Non-Relational Database vs Relational: 10 Key Differences

Updated November 09th, 2023
Non-Relational Database vs Relational Database

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Relational databases use structured tables with predefined schemas to store data, while non-relational databases are more flexible, often using unstructured or semi-structured data models for scalability and diverse data types.

In this article, we will explore the core concepts, key differences, the pros and cons of each system, and when it’s appropriate to use one over the other. Additionally, we’ll illustrate our points with real-world examples, providing a practical perspective to this theoretical discourse.

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Whether you’re a seasoned data professional or just stepping into the vast domain of database technology, this article promises to enrich your understanding and guide your decisions in the realm of non-relational vs relational databases.

Ready? Let’s dive in!

Table of contents

  1. Non relational database vs relational database
  2. Key differences
  3. Pros and cons
  4. When to use what?
  5. Examples of non-relational database vs relational database
  6. Summarizing it all together
  7. Related reads

Non relational database vs relational database : Understanding the basics

What is non relational database?

A non-relational database is often referred to as NoSQL (not only SQL), represents a broad category of database management systems that diverge from the traditional relational database model. These databases are characterized by their flexibility, scalability, and ability to handle large volumes of unstructured or semi-structured data.

Unlike relational databases that store data in predefined tables with rows and columns, non-relational databases employ a variety of data models. These models include document-oriented, key-value, wide-column, and graph formats, each tailored to specific types of data and use cases.

This flexibility allows non-relational databases to accommodate the diverse and evolving needs of modern applications, especially in handling big data and real-time web applications.

Here are some of the advantages offered by non-relational databases:

  • Schema flexibility: Non-relational databases allow for flexible and dynamic schemas, which means you can store data without a predefined schema.
  • Scalability: NoSQL databases are designed to scale horizontally, which means you can easily distribute data across multiple servers or clusters to handle high volumes of data and traffic.
  • High performance: Non-relational databases are optimized for specific data access patterns, which can lead to better performance in certain use cases.
  • Data variety: NoSQL databases can handle a wide variety of data types, including structured, semi-structured, and unstructured data.
  • Distributed data storage: Many NoSQL databases support distributed data storage, replication, and automatic failover, ensuring data availability and fault tolerance.

Moreover, non-relational databases often offer better performance for specific types of queries and workloads, particularly those involving large volumes of diverse data that don’t fit neatly into a tabular structure. They also tend to be more agile, allowing developers to rapidly iterate and evolve their applications without being constrained by a fixed schema.

What is relational database?

A relational database is a type of database that stores and provides access to data points that are related to one another. It is based on the relational model of data, which was introduced by E.F. Codd in 1970.

This model organizes data into one or more tables (or “relations”) of columns and rows, with a unique key identifying each row. Rows are also called records or tuples, while columns are referred to as attributes.

The relational database model offers several advantages, including:

  • Data integrity: Ensures the accuracy and consistency of data through rules like primary keys and foreign keys.
  • Data retrieval: SQL provides a powerful and flexible language for querying and manipulating data.
  • Data independence: The structure of the database can be modified without needing to alter the data or the application programs that access the data.
  • Normalization: This process organizes data to minimize redundancy and dependency, making the database more efficient.
  • ACID properties: Relational databases often guarantee atomicity, consistency, isolation, and durability (ACID), crucial for ensuring reliable transactions and data integrity.

Relational databases are widely used due to their ease of use, flexibility, and robustness. They are suitable for a wide range of applications and are particularly effective in cases where data relationships are important, data integrity is critical, and the data structure is not expected to change frequently. Popular relational database management systems include MySQL, PostgreSQL, Oracle database, and Microsoft SQL server.

