RDF Database Expectations


I use RDF databases to store 100% of O’Reilly Media’s product metadata. The catalog pages, shopping cart, electronic media distribution, product registration process, ONIX distribution, and most internal product reporting is based on RDF. The following are observations of what is necessary from a RDF database in order to successfully and easily build a similar system. As for what the clients need to be able to do… working on that. The features required are listed in descending order of priority to me.


An RDF or semantic database that does not support at least SPARQL 1.0 is not interesting. Writing queries in Prolog, XQuery, or another DSL is not acceptable. Getting folks to understand graphs and RDF is hard enough without also having to teach them languages that don’t work easily with graphs.


When running a simple query that works fine on many other implementations I don’t expect to find INCORRECT results. Throwing errors and saying something is unimplemented isn’t great but far better then returning results that are just WRONG.


SPARQL doesn’t really do enough without extensions. The features I’ve found to be most useful are LET, and GROUP BY. LET can be used to “fake” bind parameters, create synthetic values for reports and make complex queries much simpler. Without GROUP BY nasty post processing is often necessary to produce summary reports from SPARQL queries. Other helpful functions are the XPath functions, a good set of always useful tools that I already know from years of work in XSLT and XQuery.

Named Graphs

Named graphs allow me to treat the RDF database as a document store. This rapidly reduces the complexity of loading and managing ETL operations. The SPARQL 1.1 Uniform HTTP Protocol for Managing RDF Graphs makes me very happy, and maps neatly on top of solutions that I’d already implemented before I even knew the SPARQL 1.1 Working group existed. See Tenuki for my own implementation of graph updates over HTTP. ChangeSets Talis style are useful too, but have been more complicated to generate then I had expected.


I expect to be able to write updates to graphs and read from graphs at the same time. I’ve encountered limitations related to Multi Reader Single Writer locks at the graph level, dataset level, and server level.

Parses RDF/XML

Twice now I’ve come across products that fail to parse perfectly valid RDF/XML. We aren’t talking complex RDF/XML structures either, just simple Literals and XMLLiterals that contain non ASCII data, or XML mixed content.


A database server should not require me to write software in order to use it. Simple command line clients and simple start stop scripts should not be too much to ask.


SPARQL query optimizers tend to be odd beasts. I have found that it’s really easy to go from a query that runs in no measurable time to one that will, for all practical purposes, never complete. Understanding why with EXPLAIN is hard, without EXPLAIN impossible. Profiling would of course be better, but I’ll take what I can get.


If your RDF database supports a feature but doesn’t document the feature anywhere, it doesn’t support the feature. I’m should not need to read source code to find out what SPARQL syntax and extensions the database supports. If your products is a closed source RDF database Documentation should really be at the top of this list as I can’t figure it out for myself by reading the code.


I get that databases are big money. I know Oracle owns MySQL now. It doesn’t matter. Rails, Django, Pylons, Wicket, insert favorite SQL based web framework here would not have existed without a good enough SQL database like MySQL or Postgres. A semantic web framework will be hobbled by only high cost commercial backends. A commercial database means that we can’t contribute fixes even if we want to.


I’ll deal, and do deal with a lack of most of these. But each time one of these features is missing it’s harder and harder for me to sell the idea of using RDF and semantic databases to management. The benefits of using RDF do in fact make up for missing tons of these features, but if we want RDF to accepted as a model for day to day development on a par with SQL databases these need to be addressed.


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