Why you should use a graph database

There has been a lot of hype recently about graph databases. While graph databases such as DataStax Enterprise Graph (based on Titan DB), Neo4, and IBM Graph have been around for several years, recent announcements of managed cloud services like AWS Neptune and Microsoft’s addition of graph capability to Azure Cosmos DB indicate that graph databases have entered the mainstream. With all of this interest, how do you determine whether a graph database is right for your application?

What is a graph database?

Before we go any further, let’s define some terminology. What is a graph database? Think of it in terms of the data model. A graph data model consists of vertices that represent the entities in a domain, and edges that represent the relationships between these entities. Because both vertices and edges can have additional name-value pairs called properties, this data model is formally known as a property graph. Some graph databases require you to define a schema for your graph—i.e. defining labels or names for your vertices, edges, and properties prior to populating any data—while other databases allow you to operate without a fixed schema.

As you might have noticed, there isn’t any new information in the graph data model that we couldn’t capture in a traditional relational data model. After all, it’s simple to describe relationships between tables using foreign keys, or we can describe properties of a relationship with a join table. The key difference between these data models is the way data is organized and accessed. The recognition of edges as a “first class citizen” alongside vertices in the graph data model enables the underlying database engine to iterate very quickly in any direction through networks of vertices and edges to satisfy application queries, a process known as traversal.

The flexibility of the graph data model is a key factor driving the recent surge in graph database popularity. The same requirements for availability and massive scale that drove the development and adoption of various NoSQL offerings over the past 10 or so years are continuing to bear fruit in the recent graph trend.

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