SQLite and SQLite alternatives - databases for the Mobile and IoT edge

Overview of SQLite and SQLite alternatives as part of the mobile / edge database market with a comprehensive comparison matrix (updated summer 2023)

Digitalization is still on the rise, as is the number of connected devices (from 13 billion connected IoT devices + 15 billion mobile devices operating in 2021 already). Data volumes are growing accordingly ( 3.5 quintillion bytes of data is produced daily in 2023), and centralised (typically cloud-based) computing canbot support all the current needs. This has led to a shift from the cloud to the edge

Therefore, there is a renewed need for on-device databases like SQLite and SQLite alternatives to persist and manage data on edge devices. On top, due to the distributed nature of the edge, there is a need to manage data flows to / from and between edge devices. This can be done with Edge Databases that provide a Data Sync functionality (SQLite alternatives only, as SQLite doesn’t support this).  Below, we’ll take a close look at SQLite and its alternatives with consideration of today’s needs.

Databases for the Edge

While being quite an established market with many players, the database market is still growing consistently and significantly. The reason is that databases are at the core of almost any digital solution, and directly impact business value and therefore never going out of fashion. With the rapid evolvements in the tech industry, however, databases evolve too. This, in turn, yields new database types and categories. We have seen the rise of NoSQL databases in the last 20 years, and more recently some novel database technologies, like graph databases and time-series databases, and vector databases.

With AI and accordingly vector databases being all the hype since 2022/2023, the database market is indeed experiencing fresh attention. Due to the speed with which AI is evolving, we’re however already leaving the “mainframe era of AI” and entering the distributed Edge AI space. With SQLite not supporting vector search and related vector database functions, this adds a new dimension to this ever-present topic.  There is a new, additional need for local, on-device vector databases to support on-device AI that’s independent of an Internet connection, reliably fast, and keeps data on the device (100% private). 

We’re expecting vector databases that run locally on a wide variety of devices (aka Edge Vector Databases) to become the next big thing, surpassing even what we have seen happening in the server vector database space. And we wouldn’t be astonished if the synchronizing of vector data is a game changer for Edge AI. Time will tell 😉


Both, the shift back from a centralised towards a decentralised paradigm, and the growing number of restricted devices call for a “new type” of an established database paradigm. SQLite has been around for more than 20 years and for good reason, but the current market shift back to decentralized computing happens in a new environment with new requirements. Hence, the need for a “new” database type, based on a well-established database type: “Edge databases”. Accordingly, a need for SQLite alternatives that consider the need for decentralized data flows and AI functionalities (depending on the use case of course; after all SQLite is a great database).

database-evolution-towards-edge-vector-databases
What is an Edge Database?

Edge databases are a type of databases that are optimised for local data storage on restricted devices, like embedded devices, Mobile, and IoT. Because they run on-device, they need to be especially resource-efficient (e.g. with regards to battery use, CPU consumption, memory, and footprint). The term “edge database” is becoming more widely-used every year, especially in the IoT industry. In IoT, the difference between cloud-based databases and ones that run locally (and therefore support Edge Computing) is crucial.

What is a Mobile Database?

We look at mobile databases as a subset of edge databases that run on mobile devices. The difference between the two terms lies mainly in the supported operating systems / types of devices. Unless Android and iOS are supported, an edge database is not really suited for the mobile device / smartphone market. In this article, we will use the term “mobile database” only as “database that runs locally on a mobile (edge) device and stores data on the device”. Therefore, we also refer to it as an “on-device” database.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of working with SQLite?

SQLite is a relational database that is clearly the most established database suitable to run on edge devices. Moreover, it is probably the only “established” mobile database. It was designed in 2000 by Richard Hipp and has been embedded with iOS and Android since the beginning. Now let’s have a quick look at its main advantages and disadvantages:

Advantages  Disadvantages
  • 20+ years old (should be stable ;))
  • Toolchain, e.g. DB browser
  • No dependencies, is included with Android and iOS
  • Developers can define exactly the data schema they want
  • Full control, e.g. handwritten SQL queries
  • SQL is a powerful and established query language, and SQLite supports most of it
  • Debuggable data: developers can grab the database file and analyse it
  • 20+ years old ( less state-of-the-art tech)
  • Using SQLite means a lot of boilerplate code and thus inefficiencies ( maintaining long running apps can be quite painful)
  • No compile time checks (e.g. SQL queries)
  • SQL is another language to master, and can impact your app’s efficiency / performance significantly…
  • The performance of SQLite is unreliable
  • SQL queries can get long and complicated
  • Testability (how to mock a database?)
  • Especially when database views are involved, maintainability may suffer with SQLite

 

What are the SQLite alternatives?

There are a bunch of options for making your life easier, if you want to use SQLite. You can use an object abstraction on top of it, an object-Relational-Mapper (ORM), for instance greenDAO, to avoid writing lots of SQL. However, you will typically still need to learn SQL and SQLite at some point. So what you really want is a full blown database alternative, like any of these: Couchbase Lite, Interbase, LevelDB, ObjectBox, Oracle Berkeley DB, Mongo Realm, SnappyDB, SQL Anywhere, or UnQLite.

