Relational Database VS Non-Relational Database

Non-Relational Database


  • Relational databases organize data in tables, while non-relational databases use various formats.
  • Relational databases stick to a strict schema, while non-relational ones are flexible.
  • Relational databases handle structured data, while non-relational ones handle all types.
  • Relational databases scale up with server power, while non-relational ones add more servers.
  • Relational databases are for complex queries, non-relational for diverse data.
  • Relational databases ensure transaction reliability, non-relational ones offer flexibility.
  • Relational databases suit clear data relationships, non-relational suit diverse data.
  • Choice depends on data needs like structure and scalability.
  • Combining both approaches may be best.
  • Staying updated helps make informed decisions.

In the landscape of data management and storage, two major types of databases have emerged as foundational technologies for modern applications: relational and non-relational databases. Each comes with its unique set of capabilities, designed to meet different requirements and use cases. This article aims to shed light on the key differences between a relational database and non-relational database. 

What is a Relational Database?

A relational database is a system used to store and manage data where that data is organized into tables. These tables allow the data to be accessed or reorganized in many different ways without having to reorganize the database tables themselves. The data in one table can relate to data in other tables, providing a way to link different pieces of data together for comprehensive analysis or reporting.

In a relational database, each table is made up of rows and columns, where each row (also known as a record or tuple) represents a single, implicitly structured data item and each column (also known as an attribute) represents a specific piece of information that the database can track. Tables in a relational database can be related to each other through the use of keys. 

A primary key is a unique identifier for a row within its table, while a foreign key is a column that creates a link between tables by referencing the primary key of another table. This setup allows relational databases to efficiently store large amounts of data by minimizing redundancy and ensuring data integrity.

Also Read: What is SQL?

Features of Relational Databases

  • Structured Data Storage: Relational databases store data in tables, which are made up of rows and columns. This structure is perfect for handling structured data that can be neatly organized into fields, like names or phone numbers.
  • Strict Schema: They enforce a rigid schema, meaning the structure of the data (like the data type for a column) must be defined beforehand and adhered to, ensuring data integrity.
  • Complex Queries: Thanks to Structured Query Language (SQL), relational databases excel at handling complex queries. SQL allows for sophisticated querying and data manipulation.
  • ACID Properties: Relational databases are known for maintaining a high level of data integrity through adherence to ACID (Atomicity, Consistency, Isolation, Durability) properties, ensuring reliable transactions.
  • Scalability: Traditionally, relational databases scale vertically, meaning you improve performance by adding more power (CPU, RAM) to your existing server.

What is a Non-Relational Database?

A non-relational database, also known as a NoSQL database, is designed to store and manage data in formats other than the tabular relations used by relational databases. Unlike relational databases that organize data into tables with rows and columns, non-relational databases can store data in a variety of formats such as documents, key-value pairs, wide-column stores, or graphs, depending on what is most suitable for the type of data being stored. 

This flexibility allows them to handle a wide range of data types, including unstructured data like text, images, and videos, which are not easily stored in the structured format of relational databases.

Non-relational databases are particularly useful in scenarios where the data structure can vary or when dealing with large volumes of data. They are known for their ability to scale out by adding more machines, providing advantages in distributed systems. This makes them suitable for applications requiring quick access to large amounts of diverse data, such as content management systems, big data applications, and real-time analytics.

Also Read: What is Node.js?

Features of Non-Relational Databases

  • Flexible Data Models: Non-relational databases can handle unstructured or semi-structured data, such as JSON documents, which don’t fit neatly into table rows and columns. This flexibility allows for varied data types and structures within the same database​.
  • Schema-less: These databases don’t require a predefined schema, meaning the structure of the data can change over time. This feature offers flexibility to evolve your data model as your application grows and changes​.
  • Variety of Data Models: Non-relational databases include several types, such as key-value stores, document databases, graph databases, and column stores, each optimized for specific types of data and access patterns.
  • Scalability: NoSQL databases are designed to scale out, meaning they improve performance through the addition of more servers in a database cluster. This feature supports massive volumes of data and high user loads, offering a scalable solution for big data applications.
  • Performance and Availability: Non-relational databases are optimized for speed and high availability, even under heavy loads. They often provide options for distributed database architectures, which enhance reliability and speed by distributing data across multiple servers.

