Database normalization is a formal process of designing your database to eliminate redundant data, utilize space efficiently and reduce update errors. Anyone who has ever taken a database class has it drummed into their heads that a normalized database is the only way to go. This is true for the most part . However there are certain scenarios where the benefits of database normalization are outweighed by its costs. Two of these scenarios are described below.

Immutable Data and Append-Only Scenarios

Pat Helland, an enterprise architect at Microsoft who just rejoined the company after a two year stint at Amazon, has a blog post entitled Normalization is for Sissies where he presents his slides from an internal Microsoft gathering on database topics. In his presentation, Pat argues that database normalization is unnecessary in situations where we are storing immutable data such as financial transactions or a particular day's price list.

When Multiple Joins are Needed to Produce a Commonly Accessed View

The biggest problem with normalization is that you end up with multiple tables representing what is conceptually a single item. For example, consider this normalized set of tables which represent a user profile on a typical social networking site.

user table
user_id first_name last_name sex hometown relationship_status interested_in religious_views political_views
12345 John Doe Male Atlanta, GA married women (null) (null)
user_affiliations table
user_id (foreign_key) affiliation_id (foreign key)
12345 42
12345 598
affiliations table
affiliation_id description member_count
42 Microsoft 18,656
598 Georgia Tech 23,488
user_phone_numbers table
user_id (foreign_key) phone_number phone_type
12345 425-555-1203 Home
12345 425-555-6161 Work
12345 206-555-0932 Cell
user_screen_names table
user_id (foreign_key) screen_name im_service
12345 AIM
12345 Skype
user_work_history table
user_id (foreign_key) company_affiliation_id (foreign key) company_name job_title
12345 42 Microsoft Program Manager
12345 78 i2 Technologies Quality Assurance Engineer

This is the kind of information you see on the average profile on Facebook. With the above design, it takes six SQL Join operations to access and display the information about a single user. This makes rendering the profile page a fairly database intensive operation which is compounded by the fact that profile pages are the most popular pages on social networking sites.

The simplest way to fix this problem is to denormalize the database. Instead of having tables for the user’s affiliations, phone numbers, IM addresses and so on, we can just place them in the user table as columns. The drawback with this approach is that there is now more wasted space (e.g. lots of college students people will have null for their work_phone)  and perhaps some redundant information (e.g. if we copy over the description of each affiliation into an affiliation_name column for each user to prevent having to do a join with the affiliations table). However given the very low costs of storage versus the improved performance characteristics of querying a single table and not having to deal with SQL statements that operate across six tables for every operation. This is a small price to pay.

As Joe Gregorio mentions in his blog post about the emergence of megadata, a lot of the large Web companies such as Google, eBay and Amazon are heavily into denormalizing their databases as well as eschewing transactions when updating these databases to improve their scalability.

Maybe normalization is for sissies…

UPDATE: Someone pointed out in the comments that denormalizing the affiliations table into user's table would mean the member_count would have to updated in thousands of user's rows when a new member was added to the group. This is obviously not the intent of denormalization for performance reasons since it replaces a bad problem with a worse one. Since an affiliation is a distinct concept from a user, it makes sense for it to have it's own table. Replicating the names of the groups a user is affiliated with in the user table is a good performance optimization although it does mean that the name has to be fixed up in thousands of tables if it ever changes. Since this is likely to happen very rarely, this is probably acceptable especially if we schedule renames to be done by a cron job during offpeak ours On the other hand, replicating the member count is just asking for trouble.

UPDATE 2: Lots of great comments here and on reddit indicate that I should have put more context around this post. Database denormalization is the kind of performance optimization that should be carried out as a last resort after trying things like creating database indexes, using SQL views and implementing application specific in-memory caching. However if you hit massive scale and are dealing with millions of queries a day across hundreds of millions to billions of records or have decided to go with database partitioning/sharding then you will likely end up resorting to denormalization. A real-world example of this is the Flickr database back-end whose details are described in Tim O'Reilly's Database War Stories #3: Flickr which contains the following quotes

tags are an interesting one. lots of the 'web 2.0' feature set doesn't fit well with traditional normalised db schema design. denormalization (or heavy caching) is the only way to generate a tag cloud in milliseconds for hundereds of millions of tags. you can cache stuff that's slow to generate, but if it's so expensive to generate that you can't ever regenerate that view without pegging a whole database server then it's not going to work (or you need dedicated servers to generate those views - some of our data views are calculated offline by dedicated processing clusters which save the results into mysql).

federating data also means denormalization is necessary - if we cut up data by user, where do we store data which relates to two users (such as a comment by one user on another user's photo). if we want to fetch it in the context of both user's, then we need to store it in both shards, or scan every shard for one of the views (which doesn't scale). we store alot of data twice, but then theres the issue of it going out of sync. we can avoid this to some extent with two-step transactions (open transaction 1, write commands, open transaction 2, write commands, commit 1st transaction if all is well, commit 2nd transaction if 1st commited) but there still a chance for failure when a box goes down during the 1st commit.

we need new tools to check data consistency across multiple shards, move data around shards and so on - a lot of the flickr code infrastructure deals with ensuring data is consistent and well balanced and finding and repairing it when it's not."

The part highlighted in red is also important to consider. Denormalization means that you you are now likely to deal with data inconsistencies because you are storing redundant copies of data and may not be able to update all copies of a column value simultaneously  when it is changed for a variety of reasons. Having tools in your infrastructure to support fixing up data of this sort then become very important.

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