Key Concepts

In this section, we'll cover the key concepts you need to know about DynamoDB. At the end of this section, you will understand:

  • tables, items, and attributes;
  • primary keys;
  • secondary indexes;
  • read and write capacity.

Tables, Items, and Attributes

Tables, items, and attributes are the core building blocks of DynamoDB.

A table is a grouping of data records. For example, you might have a Users table to store data about your users, and an Orders table to store data about your users' orders. This concept is similar to a table in a relational database or a collection in MongoDB.

An item is a single data record in a table. Each item in a table is uniquely identified by the stated primary key of the table. In your Users table, an item would be a particular User. An item is similar to a row in a relational database or a document in MongoDB.

Attributes are pieces of data attached to a single item. This could be a simple Age attribute that stores the age of a user. An attribute is comparable to a column in a relational database or a field in MongoDB. DynamoDB does not require attributes on items except for attributes that make up your primary key.

Primary Key

Each item in a table is uniquely identified by a primary key. The primary key definition must be defined at the creation of the table, and the primary key must be provided when inserting a new item.

There are two types of primary key: a simple primary key made up of just a partition key, and a composite primary key made up of a partition key and a sort key.

Using a simple primary key is similar to standard key-value stores like Memcached or accessing rows in a SQL table by a primary key. One example would be a Users table with a Username primary key.

The composite primary key is more complex. With a composite primary key, you specify both a partition key and a sort key. The sort key is used to (wait for it) sort items with the same partition. One example could be an Orders tables for recording customer orders on an e-commerce site. The partition key would be the CustomerId, and the sort key would be the OrderId.

Remember: each item in a table is uniquely identified by a primary key, even with the composite key. When using a table with a composite primary key, you may have multiple items with the same partition key but different sort keys. You can only have one item with a particular combination of partition key and sort key.

The composite primary key enables sophisticated query patterns, including grabbing all items with the given partition key or using the sort key to narrow the relevant items for a particular query.

For more on interacting with items, start with the lesson on the anatomy of an item.

Secondary Indexes

The primary key uniquely identifies an item in a table, and you may make queries against the table using the primary key. However, sometimes you have additional access patterns that would be inefficient with your primary key. DynamoDB has the notion of secondary indexes to enable these additional access patterns.

The first kind of secondary index is a local secondary index. A local secondary index uses the same partition key as the underlying table but a different sort key. To take our Order table example from the previous section, imagine you wanted to quickly access a customer's orders in descending order of the amount they spent on the order. You could add a local secondary index with a partition key of CustomerId and a sort key of Amount, allowing for efficient queries on a customer's orders by amount.

The second kind of secondary index is a global secondary index. A global secondary index can define an entirely different primary key for a table. This could mean setting an index with just a partition key for a table with a composite primary key. It could also mean using completely different attributes to populate a partition key and sort key. With the Order example above, we could have a global secondary index with a partition key of OrderId so we could retrieve a particular order without knowing the CustomerId that placed the order.

Secondary indexes are a complex topic but are extremely useful in getting the most out of DynamoDB. Check out the section on secondary indexes for a deeper dive.

Read and Write Capacity

When you use a database like MySQL, Postgres, or MongoDB, you provision a particular server to run your database. You'll need to choose your instance size -- how many CPUs do you need, how much RAM, how many GBs of storage, etc.

Not so with DynamoDB. Instead, you provision read and write capacity units. These units allow a given number of operations per second. This is a fundamentally different pricing paradigm than the instance-based world -- pricing can more closely reflect actual usage.

DynamoDB also has autoscaling of your read and write capacity units. This makes it much easier to scale your application up during peak times while saving money by scaling down when your users are asleep.

Next steps

If you really want the nitty-gritty fundamentals of DynamoDB, go to the section on the Dynamo Paper. Otherwise, get your environment set up and then start the walkthrough with single-item actions.