Why developers should put the database first

Posted by on 5 February, 2024

This post was originally published on this site

Developers of a certain age are used to beginning their application development journey by choosing an operating system. Younger developers, by contrast, might start by picking a cloud. One of the most respected voices in tech suggests a different starting point, one that focuses the attention on arguably the most important component of the application stack: the database. As luminary Kelsey Hightower writes, “Early on I made the mistake of only focusing on operating systems and ignored what I now consider the most important element of computing: data.”

He’s not alone. Gatsby.js Founder Kyle Mathews has reached similar conclusions: “I’ve shifted 100% to [database]-first when prototyping.” In a world where data is the heart of the user experience, it makes sense to take a data-first approach rather than picking a language framework, for example, and taking whichever databases come with it. This approach may be easier said than done for some, however, which makes cloud API platforms like Neurelo a nice on-ramp for developers who want to put the database first but may not know how.

Data, data, everywhere

The big news from all the recent cloud earnings calls is AI and how it drives consumption of cloud services. (See all the mentions of AI in Microsoft’s latest earnings call.) At the heart of AI, of course, is data. Lots and lots of data. Ever since we started calling it “big data,” data has driven cloud adoption and usage.

This is true no matter what we call it or which technologies we use to store and process it. As recent O’Reilly trends show, even as technologies such as Apache Hadoop, Apache Spark, and data warehouses show declines in interest (being “legacy” technologies), interest in data just keeps booming. Interestingly, O’Reilly sees specialized databases like stand-alone vector databases as remaining relatively niche, even as more general-purpose databases such as MySQL add vector capabilities and continue to grow.

This flux in data technologies makes it even harder for developers to keep pace, constantly having to learn new technologies or new ways to use old technologies. Yet developers like Hightower suggest it’s time to make data the first choice in the technology stack, not an afterthought.

For Hightower, one way to remove the complexity from a database focus is to start simple with SQLite, rather than a more complicated database like MySQL. As he says, he’d rather “learn the fundamentals of data and how to manage it.” In other words, “I’d rather spend time learning SQL, not how to administrate a database server, which is a useful skill, but presents a huge barrier to entry.” The ease of SQLite, concurs developer Simon Willison, is that “you don’t have to run a server and you don’t need to figure out authentication.”

That’s one approach for developers new to databases, but it’s not the only one. So-called NoSQL databases can be more accessible to developers. One of the reasons developers love MongoDB is that it maps closely to the object-oriented programming that developers already know, rather than making them use ORMs (object-relational mappers) to nudge their data into a relational model. (Disclosure: I work for MongoDB.) Another option is Supabase, which provides managed PostgreSQL to enable developers to spend less time worrying about database operations.

What if you don’t want to think about the database at all, or much? Well, Neurelo might be your answer.

Fighting the ‘necessary evil’

Neurelo offers a database abstraction platform that allows developers to work with a database without having to construct complicated SQL queries to create, retrieve, update, or delete (CRUD) records in relational databases like PostgreSQL or MySQL or to build queries using the MongoDB Query API for MongoDB. Instead, Neurelo auto-generates APIs that create both REST and GraphQL endpoints directly from the developers’ data models and schemas.

This is the heart of how Neurelo fights against the “necessary evil” of ORMs that developers have assumed they had to embrace, as Neurelo cofounder and CEO Chirag Shah says in an interview. “It’s an uphill battle” working with an ORM, he explains. “You have to go through a bunch of things, and you have to create those harnesses, and you have to maintain it, because any time your schema changes or your requirement changes you have to recalibrate the whole thing.”

It’s a pain. But there’s hope.

Traditional ORMs obscure the SQL layer, but Neurelo gives full query visibility, as the company notes on its site. Developers can inspect and improve database interactions as their comfort level with the database grows. Neurelo also helps resolve an ORM’s “N+1” problem, whereby the database makes queries in a loop, unnecessarily multiplying the number of database round trips. Neurelo combats this by using eager loading, which retrieves related data in a single query using joins. This minimizes the number of queries hitting the database and improves performance. Neurelo also goes beyond basic CRUD operations to offer advanced join read/write tasks that go across multiple entities.

In these and other ways, Neurelo allows developers—whether new to databases or experienced—to spend less time figuring out how to work with their database and more time writing their application. “You virtually get everything instantly,” Shah argues, “and you don’t have to raise a finger.” Instead of hours or weeks, “you go from zero to writing your code in minutes.”

This brings us back to Hightower’s assessment that data should be a developer’s first concern. If he’s right, tools like Neurelo can make that first concern less…concerning, without all the trade-offs that ORMs impose or the hardwiring of code that using a database driver might create. It’s a way to keep data at the heart of an application and much more approachable for developers.

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