Non relational database vs relational database: 10 Key differences

The key differences between non-relational databases (NoSQL) and relational databases (SQL):

AspectNon-relational database (NoSQL)Relational database (SQL)
Data modelUses a variety of data models such as document, key-value, wide-column, and graph.Uses a tabular data model with rows and columns.
SchemaTypically schema-less or flexible schema. Allows for varied data structures within the same database.Requires a predefined schema with a fixed structure.
ScalabilityDesigned for horizontal scalability, can easily scale out by adding more nodes.Primarily scales vertically, requiring more powerful hardware for scaling.
Query languageNo standard query language. Query methods vary based on the type of NoSQL database.Uses structured query language (SQL) for defining and manipulating data.
Data integrityTypically eventual consistency. Focus on availability and partition tolerance (CAP theorem).Strong focus on data integrity with ACID compliance.
Complexity of transactionsBetter suited for simpler transactions. Complex transactions can be more challenging to manage.Ideal for complex transactions and operations requiring joins and multi-record updates with consistency.
Handling of big dataExcellent for handling large volumes of unstructured or semi-structured data.Can handle large volumes of data but may become complex and less efficient with extremely large datasets.
FlexibilityHighly flexible in terms of data models and schema changes.Less flexible; schema changes can be complex and disruptive.
RelationshipsNot inherently built for data relationships. Relationships can be modeled but often with more complexity.Excellently manages data relationships through foreign keys and joins.
Use casesIdeal for unstructured data, real-time applications, big data analytics, and rapidly evolving data requirements.Well-suited for structured data with clear relationships, requiring complex queries and high data integrity.

This table provides an overview of the fundamental differences between non-relational and relational databases, helping you understand their distinct characteristics and ideal use cases.

Non-relational database vs relational database: Pros and cons

In the dynamic landscape of data management, the choice between non-relational and relational databases is pivotal. Each comes with its distinct set of advantages and challenges, catering to different needs and scenarios.

Here are some of the pros and cons of non-relational databases versus relational databases, to understand their strengths and limitations in various contexts.

#1 Non-relational database


The following are some of the main advantages of non-relational database:

  1. Scalability
  2. Flexibility
  3. Performance

Let us explore the pros of non-relational databases in detail.

1. Scalability

Non-relational databases are known for their excellent horizontal scalability. They can handle large and rapidly growing datasets by simply adding more servers, making them ideal for big data applications and real-time web apps.

2. Flexibility

With no strict schema requirements, non-relational databases offer high flexibility in data modeling. They can easily accommodate unstructured and semi-structured data, making them suitable for dynamic applications where data requirements evolve frequently.

3. Performance

For certain types of queries, especially those involving large volumes of data or simple lookups, non-relational databases often offer superior performance. Their data model allows for faster retrieval of non-relational data types.


The following are some of the main disadvantages of non-relational database:

  1. Complex transactions
  2. Consistency
  3. Standardization

Let us understand the cons of non-relational databases in detail.

1. Complex transactions

Non-relational databases are not inherently designed for complex transactions. Handling multi-record updates or transactions that require a high level of data integrity can be challenging compared to relational databases.

Additionally, they often lack the built-in mechanisms for handling atomic transactions, making it difficult to ensure that all parts of a transaction are completed successfully or not at all. This can lead to data inconsistencies, especially in large-scale applications.

2. Consistency

Many non-relational databases follow the eventual consistency model as per the CAP theorem, which might not be suitable for applications that require immediate data consistency. This means that there might be a delay before changes are reflected across all nodes in a distributed system.

For critical applications like banking or real-time inventory management, this could lead to significant problems, including data discrepancies and decision-making based on outdated information.

3. Standardization

The lack of a standardized query language (like SQL for relational databases) means a steeper learning curve and potential challenges in interoperability and data migrations. Each non-relational database often has its own unique way of handling queries, which can complicate the process for developers transitioning between different databases.

Furthermore, this lack of standardization can hinder the ability to seamlessly integrate with various tools and platforms, potentially limiting the flexibility in choosing technology solutions.

#2 Relational Database


The following are some of the main advantages of relational database:

  1. Data integrity
  2. Structured query language
  3. Complex queries and relationships

Let’s look at them in detail:

1. Data integrity

Relational databases are designed with a strong focus on data integrity and consistency. They support atomicity, consistency, isolation, and durability properties, making them reliable for critical applications.

Furthermore, their strict schema and relational constraints ensure data accuracy and prevent redundancy. The use of primary and foreign keys fosters a clear and enforceable relationship between different data entities, further enhancing the trustworthiness of the stored information.

2. Structured query language

The use of structured query language, a standardized and powerful language for querying and manipulating data, is a significant advantage. It is widely known, well-documented, and used in many applications.

