Dave Hudson


Thoughts after reading Pat Helland's "If You Have Too Much Data" paper

2020-05-03 11:14 - 2 min read

I just read If You Have Too Much Data, then ‘Good Enough’ Is Good Enough by Pat Helland. He argues that strong schemas were something we could afford in an era of single-node computers and the ability to formally normalise data, but that this is doomed to failure with large scale data sets and distributed systems.

Somehow this feels quite intuitive. We have small islands of coherent things within the world and then vast amounts of unstructured “stuff”.

It also feels like it matches the way I see dynamic vs static typing. In a purely dynamic language, a variable can represent anything. In a strongly typed language, we restrict things, but not as much as we like to pretend. A C++ int could be 32 bits in size, say, but the odds are that it’s being used to represent a value that might only be allowed to be 0 to 99. We’ve restricted some of the operations that can be performed on it, but nowhere near as much as we want to. If we’re conscientious we might put runtime assertions or error checking around it but pretending we’re precise is self-delusion.

In practice, it feels like we want to start by assuming any discrete thing we see is a blob. Blobs don’t have an interesting “type”. If we know something about what’s in the blob (or we can work it out) then we might instead determine some amount of structure within the blob. In Helland’s argument, we might see lossy ETL activities, but this feels like a cop-out. Instead, we should always be precise and have our derived form reference back to the original. The data provenance is really important.

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