Whatever program we write, the intention is the same: to organize data in a way that serves our purposes. But data doesn’t consist of just random bits and bytes. We build relationships between data elements in order to represent entities, or things that exist in the real world. A name and an email address have more meaning if we know that they belong to the same person.
In the real world, though, not all entities of the same type look the same. One person might have a home telephone number, while another person has only a cell-phone number, and another might have both. One person might have three email addresses, while another has none. A Spanish person will probably have two last names, while an English person will probably have only one.
One of the reasons that object-oriented programming languages are so popular is that objects help us represent and manipulate real-world entities with potentially complex data structures. So far, so good.
The problem comes when we need to store these entities. Traditionally, we have stored our data in columns and rows in a relational database, the equivalent of using a spreadsheet. All the flexibility gained from using objects is lost because of the inflexibility of our storage medium.
But what if we could store our objects as objects? Instead of modeling our application around the limitations of spreadsheets, we can instead focus on using the data. The flexibility of objects is returned to us.
An object is a language-specific, in-memory data structure. To send it across the network or store it, we need to be able to represent it in some standard format. JSON is a way of representing objects in human-readable text. It has become the de facto standard for exchanging data in the NoSQL world. When an object has been serialized into JSON, it is known as a JSON document.
Elasticsearch is a distributed document store. It can store and retrieve complex data structures—serialized as JSON documents—in real time. In other words, as soon as a document has been stored in Elasticsearch, it can be retrieved from any node in the cluster.
Of course, we don’t need to only store data; we must also query it, en masse and at speed. While NoSQL solutions exist that allow us to store objects as documents, they still require us to think about how we want to query our data, and which fields require an index in order to make data retrieval fast.
In Elasticsearch, all data in every field is indexed by default. That is, every field has a dedicated inverted index for fast retrieval. And, unlike most other databases, it can use all of those inverted indices in the same query, to return results at breathtaking speed.
In this chapter, we present the APIs that we use to create, retrieve, update, and delete documents. For the moment, we don’t care about the data inside our documents or how to query them. All we care about is how to store our documents safely in Elasticsearch and how to get them back again.