Ben Stopford, architect/engineer at RBS, summarizes his thoughts on Neo4j and graph databases after a visit from Ian Robinson, Director of Customer Success for Neo Technology.

Ian Robinson kindly came to RBS yesterday to speak about Neo4J (slides are here Thinking in Graphs). The odd one out of the NoSQL pack, Neo4J is a fascinating alternative to your regular key value store. For me it’s about a different way of thinking about data simply because the relations between nodes are as much a part of the data model as the nodes are themselves. I am left wondering somewhat how one might apply this solution to the enterprise space, particularly finance. Multistep montecarlo springs to mind as it creates a large connected space but there is no real need to traverse that space retrospectively. There may be application in other simulation techniques though. The below is a paraphrased version of Ian’s words.

Today’s problems can be classified as a function of not only size but also connectedness and structure.

F(size, connectedness, structure)

The Relational model struggles to deal with each of these three factors. The use of sparsely populated tables in our databases and null checks in client side code allude to the unsuitability of this model.

NoSQL offers a solution. The majority of this fledgling field rely on the concept of a Map (Dictionary) in some way. First came simple key-value stores like Dynamo. Next column-oriented stores like Cassandra and BigTable.Finally Document Databases provide a more complex document model(for example JSON), with facilities for simple introspection.

Neo4J is quite different to its NoSQL siblings: A graph database that allows users to model data as a set of nodes and relationships. Once modelled the data can be examined based on its connectedness (i.e. how one node relates to others) rather than simply based on its attributes.

Neo4J uses a specific type of graph model termed a Property Graph: Each node has associated attributes that describe its specificities. These need not be homogenous (as they would in a relational or object schema). Further the relationships between nodes are both namedand directed. As such they can be used in search criteria to find relationships between nodes.

The Property Graph model represents a pragmatic trade off between the purity of a traditional graph database and what you might see in a document database. This can be contrasted with the other graph database models: In ‘Triple Stores’every attribute is broken out as a separate node (this is a bit like third normal form for a graph database). Another alterative is Hypergraphs, where an edge can connect more than two nodes (see Ian’s slide to get a better understanding of this). Triple stores suffer from their fine-grained nature (I’m thinking binary vs red-black trees). Hypergaphs can be hard to apply to real world modelling applications as the multiplicity of relationships can make them hard to comprehend. The Property Graph model avoids the verbosity of triple stores and the conceptual complexity of Hypergraphs. As such the model works well for Complex, densely connected domains and ‘Messy’ data.

The fundamental attribute of the graph database is that Relationships are first class elements. That is to say querying relationships in a graph database is as natural as querying the data the nodes contain.

Neo4J, like many NoSQL databases is schemaless. You simply create nodes and relate them to one another to form a graph. Graphs need not be connected and many sub-graphs can be supported.

A query is simply ‘parachuted’ into a point in the graph from where it explores the local areas looking for some search pattern. So for example you might search for the pattern A–>B–>C. The query itself can be executed either via a ‘traversal’ or using the Cypher graph language. The traversal method simply visits the graph based on some criteria.For example it might only traverse arcs of a particular type. Cypher is a more formal graph language that allows the identification of patterns within the graph.

Read the full article.