PHP: So you'd like to migrate from MySQL to CouchDB? - Part II

Thursday, November 12. 2009

This is part II of my introductory series to move from MySQL a relational database (management) system to CouchDB. I will be using MySQL as an example. Part I of this series is available here.


In part I, I introduced CouchDB by explaining its basics. I continued by showing a simple request to create a document using curl (on the shell) and expanded how the same request could be written in PHP (using ext/curl) — or in HTTP_Request2 or with phpillow.

Part II will focus on the most basic operations and help you build a small wrapper for CouchDB. The code will be available on Github.

Getting data into CouchDB

As I explained before — CouchDB is all HTTP.

But for starters, we'll take a shortcut here and briefly talk about CouchDB's nifty administration frontend called futon. Think of Futon as a really easy to use phpMyAdmin. And by default futon is included in your CouchDB installation.


Futon will allow you to virtually do anything you need:

  • create a database
  • create a document
  • create a view
  • build the view
  • view ;-) (documents, views)
  • update all of the above
  • delete all of the above
  • replicate with other CouchDB servers

Assuming the installation completed successfully, and CouchDB runs on, the URL to your very own Futon is And it doesn't hurt to create a bookmark while you are at it.

Why GUI?

Purists will always argue that using a GUI is slower than for example hacking your requests from the shell.

That may be correct once you are a level 99 CouchDB super hero, but since we all start at level 1, Futon is a great way to interact with CouchDB to learn the basics. And besides, even level 99 CouchDB super heroes sometimes like to just click and see, and not type in crazy hacker commands to get it done.

I'll encourage everyone to check it out.

Read, write, update and delete.

Sometimes also referred to as CRUD (create, read, update, delete) — read, write, update and delete are the basics most web applications do.

Since most of you have done a "write a blog in X"-tutorial before — and I personally am tired of writing blogs in different languages or with different backends — let's use another example.

Think about a small guestbook application, it does all of the above — a fancy guest will even do update. For the sake of simplicity, I'll skip on the frontend in this example and we'll work on the backend and essentially create a small wrapper class for CouchDB.


By now — "CouchDB is all HTTP" — should sound all familiar. So in turn, all these CRUD operations in CouchDB translate to the following HTTP request methods:

  • write/create - PUT or POST
  • read - GET
  • update - PUT or POST
  • delete - DELETE

On write

Whenever you supply an ID of a new document along with the document, you should use PUT.

When you don't care about the document ID, use POST instead, and CouchDB will generate a unique ID for you.

This unique ID will not look like an autoincremented integer, but we should not cling to this concept anyway. Without diving into too advanced context now, but the auto_increment feature in MySQL is a little flawed in general and in a distributed context especially. More on this (maybe) in a later part of this series — in the mean-time, check out Joshua Schachter's post.

On update

By default, CouchDB keeps a revision ID of each document. To many this is a pretty cool feature — out of the box, so to speak. But there are two very important and fundamental things to be aware of.

  1. CouchDB will keep previous revisions of a document around until you run compact on the database. Think of compact as a house keeping chore. It will wipe your database clean of previous revisions and even optimize the indices (in case you had a lot of data changing operations in the mean time). For CouchDB revisions are especially important in a distributed context (think replication — more on this later) and while it's cool to have them, they should not be used as a feature and be exposed to the user of your application.

  2. In case we decide a document, we always have to provide the previous (or current) revision of the document. This sounds strange, but the reasons are simple — in case another update gets in between all we have to do is provide the necessary interfaces and workflows in our application to alert the user and avoid a possible conflict.

CouchDB and the HTTP standard

CouchDB's API adheres to the above in 99.999999999% of the time. And it only breaks the pattern once. The exception to the rule is that when you bulk request multiple documents, which is strictly speaking a GET operation CouchDB will allow you to post in this case.

The reason for this is that the length of GET request is limited (by RFC) and if we exceeded this by requesting too many document IDs, we would hit a hard limit. To get around this, the operation is POST — but more on this later.


For the following examples we assume a working CouchDB installation and a database called guestbook. No admins are set up — we can read and write without permission.

For simplicty, we imagine a form with the following fields:

  • author
  • entry

... and in addition to those two keys that may be populated by the user we add:

  • type (always: guestbook)
  • added (a date of some kind)

... the last two are not absolutely necessary, but will come handy in future iterations of this tutorial.

Also, on the tech side, we need a webserver with PHP and HTTP_Request2 (pear install HTTP_Request2-alpha) in your include_path. :-)

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