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Database sharding is a data architecture strategy that increases database performance by splitting up data into chunks and then spreading these chunks “intelligently” across multiple database servers (or database instances). These chunks of data are called shards, while each shard contains a subset of our data. All shards represent the entire set of data, and each row of data exists in only one shard. 

Sharding enables databases to handle more transactions and store more data because the work is performed by more machines. Database sharding is very effective for large-scale, distributed environments that require scalability. 

Database shards are an example of shared-nothing architecture. The shards are independent database servers; a shard doesn’t share any computing resources with the other shards. Remember: A shard represents a subset of the database’s data, and all shards represent the entire set of data. 

The diagram below shows a table (labeled Original Table) on a single computer. 

An example of database sharding.

Imagine that the Original Table is huge; querying it takes a long time. If we change to a sharded architecture, we can increase query performance. The right side of the diagram shows this. The table is now sharded. A portion of the data lives on database server DB1. The remainder of the data lives on database server DB2. This is sharding, splitting data, and spreading it across multiple servers.

When you set up database sharding, how you choose to split up your data can make the difference between a fast database and a very slow database. We’ll revisit this topic in a later section. 

In this post, we’ll dive deep into the concepts behind database sharding, exploring all the ins and outs that define this popular architecture pattern.

What are the Limitations of Traditional Databases?

Traditional databases typically run on a single machine. You may have heard these machines described as servers, virtual machines (VM), or nodes. Regardless of what we call them, they have an upper limit on performance.

This performance limit means you may eventually need to move the database to a more capable machine. When you hear a computer described as “more capable,” you should immediately think, “way more expensive.” A rapidly growing database typically leads to paying for more computing power than is necessary so that the database has time to grow. Once your database outgrows its current machine, you’ll repeat the process by moving to a bigger and even more expensive machine.

There is another way to handle this situation. However, it’s expensive and complicated. You can add new database machines to your environment. But this requires some way of intelligently spreading the data across multiple machines. This can be accomplished by adding a software layer over multiple database servers or adding this capability to your application. This practice is so common that it has a name: Database sharding.

What’s the Difference Between Database Sharding and Partitioning?

Now that we understand that database sharding is the strategic distribution of data chunks across multiple database servers (think across multiple machines), let’s contrast it with partitioning (on a single machine). Partitioning is similar to sharding in that it involves dividing database data based on a key of some sort. However, the primary difference lies in the scope and how you split up the data.

In partitioning, the division occurs within a single database server. The data is split into segments, called partitions, but remains under one database system. It’s like organizing different sections within a single warehouse instead of sharding, which spreads the goods across multiple warehouses (shards). Each partition, like a shard, holds a subset of the entire dataset, but unlike sharding, they all reside in the same database server. This approach is particularly beneficial for managing large tables and can improve query performance without distributing the load across multiple servers.

The diagram below is similar to the previous one. The main difference is that the original table is divided into chunks, which live on a single database server. The sharded data lives on multiple database servers.

An example of sharding vs. partitioning.

While database sharding splits and distributes data across different databases for scalability, partitioning organizes data within a single database for efficient management and access. Both aim to enhance performance but do so in different ways.

We won’t dive into it, but combining partitioning and sharding in a single database architecture is very common. So remember, partitioning and sharding aren’t an either-or deal. The approaches can be combined. 

When Should I Shard My Database?

Deciding if and when to shard your database is like choosing the right moment to expand your business – it’s all about timing and necessity. Database sharding isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. It comes with its own complexities. 

When to Shard

  • High traffic and large data volumes: If your database is struggling under the load of millions of users or terabytes of data, it’s time to consider sharding your database.
  • Scalability needs: When your business is scaling rapidly, you foresee continuous data and user base growth.
  • Performance degradation: If you notice slower query responses and your analytics show a bottleneck at the database level.

When NOT to Shard

  • Small to moderate database size: For databases that aren’t hitting the upper limits of their storage or processing capabilities.
  • Simple workloads: If your database isn’t experiencing complex queries or high transaction rates.
  • Limited technical resources: Sharding requires significant expertise to implement and manage. If your team isn’t ready for that complexity, hold off (or look for a simpler solution).

Remember, database sharding is a powerful tool, but it’s not always the first in your arsenal. Consider it carefully, and ensure it fits your database’s needs and challenges.

What’s the Best Sharding Architecture?