Practical Example

Let’s take an example to understand the difference between relational database and non-relational database.

Let’s say you run a library and want to keep track of all the books, members, and loans in a way that lets you quickly find and update information. Depending on the type of database you choose—relational or non-relational—you’ll organize and access this data differently.

Using a Relational Database

Imagine you choose a relational database like MySQL. You might set up three tables: Books, Members, and Loans. Each book in the Books table has a unique ID, title, author, and availability status. Similarly, each member in the Members table has a unique ID, name, and contact info. The Loans table then links the two, recording which member has borrowed which book and when it’s due back.

If you want to find out which books are borrowed by a particular member, you’d perform a query that joins data from the Members and Loans tables based on member ID, then another join on the Loans and Books tables to get book details. This setup works well for structured data that fits neatly into tables and where relationships between the data are clear and important to maintain.

Using a Non-Relational Database

Now, imagine you opt for a non-relational database like MongoDB, which uses a document-oriented approach. Instead of separate tables, you might have a single collection called “Library” where each document contains all the information about a member, the books they’ve borrowed, and the loan details, all in one place.

A document for a member could include their name, contact info, and an array of books they’ve borrowed, with each book entry in the array containing the title, author, and due date. This approach offers flexibility to include different types of information in each document, such as notes on a member’s preferences or a list of overdue fees, without needing to alter a rigid table structure.

If you want to find the same information as in the relational example—books borrowed by a particular member—you simply perform a search within the “Library” collection for that member’s document. This setup excels when the structure of data can vary from one entry to another or when you don’t need to perform complex joins to get the information you need.

Also Read: What is a String in Python?

Relational Database VS Non-Relational Database

CriteriaRelational DatabaseNon-relational Database
StructureData is stored in tables and rows with a predefined schemaFlexible data storage models (key-value, document, graph, column) without a strict schema
Data TypeBest for structured dataCan handle structured, semi-structured, and unstructured data
ScalabilityVertical scalability (add more power to a single server)Horizontal scalability (add more servers)
PerformancePerformance can be impacted by complex queries and large data volumesGenerally offers high performance for large volumes of data
TransactionsSupports ACID properties (Atomicity, Consistency, Isolation, Durability) for reliable transactionsMay support BASE (Basically Available, Soft state, Eventual consistency) for more flexibility but less immediate consistency
Use CasesIdeal for applications that require complex queries and transactions, like banking systemsSuitable for applications needing to handle large volumes of varied data, like social media platforms


The debate between relational and non-relational databases is not about which is superior, but rather which is more suitable for a specific application or set of requirements. Relational databases shine in scenarios where data integrity and relationships are crucial. On the other hand, non-relational databases offer flexibility, scalability, and performance benefits, especially with large sets of unstructured or semi-structured data. They are particularly well-suited for handling big data and real-time web applications.

In the end, the choice between a relational and non-relational database should be based on the specific needs of your project, including the nature of your data, the scalability requirements, and the complexity of the data queries you need to perform. Sometimes, a hybrid approach, utilizing the strengths of both types of databases, may even be the best solution. As technology continues to advance, keeping an open mind and staying informed about the latest developments in database technologies will help you make the best decision for your data storage needs.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the main difference between a relational and non-relational database?

  • Relational databases organize data into tables, while non-relational databases use various formats like documents and key-value pairs.
  • Relational databases enforce a strict schema, whereas non-relational databases are schema-less and adaptable.
  • Relational databases handle structured data, while non-relational ones handle structured, semi-structured, and unstructured data.
  • Relational databases scale up with server power, while non-relational ones add more servers.

What types of data are suitable for each database type?

  • Relational databases are best for structured data, such as names or phone numbers.
  • Non-relational databases can handle structured, semi-structured, and unstructured data, like text, images, and videos.

How do the scalability options differ between relational and non-relational databases?

  • Relational databases scale vertically by improving server power.
  • Non-relational databases scale horizontally by adding more servers to a cluster.

What factors should I consider when choosing between a relational and non-relational database?

  • Consider the nature of your data – structured or unstructured.
  • Evaluate scalability requirements – vertical or horizontal scaling.
  • Assess the complexity of data queries needed for your application.
  • Keep abreast of evolving database technologies to make informed decisions.