A More Industrial-Looking Global Storage Scheme

In the first article in this series, we looked at the entity–attribute–value (EAV) model in relational databases, and took a look at the pros and cons of storing those entities, attributes and values in tables. We learned that, despite the benefits of this approach in terms of flexibility, there are some real disadvantages, in particular a basic mismatch between the logical structure of the data and its physical storage, which causes various difficulties.

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In the first article in this series, we’ll take a look at the entity–attribute–value (EAV) model in relational databases to see how it’s used and what it’s good for. Then we'll compare the EAV model concepts to globals.

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Sergey Kamenev · Nov 11, 2019 11m read
Transactions in Global InterSystems IRIS

InterSystems IRIS supports a unique data structure, called globals, for information storage. Essentially, globals are persistent arrays with multi-level indices, having several extra capabilities—transactions, quick traversal of tree structures, and a programming language known as ObjectScript.

I'd note that for the remainder of the article, or at least the code samples, we'll assume you have familiarised yourself with the basics of globals:

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PHP, from the beginning of its time, is renowned (and criticized) for supporting integration with a lot of libraries, as well as with almost all the DB existing on the market. However, for some mysterious reasons, it did not support hierarchical databases on the globals.

Globals are structures for storing hierarchical information. They are somewhat similar to key-value database with the only difference being that the key can be multi-level:

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In the previous parts (1, 2) we talked about globals as trees. In this article, we will look at them as sparse arrays.

A sparse array - is a type of array where most values assume an identical value.

In practice, you will often see sparse arrays so huge that there is no point in occupying memory with identical elements. Therefore, it makes sense to organize sparse arrays in such a way that memory is not wasted on storing duplicate values.

In some programming languages, sparse arrays are part of the language - for example, in J, MATLAB. In other languages, there are special libraries that let you use them. For C++, those would be Eigen and the like.

Globals are good candidates for implementing sparse arrays for the following reasons:

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Globals, these magic swords for storing data, have been around for a while, but not many people can use them efficiently or know about this super-weapon altogether.

If you use globals for tasks where they truly shine, the results may be amazing, either in terms of increased performance or dramatic simplification of the overall solution (1, 2).

Globals offer a special way of storing and processing data, which is completely different from SQL tables. They were first introduced in 1966 in the M(UMPS) programming language, which was initially used in medical databases. It is still used in the same way, but has also been adopted by some other industries where reliability and high performance are top priorities: finance, trading, etc.

Later M(UMPS) evolved into Caché ObjectScript (COS). COS was developed by InterSystems as a superset of M. The original language is still accepted by developers' community and alive in a few implementations. There are several signs of activity around the web: MUMPS Google group, Mumps User's group), effective ISO Standard, etc.

Modern global based DBMS supports transactions, journaling, replication, partitioning. It means that they can be used for building modern, reliable and fast distributed systems.

Globals do not restrict you to the boundaries of the relational model. They give you the freedom of creating data structures optimized for particular tasks. For many applications reasonable use of globals can be a real silver bullet offering speeds that developers of conventional relational applications can only dream of.

Globals as a method of storing data can be used in many modern programming languages, both high- and low-level. Therefore, this article will focus specifically on globals and not the language they once came from.

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