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Getting Started With Cassandra: Using CQL API and CQLSH

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Apache Cassandra is one of the most popular open-source distributed database systems available. It was designed with the goal of handling large amounts of data stored in many servers distributed across geographies while providing high scalability and availability with no single point of failure. Cassandra systems can span multiple data centres, allowing low latency for all connected clients.

This is a three-part tutorial series where I will start with the basics of Cassandra, using CQLSH to create tables and records. Then I'll explain the various data types supported by Cassandra, and then we'll use a Go client library to handle Cassandra operations programmatically. 

In this first part, I will cover how the Cassandra data model is laid out in brief and perform basic operations using CQLSH.

For this tutorial series, I am assuming that readers would be able to install Cassandra by themselves on their respective machines depending on the operating system.

The Cassandra Data Model

The Cassandra data model follows the column family approach, which can easily be understood as being analogous to a relational table structure but in a NoSQL way. The description below should make it clearer:

Keyspace

A keyspace can be seen as the outermost container for data in Cassandra. All data in Cassandra should live inside a keyspace. It can be seen as a database in RDBMS which is a collection of tables. In the case of Cassandra, a keyspace is a collection of column families.

Column Family

A column family can be seen as a collection of rows, and each row is a collection of columns. It is analogous to a table in RDBMS but has some differences. The column families are defined, but it is not necessary for each row to have all the columns, and columns can be added or removed from a row as and when required.

Column

The column is the basic unit of data in Cassandra. It has three values: key or column name, column value, and a timestamp.

Super Column

A super column is a special type of column which stores a map of other sub-columns. It makes storing complex data easier and also makes data fetching faster as each column family in Cassandra is stored in a single file on the file system.

Using Cassandra Console

CQLSH is the standard shell for interacting with Cassandra through CQL (Cassandra Query Language). CQL is very similar to SQL (which is mostly used for RDBMS) and hence makes it very easy for developers new to Cassandra to get working with it quickly. CQLSH is shipped with every Cassandra package and should already be installed on your machine when you installed Cassandra.

Create a Keyspace

As we saw in the data model described above, a keyspace is the outermost container and should be created before anything else. To create it, run:

In the above command, I have assumed that your Cassandra exists on localhost without any user authentication. I have created a keyspace called k1 with replication and durable_writes policy defined.

If you have user authentication defined, you can run:

In the above command, replace <username> and <password> with your authentication credentials.

Running a command like this can be a bit cumbersome. Another way is to launch the CQLSH prompt and then run queries directly inside it.

Moving ahead, I will be using the above method of running queries. Before running any other query, we need to tell CQLSH which keyspace should be used.

The replication_factor for a keyspace can be altered to suit how much replication is needed as per the replication class.

Create and Alter a Table

A table is equivalent to a column family in Cassandra. Cassandra supports many different datatypes for storing data, which I will be covering in detail in the next part of this tutorial series. To create a table, simply run the CREATE TABLE command.

To check how the structure of the table looks once created:

Now let's say we want to alter the table to store the email of the person as well.

Insert and Update Data

Inserting data into a Cassandra table using CQL is pretty straightforward.

In this table, we have all the fields for only one data type. Things become a bit complex when we're using different datatypes or composite datatypes. This will be a discussion in the next part of this series.

Let's say we want to update the value in the column email to something else.

Querying Data

Data in a table can be queried simply by using SELECT statements.

Let's insert some more records and query them.

More complex query operators like inequality operators can also be used, or several WHERE conditions can be concatenated using AND/OR, etc.

Conclusion

Cassandra is one of the most popular NoSQL database systems available and is the best build to be used in distributed environments. Dealing with Cassandra is pretty easy for beginners with some knowledge of RDBMS and SQL. 

CQL is very similar to SQL to a certain extent, and CQLSH makes testing and debugging much easier. In the next part of this series, I will cover the various datatypes provided by Cassandra and how to deal with them.

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