Databases are vital tools for storing, managing and retrieving information, and they are critical for building an e-commerce system. A well-structured database is the heart of a good e-commerce system that manages all the interactions of the system.
A good e-commerce database design should include the following characteristics.
Simple and Functional Database Structure
The database table structure should be relatively simple but needs to cover all the required functionality without compromising the user experience.
The database queries should execute fastly and efficiently to facilitate live customer interactions and provide a satisfactory shopping experience. Therefore, the selected database should consist of good indexing and performance optimization options.
High Availability and Scalability
A good database design should be highly available with automatic snapshots and enable automatic scaling to support future platform growth as well as sudden traffic spikes.
Based on the above characteristics, an e-commerce database design boils down into three major aspects as the following.
- The Scope of the Database.
- Type of the Database.
- Database Infrastructure.
The scope refers to the planned functionality of the database. The underlying table structure of the database, its relationships, and indexes all depend on the functionality of the e-commerce platform. The database type can vary from a relational database to a NoSQL database or a hybrid approach depending on the requirements and the underlying data structure.
The main consideration when designing the database is identifying the functionalities offered by the e-commerce platform. These functionalities can be further divided as core-functions and extra-functions (additional-functions).
Core-functions are the functions that are necessary for facilitating the day-to-day operations of the e-commerce platform.
- User Management
- Product/Inventory Management
- Shopping Cart Function
- Payment Management
- Shipping/Logistics Management
Extra/Additional functions are the nice-to-have functions for the e-commerce platform that will enhance the user experience for both end-users (customers) and administrators (business). Following are some functions that come under this category.
- Marketing Functions
- Help Desk/Support
- Advanced Analytics
- Third-Party Integrations
In this section, let's see how to structure the database to facilitate the core functions. The below table structure is an example of a database design that covers the core functionality of an e-commerce platform.
This example covers all the basics of an e-commerce platform. There, the table fields and indexes depend on the design of the overall platform, and it contains three separate sections for user management, product management, and shopping process. Let's have a closer look at each section.
We have created a user table that contains all the user details along with user_payment and user_address tables to store multiple addresses and payment details of users. This structure offers more granular control over data while eliminating duplicate records.
Another way to manage users is by creating two separate user tables for end-users and administrators and assigning relationships according to their requirements, as shown below.
Managing products is not simply about maintaining a list of products. You also have to manage the inventory, discounts, categories, and other attributes of the products. So, always focus on simplifying the data structure while reducing duplicates. In the above table structure, the main product table contains information about the products.
There are two other separate tables called discount, product_inventory, and product_category that are connected to it through database relationships. This approach provides the greatest level of flexibility to the database. For instance, we can simply query the product_inventory table to check for inventory without going through all the data associated with other related tables. This is also a good place to utilize indexes to increase the performance of the database.
This is the most critical and complex part when it comes to designing the database. The shopping process will guide a user to search the products, add the desired products to the shopping cart, and finally complete the transaction using a payment provider.
The heart of the e-commerce process connects users with products. A good chunk of design effort should be exhausted to streamline the shopping process. In the above example, there are shopping_session and cart_item as temporary data stores that only store the shopping session information of the current user until the order is confirmed and the data is moved to permanent storage tables with the payment details. (order_details, order_items, and payment details.). You can check out this article for a detailed explanation of how to design a shopping cart database.
As shown in this section, the scope of the database structure is determined by the overall functionality of the platform. Therefore, it is paramount that you properly define the required functionality before diving into designing the database. This way, you can create a clearly defined data structure with enough flexibility to support future expansions.
The next consideration is to determine the type of database. To have the best e-commerce database design, you must first consider two main database types: RDBMS or NoSQL databases.
Relational database: This is similar to spreadsheets and uses tables, columns, and rows to organize and retrieve data. It is built using the standard query language (SQL), and all the data is related to each other.
Example: MySQL, PostgreSQL, MariaDB, Microsoft SQL, Amazon RDS, Azure SQL Database
Non-relational or NoSQL database: This is a nontabular database with a flexible schema that works well for storing unstructured data. Contrary to its name, a non-relational database can store related data. It does so by nesting related data within a single data structure instead of splitting them between tables. There are various NoSQL databases, and the most popular ones are document stores and key stores.
