Redis in Review: First Impressions

(Above: The Redis logo backed by a voronoi diagram generated by my specially-upgraded voronoi diagram generator :D)

I've known about Redis for a while now - but I've never gotten around to looking into it until now. A bit of background: I'm building a user management panel thingy for this project (yes, again. I'll be blogging about it for a bit more yet before it's ready). Since I want it to be a separate, and optional, component that you don't have to run in order to use the main program, I decided to make it a separate program in a different language (Nojde.JS is rather good at doing this sort of thing I've found).

Anyway, whilst writing the login system, I found that I needed a place to store session tokens such that they persist. I considered a few different options here:

1. A JSON file on disk - This wouldn't be particularly scalable if I found myself with lots of users. It also means I've got to read in and decode a bunch of JSON when my program starts up, which can get mighty fiddly. Furthermore, persisting it back to disk would also be rather awkward and inefficient.
2. An SQL database of some description - Better, not still not great. The setup for a database is complicated, and requires a complex and resource-hungry process running at all times. Even if I used SQLite, I wouldn't be able to escape the complexities associated with database schemas - which I'd likely end up spending more time fiddling with than actually writing the program itself!

Then I remembered Redis. At first, I thought it was an in-memory data storage solution. While I was right, I discovered that there's a lot more to Redis than I first thought. For one, it does actually allow you to persist things to disk - and is very transparent about it too, allowing a great deal of control over how data is persisted to disk (also this post is a great read on the subject, even if it's a bit old now - it goes into a great deal of depth about how the operating system handles and caches writes to disk).

When it comes to actually storing your data, Redis provides just a handful of delightfully simple data structures for you to model your data with. Unlike a traditional SQL-based database, storing data in Redis requires a different way of thinking. Rather than considering how data relates to one another and trying to represent it as a series of interconnected tables, in Redis you store things in a manner that's much closer to that which you might find in the program that you're writing.

The core of Redis is a key-value store - rather like localStorage in the browser. Unlike localStorage though, the following data types are provided:

• A simple string value
• A hash-table
• A list of values (which can be also be treated as a queue)
• A set of unique strings (which can be optionally sorted)
• Binary blobs (called bit arrays)
• A HyperLogLog (apparently a probabilistic data structure of some kind)

The official Redis tutorial on the subject does a much better job of explaining this than I could (I have only been playing with it for about a week after all!), so I'd recommend you read it if you're curious.

All this has some interesting effects. Firstly, the data storage system can be more closely representative of the data structures it is storing, allowing for clever data-specific optimisations to be made in ways that simply aren't possible with a traditional SQL-based system. To this end, a custom index can be created in Redis via simple values to accelerate the process of finding a particular hash-table given a particular piece of identifying information.

Secondly, it makes Redis very versatile. You could use it as a caching layer to store the results of queries made against a traditional SQL-based database. In that scenario, no persistence to disk would be required to make it as fast as possible. You could use it for storing session tokens and short-lived chunks of data, utilising the inbuilt EXPIRE command to tell Redis to automatically delete certain keys after a specified amount of time. You could use it store all your data in and do away with an SQL server altogether. You could even do all of these things at the same time!

When storing data in Redis, it's important to make sure you've got the right mindset. I've found that despite learning about the different commands and data structures Redis has to offer, it's taken me a few goes to figure out how I'm going to store my program's data in a way that both makes sense and makes it easy to get it back out again. I'm certain that I'll take quite a bit of practice (and trial and error!) to figure out what works and what doesn't.

It's not the kind of thing that would make you want to drop your database system like a hot potato and move everything to Redis before the week is out. But it is a tool to keep in mind that can be used to solve a class of problems that SQL-based database servers have traditionally been very bad at handling - in particular high-throughput systems that need to store lots of mainly short-lived data (e.g. session tokens, etc.).