Its versatility allows for efficient data retrieval, updates, and management across diverse databases. Furthermore, its compatibility with various database management systems makes it an indispensable tool for data professionals worldwide.

3. Complex queries and relationships

Relational databases excel in managing complex queries and data relationships. They efficiently handle operations requiring joins and multi-record updates with consistent results.

Their structured framework empowers users to draw insightful connections between disparate data points. Furthermore, they facilitate intricate data analytics, making them indispensable for intricate data-driven decision-making.


The following are some of the main disadvantages of relational database:

  1. Scalability
  2. Schema rigidity
  3. Handling of unstructured data

Let’s look at them in detail:

1. Scalability

While powerful, relational databases primarily rely on vertical scaling, which can be more costly and has physical limitations. Horizontal scaling can be more complex and less efficient compared to non-relational databases.

Additionally, this scaling issue can lead to performance bottlenecks during high-demand periods, affecting the overall system responsiveness. There’s also a risk of increased data downtime and maintenance complexities as the database grows in size and user load.

2. Schema rigidity

The requirement for a predefined schema means less flexibility. Making significant changes to the database structure can be complex and disruptive to the existing system.

This rigidity can hinder rapid development and adaptation, especially in agile environments that require quick iterations. It also makes it challenging to adapt to evolving data requirements without significant overhead or refactoring efforts.

3. Handling of unstructured data

Relational databases are less suitable for handling large volumes of unstructured or semi-structured data. They are optimized for structured data with defined relationships.

This limitation makes it difficult to manage and analyze diverse data types, such as images, videos, and complex documents, which are increasingly common in today’s data-driven world.

Moreover, integrating unstructured data often requires additional transformation and processing steps, increasing the complexity and cost of data management.

Each type of database system has its strengths and weaknesses. The choice between a non-relational and relational database largely depends on the specific requirements, data structure, and desired scalability of the application or system in question.

Non-relational database vs relational database: When to use?

In the vast landscape of data management, choosing the right database is akin to selecting the foundation for a building – it’s a critical decision that shapes the functionality, scalability, and efficiency of your applications.

Whether to opt for a non-relational or relational database is a decision that hinges on various factors, including the nature of your data, scalability needs, and the complexity of transactions.

Let’s delve into the scenarios that favor the use of each, providing clarity on when to employ a non-relational database versus a relational database.

#1 When to use a non-relational database

The following factors determine when should you use non-relational database:

  1. Handling large volumes of unstructured data
  2. Need for high scalability and flexibility
  3. Rapid development and iteration
  4. Real-time applications

Let us explore on when to use a non-relational database in detail.

1. Handling large volumes of unstructured data

If your application deals with massive amounts of unstructured or semi-structured data, like social media content, sensor data, or multimedia files, a non-relational database is often more suitable. They can store and manage diverse data types efficiently.

2. Need for high scalability and flexibility

For applications that experience unpredictable growth or require the ability to scale out quickly and efficiently, non-relational databases are ideal. They allow you to add more nodes to handle increased load, ensuring high availability and performance.

3. Rapid development and iteration

In environments where the data model is evolving or not fully defined, such as startups or agile software development projects, the schema-less nature of non-relational databases allows for quicker iterations and modifications without significant backend overhauls.

4. Real-time applications

Applications that require real-time data processing and quick response times, such as gaming platforms, real-time analytics, or Internet of Things (IoT) applications, can benefit from the performance and structure of non-relational databases.

#2 When to use a relational database

The following factors determine when should you use relational database:

  1. Complex transactions and high data integrity
  2. Structured data with clear relationships
  3. Need for complex queries and reporting
  4. Established systems with less frequent schema changes

Let’s delve deep into when to use relational databases.

1. Complex transactions and high data integrity

Applications requiring complex transactions with multiple operations or those that demand high data integrity, such as financial systems, inventory management, or HR systems, are well-suited for relational databases due to their ACID compliance.

2. Structured data with clear relationships

If your data is highly structured and contains clear relationships, a relational database provides an efficient and effective way to store, retrieve, and manage that data. Examples include customer relationship management (CRM) systems or e-commerce platforms.