Example: MongoDB, Apache Cassandra, Amazon DynamoDB, Azure CosmosDB, Couchbase.
Both these database types are solid options for any e-commerce platform, and the choice is up to the designer and depends on the requirements of the platform. A relational database will provide a simple and robust platform to create the database, while NoSQL offers better data flexibility, scalability, and slightly better performance. In the coming section, we'll explore an example of e-commerce database design for each type.
Many e-commerce sellers use a relational database design centered around the following tables:
- Products table
- Customers/Users table
- Orders table
Additional tables can be added as required to support shipping, categories, product reviews, etc. We have covered the database structure in the previous section, where the scope of the database was defined.
Below, you can see a diagram of a simple e-commerce database design built using MySQL.
MySQL e-commerce database design
While a standard relational database design will work for many e-commerce stores, there are situations where it is advantageous for retailers to follow another approach.
Most of the world's largest online retailers, including Walmart and eBay, use NoSQL databases to power their e-commerce systems. The reason is NoSQL databases providing the required performance and scalability to effectively manage large catalogs and unstructured data like user data and images.
A good example of an e-commerce database built using NoSQL technology is CouchBase, which uses a document store as its database type. With a document database, data is simpler and easier to access as an entire product can be stored in a single document instead of storing across multiple tables.
Below, you can see an example of data modeling for different products with CouchBase's NoSQL database.
Another exciting option is to use a combined solution utilizing an RDBMS for structured data such as user details, order details, payment details, and a NoSQL database for unstructured data such as product details or marketing information.
Hybrid database structure
Creating a Hybrid database structure is relatively more complex than using traditional database types (RDBMS or NoSQL) as a hybrid approach will utilize the application to combine data from both sources. This allows the developer to combine the strengths of both database types. However, this kind of approach is only suitable for truly complex application architectures that offer users a myriad of functions. For instance, if your purpose is to speed up an RDBMS, it's easier to configure a caching server such as Memcached rather than going for a hybrid approach.
It is possible to select a database type and design the data structure, but we also need infrastructure to run the database. It depends on the deployment of the e-commerce platform. One option is to provision a server, install the database software and then manage all the aspects from security to maintenance. The other option is to use a managed database service like Amazon RDS, Azure SQL for RDBMS, Amazon DynamoDB, or Azure CosmosDB for NoSQL. Among these two options, the managed approach saves time and does not require any maintenance as these are SaaS offerings.
Suppose you need complete control over your data, database configurations, and server security policies or deploy the database on a private network. In that case, the only option is to configure and maintain the database manually. However, with more and more businesses utilizing cloud providers nowadays, the best option would be to use a managed database. It is more applicable for an e-commerce platform where scalability and availability play a vital role in the success of the platform. So, it's almost always advisable to use a SaaS database.
A managed database will offer peace of mind for any developer as it is backed by a reputed cloud provider with a service level agreement to provide maximum uptime. It will also enable the developer/administrators to focus more on creating and optimizing the database without dealing with server or database maintenance. A slight downside of a managed platform would be the higher cost associated with it when compared to managing own servers. However, when considering the total cost of ownership (TCO) and operational expenditure (OpEx), a SaaS solution is the ideal option for a growing e-commerce database.
Product Information Management (PIM) is a critical component of the core functionality of any good e-commerce platform. It provides a flexible solution for managing all your product data inside a single database in the cloud. Moreover, PIM is an excellent option for retailers looking to sell on multiple channels. Having a centralized database in the cloud, PIM allows easy management and delivery of product information to other marketplaces.
Another main advantage of PIM is the ability to collect and organize data in a variety of formats. Different platforms have their own catalog structure, and PIM automatically sends data to these channels in the proper format.
Fabric's PIM is one of the best examples of e-commerce database design using PIM software. It serves as a single source for centralizing all your data in the cloud, allowing businesses to benefit from increased productivity while ensuring all information is accurate and up to date across various channels.