach Laura at or her website at