3. Need for complex queries and reporting

For applications that require complex queries, reporting, and data analytics, especially those involving data relationships and joins, relational databases offer powerful querying capabilities through SQL, making data manipulation and retrieval more efficient.

4. Established systems with less frequent schema changes

In cases where the data structure is stable and not subject to frequent changes, relational databases provide a robust and reliable storage solution. They are well-suited for traditional business applications with consistent data models.

The choice between a non-relational and relational database should be guided by the specific needs of the application, the nature of the data being handled, scalability requirements, and the complexity of the transactions involved. Each type of database offers unique advantages, and the decision should align with the overall objectives and constraints of the project or organization.

3 Examples of non-relational database vs relational database

In the world of databases, the dichotomy between non-relational and relational models is akin to the contrast between two architectural styles, each with its unique materials, design principles, and suitable applications.

To concretize this understanding, it’s helpful to look at specific examples of each type of database.

These examples not only illustrate the characteristics and capabilities of non-relational and relational databases but also provide real-world context, showcasing how these databases are employed in various industries and applications.

Let’s explore some prominent examples of both non-relational and relational databases, highlighting their distinctive features and common use cases.

Examples of non-relational databases

The following are some common examples non-relational databases:

  1. MongoDB
  2. Cassandra
  3. Redis

Here’s an elaborate exploration of examples of non-relational databases.

1. MongoDB

  • Type: Document-oriented
  • Overview: MongoDB is one of the most popular NoSQL databases. It stores data in flexible, JSON-like documents, meaning fields can vary from document to document, and data structure can be changed over time. It’s widely used in big data applications and real-time analytics.
  • Use case example: MongoDB is often used in content management systems and mobile apps due to its ability to handle diverse data types and its scalability.

2. Cassandra

  • Type: Wide-column store
  • Overview: Apache Cassandra is designed to handle large amounts of data across many commodity servers, providing high availability with no single point of failure. It’s highly scalable and can support structured, semi-structured, and unstructured data.
  • Use case example: Cassandra is ideal for applications that require fast, scalable access to large data sets, such as IoT applications, time-series data, and recommendation engines.

3. Redis

  • Type: Key-value store
  • Overview: Redis is an in-memory data structure store, used as a database, cache, and message broker. It supports various data structures like strings, hashes, lists, sets, and more, with high performance.
  • Use case example: Redis is commonly used for caching to enhance application performance, session storage, and real-time analytics.

Examples of relational databases

The following are some common examples relational databases:

  1. MySQL
  2. PostgreSQL
  3. Oracle database

Here’s an elaborate exploration of examples of relational databases.

1. MySQL

  • Overview: MySQL is an open-source relational database management system. It’s widely used for web applications and is a component of the widely used LAMP web application software stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, Perl/PHP/Python).
  • Use case example: MySQL is commonly used in e-commerce sites, content management systems, and for building and maintaining online forums.

2. PostgreSQL

  • Overview: PostgreSQL, often simply “Postgres,” is an open-source, object-relational database system with an emphasis on extensibility and standards compliance. It’s known for its robustness and support for advanced data types.
  • Use case example: PostgreSQL is used in scenarios that require geographic object storage and manipulation, such as in GIS (Geographic information systems).

3. Oracle database

  • Overview: Oracle Database is a multi-model database management system commonly used for running online transaction processing (OLTP), data warehousing (DW), and mixed database workloads.
  • Use case example: Oracle is widely used in enterprise environments for high-volume, high-security online transaction processing environments like banking systems.

These examples demonstrate the versatility and range of both non-relational and relational databases in various applications and industries. The choice between them depends on specific use cases, data requirements, and scalability needs.

Summarizing it all together

In conclusion, the choice between non-relational and relational databases is dictated by specific needs and contexts. Non-relational databases, with their flexible schemas and scalability, are ideal for handling large volumes of unstructured data and rapid development.

On the other hand, relational databases excel in managing complex transactions, maintaining high data integrity, and dealing with structured data.

As we explored the key differences, pros and cons, ideal use cases, and examples, it’s clear that each type has its distinct advantages.

Ultimately, the decision should align with your project’s data requirements, scalability needs, and overall goals. Both non-relational and relational databases are powerful tools in the realm of data management, each playing a crucial role in different scenarios.

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