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What if MongoDB and Neo4j had a baby

The NoSQL revolution has reshaped the world. Surely, some of these changes are for the worse, but most developers couldn’t care less about what the relational enthusiasts think.

The emergence of MongoDB brought the 0-to-60 for data storage in applications down by an order of magnitude. It’s like a rocket sled for application development (and probably just as safe). But developer experience and ease of use are paramount, especially in a world overburdened with complexity.

Neo4j is no slouch either. Before Neo4j, graph databases were virtually unknown. While it hasn’t had the same impact of total reconfiguration of the data management landscape for applications, it has found a healthy niche, largely in problem domains that one might describe as embarrassingly connected. And of course, once you start thinking in a graphy way, most problems end up looking embarrassingly connected.

What if MongoDB and Neo4j had a baby

Data is JSON and the Graph is everywhere

JSON is the medium of data communication. This is why MongoDB has had such a profound effect on application development. You can store your data in essentially the way you mean to manipulate it in your programming language. This radically reduces the impedance mismatch which has been a constant source of irritation for developers who were forced to use SQL. It’s also re-usable as an abstract syntax tree for building the communication of queries and updates themselves. No longer do you have to build a query with brittle concatenations of strings.

But trees are not really the only data structure we need even if they are the only thing that JSON can easily represent. Our programming languages have references or pointers because we need them to represent many of the data structures that we encounter. Although not everything is a graph, many things are. This is the insight that graph databases bring. Relationships between data are almost as important as the data itself.

But why not both? Can’t we have a database that allows us to fully overcome the object-relational impedance mismatch of old? Which fuses the benefits of the document store with the benefits of the graph?

Luckily we can have our cake and eat it too. What we need is a love-child of Mongo and Neo4j.

The Document Graph

All that is required to join these two worlds is the concept of a reference and a way to ensure that we have referential integrity (i.e. no dangling pointers). With this in hand, we can design our storage data structures such that we can follow these links efficiently.

In TerminusDB, we do this using URLs. This borrows from the original concept of the HTML page, which is itself a structured document with hyper-links, but one designed for rendering rather than data manipulation.

Instead of HTML with URLs, we use JSON with URLs, but the concept is very similar. As an example, a document that describes a person might look something like:

					{ "@id" : "Person/Jim+Smith",
  "@type" : "Person",
  "forename" : "Jim",
  "surname" : "Smith",
  "friends" : ["Person/Jill+Stone","Person/Peter+Miller"] }

We write down the references relative to the base URL prefix which we assume for our collection, which might be something like http://terminusdb.com/db/Terminators/Humans/. The fully-qualified URL would be rendered as something like: http://terminusdb.com/db/Terminators/Humans/Person/Jim+Smith. This makes it easier to read and write. But how do we know this is a reference and not a string? This is an important distinction for several reasons. It tells us how to index our objects such that traversals are fast, making it a real relationship rather than something that has to be calculated. It also keeps us from accidental misinterpretation – disambiguating a URL from a database relationship for instance. But it also allows us to ensure referential integrity, at least for links that are internal to our database. This is really important when dealing with large linked data stores, otherwise, we could easily end up with lots of broken links. It’s very similar to a foreign key-constraint in a relational database.

These logical constraints are described with a schema. The one for a person might be something like:

					{ "@type" : "Class",
  "@id" : "Person",
  "@key" : { "@type" : "Lexical", "@fields" : [ "forename", "surname" ] },
  "forename" : "xsd:string",
  "surname" : "xsd:string",
  "friends" : { "@type" : "Set", "@class" : "Person" }

The use of JSON for a document database with hyperlinks gives us the best of both worlds. The price we pay is that we have to be schema-first, something that is somewhat alien to both the MongoDB and GraphDB communities, but was common in the RDBMS era.

This cost is real but it is an advantage in the long-term for keeping data integrity and avoiding the kind of spaghetti that can result from unconstrained graphs and documents. So you have to pay a bit in up-front capital costs, but the operational costs will be lower.

Since the cost is real, we are always on the lookout for ways of reducing this upfront cost, including methods of inference with anomaly detection etc. This has the potential to get the best of all worlds, allowing us to do rapid prototyping and then subsequent lockdown of the schema.

From RDF to Linked Documents.

TerminusDB started its life as an RDF database and that’s still what it is under-the hood. RDF was the semantic web’s answer to the question of how to represent data, leveraging the ideas which had been learned in designing the web, and leveraging this for data. The semantic web had already started delving into Web3 topics long before Web3 existed as a concept.

Unfortunately it never really took off. There are many reasons for this, some of which are explored in Graph Fundamentals Part 4: Linked Data.

