When people ask me how to learn to use a database or how to write SQL queries, I tell them to pick a database system and immerse themselves in it. In fact that advice goes for a lot of software technologies: just immerse yourself in a language, as programming tutorials are easy to come by these days. On the other hand, when people ask me which database software to use, I tend to give pause. Most of the time, I recommend MySQL for beginners since it tends to be the most light-weight system to install and use, but I know it’s not often the easiest to understand. With the advent of new light-weight database editions of often heavier products, perhaps it’s time I reconsider the issue.
1. MySQL: Free, lightweight, and readily available
MySQL stands out as the easiest for users to start with, in part because most people can get access to a MySQL database without having to setup anything. Most, if not all, hosting companies that offer database support do so in the form of a MySQL database. The only disadvantage with hosting solutions is that users lose the ability to run local applications on the database, often relying on phpMyAdmin for all database changes. I recommend anyone serious about learning MySQL download and install it themselves, as there are plenty of installation platforms supported.
The good: Free. Easy to download and/or find an existing database to work with. Somewhat easy to install. Lots of free tools available. Good documentation.
The bad: If the installation or auto-configuration breaks, user is left spending hours diagnosing the problems. The MySQL GUI tools, while nice, have to be downloaded separately from the server. Limited support. Clustering and support of large transaction systems is not uncommon. Also, it can be buggy and unpredictable at times, as I’ve seen in practice.
2. Oracle: Heavy and Powerful
Oracle is one of the oldest database systems and stands out as a powerhouse among databases given its vast support for advanced clustering, memory management, and query optimization. If you need something robust, powerful, and able to support millions or billions of transactions a day, it’s the best there is. Oracle needs to be licensed for a production environment, although developers can download a free limited-use version which is good for building an application.
The good: Powerful. Can do some really cool things for those that appreciate it. Extremely scalable.
The bad: Often large and time-consuming installation. Least user friendly of all the database systems, although it’s gotten better over the last few years. Not free. Not a wide variety of tools, free or otherwise, to manipulate the database.
3. Microsoft SQL Server: Easy to use administration interface, often powerful
Microsoft SQL Server has matured greatly over the last 10 years into a decent rival of Oracle. I like MS SQL Server in that it hides a lot of the underlying configuration information from the user. On the other hand, I dislike MS SQL server in that it hides a lot of the underlying configuration information from the user. Double-edged sword, I know. Like Oracle, you need a license if you want to use it in a production environment.
The good: Easy to set up new databases and administer them. Best for those who have no idea how to administer a database. New express editions can be used for free.
The bad: Over-simplifies a lot for advanced users, making it harder to optimize. Not free. Developer edition has nominal cost, although it probably should be free.
This article is not meant to be the end-all for database software discussion, but a beginning guide of the big three database systems for those who are not well-versed in the area. To cover every possible database software, such as PostgreSQL or DB2, as well as countless others, would take a book or two. Most students starting out just need to find a single database and start ‘playing’ with it until they get the hang of it, rather than an exhaustive discussion of which database is best.
Some of you may be more familiar with embedded databases such HSQLDB, SQLite, or Derby than the ones I have mentioned. Rarely do I see beginners using embedded databases, so perhaps I’ll write an article about such systems down the road. Also, I have not purposely not mentioned Microsoft Access as a learning database, simply because I don’t consider it standard database software, but rather a glorified Excel spreadsheet. Most of teaching someone how to use a regular database after using Access, is convincing them all databases are not like Access.
My favorite database? If I’m teaching or writing a relatively simple web-application, MySQL. If someone else is paying for the license and the application is large enough, Oracle.