Alternatives for Dynamic Web Development Projects

Dennis provides a starting point for developers seeking solutions for their web application development requirements.
Choosing a Database

Oracle

One product that has become synonymous with the word database is Oracle. Oracle (http://www.oracle.com/) is largely responsible for the current popularity of the relational database. Over the years, its database server has become justifiably respected for being full of features, fast and reliable. Oracle is also supported on Linux, and it appears that Oracle is committed to Linux as a platform.

However, there were two primary reasons not to use Oracle for this project. First, the hardware requirements were well beyond the capabilities of the machine used to develop and serve this application. As a rule of thumb, 800MB of disk space is needed with 256MB of memory. Second, Oracle would have been too expensive an alternative for an application of this size and temporary nature. Even at the minimal licensing fee of five named users in perpetuity for a single server the cost of using this software would have been ($160/user) $800.

MySQL

There are several open-source database options available to developers. In conjunction with web sites, MySQL (http://www.mysql.org/) appears to be a very popular choice in the Linux community. MySQL is a very fast, multithreaded, multiuser and robust SQL database server. MySQL is now also open source and has recently formed a strategic alliance with VA Linux Systems, a company that sells and supports Linux-based computer systems. MySQL was first released to the public in November 1996 and has always been available with source code. MySQL has proven to be a lightning fast and reliable database solution for a growing number of companies such as SGI, ValueClick, Nortel/Insight, Tucows.com, Cisco and many more.

So it would seem that MySQL was more than up to the task of the humble application described at the beginning of this document. It is considered very fast with large record sets, and the MySQL Manual reports production systems with upwards of 50,000,000 records. Further, there seems to be a growing relationship between the team that develops MySQL and the team that develops PHP. The increased popularity of this dynamic duo, coupled with boundless enthusiasm from core developers of both technologies, culminated in a meeting of the minds in Israel earlier this year. This resulted in the MySQL library being packaged with the PHP 4.0 distribution, in addition to an agreement to help each other improve the performance quality of product integration whenever the opportunity arises.

However, MySQL does have some shortcomings. One of these shortcomings is in the area of transactions. Tim Kientzle eloquently and succinctly discusses transactions in his July article written for Dr. Dobb's Journal:

A transaction is a set of related changes to a database. The SQL standard specifies that an entire group of updates can be issued to the database and then either committed or rolled back as a unit. This lets you, for example, transfer money between accounts stored in different database tables by adding the money to one account and then trying to subtract it from another; if the second update fails, you can undo all of the changes at once.

While lack of transaction support will not immediately be an issue in our application, the threat of “feature creep”, even in an application of this nature, compelled me to seek an alternative system that does support transactions. Further, MySQL has only limited support for foreign keys. The foreign key is an important concept of the relational model. It is the way relationships are represented and can be thought of as the glue that holds a set of tables together to form a relational database. Another area where I found MySQL to be wanting was in subqueries that it does not support. A subquery occurs when a developer nests one SQL statement within another SQL statement. Again, while my application is small and likely would not run into too much difficulty with MySQL's support of foreign keys, subqueries and transactions, it was still another needling in the direction of an alternate RDBM.

PostgreSQL

Some of the concerns that I had with MySQL seemed to be addressed by the team developing PostgreSQL (http://www.postgresql.org/). The version of PostgreSQL that ships with Red Hat 6.2 is version 6.5.3. This version already had support for transactions and subqueries, but it did not have extensive support foreign keys. However, the PostgreSQL team had recently released version 7.0.2 of the database that does support subqueries.

The PostgreSQL FAQ reports that PostgreSQL has most of the features present in large commercial DBMSs, like transactions, subselects, triggers, views and sophisticated locking. It has some features that other databases do not have, like user-defined types, inheritance, rules and multiversion concurrency control to reduce lock contention. But this functionality seems to be at the expense of the speed afforded MySQL. In comparison to MySQL or leaner database systems, PostgreSQL is slower on inserts and updates because it has transaction overhead.

Similarly to MySQL and in great contrast to Oracle, the minimum system requirements of PostgreSQL are light. The PostgreSQL administrator's guide reports that although the minimum required memory for running PostgreSQL can be as little as 8MB, there are noticeable speed improvements when expanding memory up to 96MB or beyond. The rule is you can never have too much memory.

Check that you have sufficient disk space. You will need about 30MB for the source tree during compilation and about 5MB for the installation directory. An empty database takes about 1MB, otherwise it takes about five times the amount of space that a flat text file with the same data would take. If you run the regression tests you will temporarily need an extra 20MB.

The machine I used easily meets these system requirements. I don't expect the drop in speed to be an issue. I'm satisfied that PostgreSQL addresses my concerns regarding MySQL and Oracle. I decided to use PostgreSQL for this project.

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