Part of the reason for this is that RDF is somewhat hard to read, but even harder to write. Data is completely represented in the relationships and not in documents (as it is with HTML). This provides no fundamental barrier to representation, but it can be a bit like a puzzle box to figure out how to weave everything into the graph, or what someone meant by their own particular weave once constructed*.

This problem is alleviated by the concept of the Document which bundles links together into a single atomic collection of information. The schema gives us a map to move back and forth between the JSON representation of the document, and the links in a graph.

ThePerson document for Person/Jim+Smith maps to something like:

					@prefix data: <http://terminusdb.com/db/Terminators/Humans/> .
@prefix schema: <http://terminusdb.com/db/Terminators/Humans#> .
  a schema:Person ;
  schema:forename : "Jim"^^xsd:string ;
  schema:surname : "Smith"^^xsd:string ;
  schema:friends : ( data:Person/Jill+Stone , data:Person/Peter+Miller )

And of course, this can be converted in the opposite direction. The JSON version has the advantage of familiarity and is immediately manipulable in our favorite language.


In addition, if we want to have a larger fragment of the graph expressed as a JSON document, we can simply use the concept of a sub-document. This is where we get significant advantages over the direct RDF representation, where what we intend to be a packaged object is left as an exercise to the programmer.

Let’s extend the definition of a person above with an address.

					{ "type" : "Enum",
  "@id" : "Country",
  "@value" : [ "Ireland", "South Africa", "UK", "Netherlands",
               "Austria", "India"] },
{ "@type" : "Class",
  "@id" : "Address",
  "@subdocument" : [],
  "@key" : { "@type" : "Random"},
  "line1" : "xsd:string",
  "line2" : { "@type" : "Optional", "@class" : "xsd:string" },
  "postal_code" : "xsd:string",
  "city" : "xsd:string",
  "province" { "@type" : "Optional", "@class" : "xsd:string" },
  "country" : "Country" },
{ "@type" : "Class",
  "@id" : "Person",
  "@key" : { "@type" : "Lexical", "@fields" : [ "forename", "surname" ] },
  "forename" : "xsd:string",
  "surname" : "xsd:string",
  "address" : "Address",
  "friends" : { "@type" : "Set", "@class" : "Person" } }

Now we can include an address as part of our JSON document, and it is thought of as a single included component, even though we defined it separately in a composable way in the schema.

Now our record for Jim might be something like:

					{ "@id" : "Person/Jim+Smith",
  "@type" : "Person",
  "forename" : "Jim",
  "surname" : "Smith",
  "friends" : ["Person/Jill+Stone","Person/Peter+Miller"],
  "address" : { "line1" : "Ferdinand Bordewijkstraat 1",
                "city" : "Wageningen",
                "province" : "Gelderland",
                "postal_code" : "6708 RB",
                "country" : "Netherlands" } }
And further, when converting this to RDF we get a universally assigned and fixed ID – unlike the blank nodes of RDF. This is essentially a form of automatic Skolemisation which is user directed by describing how one would like the @key to be constructed. We have chosen to generate the key from the name of the Person, but have assigned a random @key for the address. We could have instead used a ValueHash which would produce a unique address based on the content (which makes this a form of content addressable hashing).

Elaboration and JSON-LD

The approach of a document-oriented approach to RDF was already present in JSON-LD, the RDF/Linked Data answer to JSON representation.

This specification was well thought out and well designed. However, in our experience in working with the representation, we found it was too low level to be convenient to write and use directly. It is instead used in TerminusDB largely as an intermediate representation, with the fully elaborated version converted into RDF to store in the Database.

The process of elaboration (a concept borrowed from type theory) uses the schema to equip a fairly sparse JSON document with all of the information necessary to convert it directly to RDF triples. A fully elaborated version of the Person object might look like:

					{ "@id":"data:Person/Jim+Smith",
  "schema:forename": { "@value":"Jim",
                       "@type":"xsd:string" },
  "schema:surname": { "@value":"Smith",
                      "@type":"xsd:string" },
  "schema:friends": {"@container":"@set",
                     "@value" : [ "data:Person/Jill+Stone",
                                  "data:Person/Peter+Miller" ] }

This elaboration could be useful as a means of communicating the document with much of its schematic information included. But for most application development purposes, it simply is not needed.

I’ll be writing more about the elaboration process in a subsequent post.

Thesis - Antithesis - Synthesis

The use of subdocuments, the automatic generation of IDs, and the complete elimination of blank nodes is a major improvement over what exists already in the semantic web world.

The addition of native JSON document store capabilities as well as being a native graph database with fast link traversal means we have a synthesis that leverages the advantages of both worlds. Documents and graphs can live together naturally and complement each other.

There is work to be done to reduce the barrier to entry further still and eliminate some of the frictions of schema-first. However, we can already see the advantages of what we have already in TerminusDB.

* To see a great example of this try sorting out how to navigate the Lemmata in WordNet.

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