Unlock AWS DynamoDB with Alex Debrie

In part one of a two-part series, author of “The DynamoDB Book”, Alex DeBrie, discusses AWS DynamoDB and the advantages of its planet-scale architecture

— by Miguel Bracchini, Chief Solution Architect -

When Alex DeBrie first discovered AWS DynamoDB, he used it, in his own words, “totally wrong.” Fast forward several years, and Alex is the guy who literally wrote the book on it. He recently joined AWS superfan and CTO of ESW Capital Rahul Subramaniam on the AWS Insiders podcast to dive deep into DynamoDB, including his journey to DynamoDB expert, the service’s many capabilities, and how to best utilize it.

Alex kicked off by sharing his path to publishing “The DynamoDB Book.” Inspired by a talk by Rick Cohan at 2017’s AWS Re:Invent (“I watched that talk 5, 6, 7 times”), Alex created a modest website, dynamodbguide.com. It presented information about AWS DynamoDB in a fresh way that showcased how it was different from other databases. The website took off, Alex continued to explore DynamoDB’s unique advantages with serverless applications, and in 2020, turned that expertise into a published book.

Alex demonstrated his deep knowledge of DynamoDB throughout the conversation with Rahul, covering DynamoDB’s differentiators, its relationship to single table design, and more.

How should developers think about AWS DynamoDB differently, compared to a SQL or relational database?

According to Alex, the biggest difference between DynamoDB and relational databases is that DynamoDB is designed for consistency and predictability in performance, response times, and scalability. Because of that, its underlying architecture operates differently as well. DynamoDB forces users to use a primary key to identify items and always filter against that primary key.

In addition, DynamoDB doesn’t have a query planner like relational databases. Instead, it provides lower-level access to some basic data structures and requires the user to arrange the data in particular ways to match access patterns. Alex explains, “It requires more time spent upfront in thinking through and designing for your access patterns, but then you get those great things about Dynamo, the consistency, the predictability… you know about how long anything is going to take without having to go through this query planner and maybe giving you unexpected results as it hits higher load.”
Additional differentiators include:

  • DynamoDB is very explicit on the limits of the application compared to relational databases, where the limits are less clear and more dependent on other factors.
  • DynamoDB is very easy to scale up and down, which is one of the reasons it is so popular in the serverless world.
  • Because DynamoDB has an HDP-based API, it’s not necessary to set up VPCs to access your DynamoDB table. It uses AWS-IAM for authentication and is accessed over HDP.

How does single table design relate to DynamoDB databases?

After discussing the fundamentals of AWS DynamoDB, Alex and Rahul took a deep dive into using single table design to build planet-scale applications. Alex described how DynamoDB uses single table design to get disparate related items in a single efficient request rather than doing joints in an application. This simplified data management increases scalability while optimizing costs and, in Alex’s words, “forces you to understand that how you are modeling data in Dynamo is not going to match how you were modeling in a relational database.”

Additional highlights from the single table design conversation include:

  • How single table design requires you to think about access patterns first, rather than model design first and then do your query
  • The relationship between single table design and hyper-denormalization, and when denormalization strategies do and don’t make sense
  • The required components to create an efficient schema in DynamoDB
  • How modeling in DynamoDB prevents overutilization costs common to relational databases
  • Making the fundamental mind shift required to switch from relational databases to AWS DynamoDB

Hear the in-depth discussion on these topics and more in the full podcast, available with transcript now.

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