Now that we understand database sharding, we need to understand how to implement it. There are many ways to do this. Fortunately, all the methods revolve around the same concept: Spread your data across shards using a sharding key. 

Each of these architectures has its own strengths and weaknesses, making the choice highly dependent on the specific requirements and characteristics of the database in question. The trick is to choose the best sharding strategy for your specific situation.

Key-Based Database Sharding

Key-based sharding utilizes a specific value, like a user ID or timestamp, as a sharding key.

We can see this in the diagram below. In this approach, we must choose a key to determine which shard a row of data will live on. In our diagram, we have chosen Column 1 for the shard key. We then apply a hash function to our data item. The hash key determines which shard our data will go to.

An example of choosing a key to determine which shard a row of data will live on.

Key-based sharding is ideal for evenly distributed data but can be complex to adjust as data grows.

This sharding method uses a hash function on a specific key (like user ID) to assign data to shards. It’s great for ensuring a uniform distribution of data. However, it can become complex when adding or removing shards, as it requires reshuffling of existing data. 

Range-Based Database Sharding (i.e., Horizontal Sharding)

With range-based sharding, data is divided based on a range of values, such as date ranges or geographical locations.

In the diagram below, we have chosen to shard based on the Paint Color column. Paint Color is a numeric code. The database will take this code and use the shard’s range to determine where the data should be placed.

An example of choosing to shard based on a specific column.

Range-based sharding is effective for data with clear, linear divisions but can lead to uneven data distribution.

This approach divides data based on a range, such as alphabetical order or date ranges. It’s straightforward and ideal for time-series data but can lead to uneven data distribution if some ranges hold more data than others (i.e., hotspots).

Vertical Database Sharding

Vertical sharding divides data based on table columns and distributes different columns across various shards. This pattern is used to split wide tables into multiple tables. One table will be narrower than the other. This narrow table will contain the most commonly queried data. On those rare occasions when you need data from the second table, you can join the second table with the first.

An example of vertical sharding.

Vertical sharding is suitable for tables with large, unutilized columns, enhancing performance by isolating frequently accessed data.

This strategy is useful in environments where analytics are deployed. Analytical workloads commonly need to access very wide tables. However, it can complicate queries that need to access multiple shards simultaneously.

Directory-Based Database Sharding

Directory-based sharding divines data based on table columns, and distributing different columns across various shards.

In the diagram below, we revisit the Paint Color column we used previously. In this example, we’re using a dictionary (also known as a lookup table) to place data in a specific shard.

An example of directory-based sharding.

Directory-based sharding is suitable for tables with large, unutilized columns, enhancing performance by isolating frequently accessed data.

This sharding method involves a lookup directory to keep track of which data is on which shard. While it offers great flexibility and can handle uneven distributions well, it introduces the risk of the lookup directory becoming a single point of failure. Maintenance and consistency of the directory are also important considerations.

Manual Sharding vs. Auto-Sharding Databases

We’ve already discussed sharding strategies, but we haven’t discussed the most important detail: Who is going to handle the sharding? Let’s put it another way. You can manually shard your database or you can use a middleware layer or a database designed to effectively shard the data automatically. 

Let’s take a look at the specific methods we can use to implement a manually sharded or auto-sharded database:

Auto-Sharding: Using a Distributed SQL Database 

A distributed SQL database natively supports auto sharding and simplifies scalability and maintenance.

  • Pros: Built-in sharding, scalability, high availability, and reduced maintenance. Designed from the ground up to automatically shard your data.
  • Cons: May require migration from existing systems and new operational expertise. In fairness, all sharding solutions require environmental changes and learning new skills. Using a database designed for auto-sharding is the best long-term solution. 

Auto-Sharding: Middleware Solutions 

Use middleware like ProxySQL or Vitess for MySQL databases. These tools sit between your application and database, handling sharding logic transparently.

  • Pros: Simplifies the sharding process and is transparent to the application.
  • Cons: Adds another layer to manage and potentially a learning curve. This can increase software, hardware, and administration costs.

Manual or Auto-Sharding: Using a Database with Built-In Sharding Capabilities 

Databases such as MySQL Cluster or MariaDB include built-in sharding capabilities for a more MySQL-native sharding solution.

  • Pros: Native integration with MySQL ecosystems.
  • Cons: Potentially less flexible than other distributed SQL databases because the sharding capabilities were added as an afterthought. From the start, distributed SQL databases were designed to support auto-sharding.

Manual Sharding: Application-Layer Sharding

Modify your application’s logic to distribute data across multiple database instances. This approach gives you control but requires significant development work.

  • Pros: High control over sharding logic.
  • Cons: Requires significant development and maintenance effort. Scaling-out requires a great deal of planning, and execution typically requires downtime. Implementing this approach results in a consulting project that will repeat throughout the life of the application. Ouch! 

In summary, database sharding can be a lot of work. Below is a rough, very high-level overview of what this type of project looks like in practice. 

Database Sharding Project Steps

  1. Identify sharding needs: Assess your database to understand the need for sharding. Consider factors like data volume, transaction rate, and performance issues.
  2. Determine the compute and storage needs: This is one of the most important steps in this process. You may need to buy hardware if you’re sharding an on-prem database. This step is where you pick your hardware. If you’re running in a cloud environment, this is where you try to estimate the costs of the required virtual machines and storage. And don’t forget the software. You may need additional licenses or products. If you’re using open-source software (smart move), you may need to increase your support agreement.
  3. Create a test environment: A test environment simplifies the process in many situations. Although painful, messing up a testing environment isn’t nearly as bad as destroying a production system. Don’t forget to return to your sizing document to add your test environment. 
  4. Obtain compute and storage resources: Don’t forget to order your hardware and license the necessary software.
  5. Choose a sharding strategy: Decide between key-based, range-based, vertical, or directory-based sharding. Your choice should align with your data structure and usage patterns.
  6. Select a sharding key: This key determines how data is distributed across shards. Choose a key that ensures balanced data distribution and minimizes complex cross-shard queries.
  7. Implement sharding logic: This can be done at the application level. Add a sharding layer above the database servers or use a database management system that supports automatic sharding.
  8. Test thoroughly: Rigorously test the sharded database before going live to ensure data integrity and performance.
  9. Monitor and adjust: Post-implementation, continuously monitor the sharded database for performance, and rebalance shards if necessary.

What’s the Best Long-Term Solution for Database Sharding?

As we’ve demonstrated already, selecting the right database sharding strategy can be challenging. However, there’s a better option that can evolve alongside your organization. 

TiDB, developed by PingCAP, is an advanced open-source, distributed SQL database with built-in auto-sharding. It can power modern applications with elastic scaling, real-time analytics, and continuous access to data. Companies using TiDB for their scale-out RDBMS and internet-scale OLTP workloads can benefit from a distributed database that is: 

  • MySQL compatible: TiDB is wire compatible with MySQL 8.0. This means developers can continue to enjoy the database’s rich ecosystem of tools and frameworks.
  • Horizontally scalable: TiDB grants total transparency into data workloads without manual sharding. The database’s architecture separates compute from storage to instantly scale data workloads out or in as needed.
  • Highly available: TiDB guarantees auto-failover and self-healing for continuous access to data during system outages or network failures.
  • Strongly consistent: TiDB maintains ACID transactions when distributing data globally. 
  • Mixed workload capable: A streamlined tech stack makes it easier to produce real-time analytics. TiDB’s Smart Query optimizer chooses the most efficient query execution plan, which consists of a series of operators.
  • Hybrid and multi-cloud enabled: With TiDB, IT teams can deploy database clusters anywhere in the world, in public, private, and hybrid cloud environments on VMs, containers, or bare metal.
  • Open source: Unlock business innovation with a distributed database that’s 100% open source under an Apache 2.0 license.
  • Secure: TiDB protects data with enterprise-grade encryption both in-flight and at-rest. 

TiDB’s design is inspired by Google’s Spanner and F1 databases. However, it aims to provide similar capabilities without the need for a globally-distributed file system.


As we’ve navigated the complexities and strategies of database sharding, it’s clear that while sharding offers robust solutions for handling large-scale data and high transaction volumes, it’s not a universal fix. This is especially true if you look at implementing a manually sharded database. The decision to shard should be made after careful consideration of your database’s size, growth trajectory, and the technical resources at your disposal. 

Ultimately, whether you choose to shard or adopt another strategy, the goal remains the same: To ensure your database is scalable, efficient, easy to maintain, and capable of supporting your application’s needs now and in the future.

Distributed SQL databases that implement auto-sharding, such as TiDB, provide the best of both worlds. They provide scale-in, scale-out, and handle the complexity of database sharding while delivering great performance on large amounts of data. 

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