While SQLite really is designed for small devices, people do run it on the server / cloud too. Actually, any database that runs efficiently locally, will be highly efficient on big servers too, making them a sustainable lightweight choice for some scenarios. However, for server / cloud databases, there are a lot of alternatives you can use as a replacement like e.g. MySQL, MongoDB, or Cloud Firestore.

Bear in mind that, if you are looking to host your database in the cloud with apps running on small distributed devices (e.g. mobile apps, IoT apps, any apps on embedded devices etc.), there are some difficulties. Firstly, this will result in higher latency, i.e. slow response-rates. Secondly, the offline capabilities will be highly limited or absent. As a result, you might have to deal with increased networking costs, which is not only reflected in dollars, but also CO2 emissions. On top, it means all the data from all the different app users is stored in one central place. This means that any kind of data breach will affect all your and your users’ data. Most importantly, you will likely be giving your cloud / database provider rights to that data. (Consider reading the general terms diligently). If you care about privacy and data ownership, you might therefore want to consider a local database option, as in an Edge Database. This way you can decide, possibly limit, what data you sync to a central instance (like the cloud or an on-premise server).

SQLite alternatives Comparison Matrix

To give you an overview, we have compiled a comparison table including SQLite and SQLite alternatives. In this matrix we look at databases that we believe are apt to run on edge devices. Our rule of thumb is the databases’ ability to run on Raspberry Pi type size devices. If you’re reading this on mobile, click here to view the full matrix.

Edge Database Short description License / business model Android / iOS* Type of data stored Central Data Sync P2P Data Sync Offline Sync (Edge) Data level encryption Flutter / Dart support Vector Database (AI support) Minimum Footprint size Company
SQLite C programming library; probably still 90% market share in the small devices space (personal assumption) Public domain embedded on iOS and Android Relational No No No No, but option to use SQLCipher to encrypt SQLite Flutter plugins (ORMs) for SQLite, but nothing from Hwaci No, but various early & unofficial extensions are available < 1 MB Hwaci
Couchbase Mobile / Lite Embedded / portable database with P2P and central synchronization (sync) support; pricing upon request; some restrictions apply for the free version. Secure SSL. Partly proprietary, partly open-source, Couchbase Lite is BSL 1.1 Android / iOS JSON Documents / NoSQL db Yes Yes No Database encryption with SQLCipher (256-bit AES) Unofficial Flutter plugin for Couchbase Lite Community Edition No < 3,5 MB Couchbase
InterBase ToGo / IBLite Embeddable SQL database. Proprietary Android / iOS Relational No No No 256 bit AES strength encryption No No < 1 MB Embarcadero
LevelDB Portable lightweight key-value store, NoSQL, no index support; benchmarks from 2011 have been removed unfortunately New BSD Android / iOS Key-value pairs / NoSQL db No No No No Unofficial client that is very badly rated No < 1 MB LevelDB Team
LiteDB A .Net embedded NoSQL database MIT license Android / iOS (with Xamarin only) NoSQL document store, fully wirtten in .Net No No No Salted AES No No < 1 MB LiteDB team
Mongo Realm / Realm DB (acquired by Mongo in 2019) Embedded object database SSPL Android / iOS Object Database Yes (Mongo Atlas), tied to using Mongo DB No No Yes Officially released a Flutter binding in spring 2023 (See Flutter databases) No 5 MB+ MongoDB Inc.
ObjectBox NoSQL Edge Vector Database with out-of-the-box Data Sync for Mobile and IoT; fully ACID compliant; benchmarks available as open source. Open Core (plus Apache 2.0 bindings) Android / iOS / Linux / Windows / any POSIX Object-oriented NoSQL edge database for high-performance on Mobile, IoT, and embedded devices Yes WIP Yes transport encryption; additional encryption upon request Yes First local vector database fo on-device Edge AI released May 2024 < 1 MB ObjectBox
Oracle Database Lite Portable with P2P and central sync support as well as support for sync with SQLite Proprietary Android / iOS Relational Yes Yes No 128-bit AES Standard encrytion No No < 1 MB Oracle Corporation
SQL Anywhere Embedded / portable database with central snyc support with a stationary database, pricing now available here Proprietary Android / iOS Relational Yes, tied to using other SAP tech though (we believe) No No AES-FIPS cipher encryption for full database or selected tables No No   SAP (originally Sybase)
UnQLite Portable lightweight embedded db; self-contained C library without dependency. 2-Clause BSD Android / iOS Key-value pairs / JSON store / NoSQL db No No No 128-bit or 256-bit AES standard encryption not yet; might be coming though; there was a 0.0.1 released some time ago No ~ 1.5 MB Symisc systems
extremeDB Embedded relational database Proprietary iOS In-memory relational DB, hybrid persistence No No No AES encryption No No < 1 MB McObject LLC
redis DB High-performance in-memory Key Value store with optional durability Three clause BSD license, RSAL and Proprietary No K/V in-memory store, typically used as cache No No No TLS/SSL-based encryption can be enabled for data in motion. Unofficial redis Dart client available No on-device vector database, but cloud vector support An empty instance uses ~ 3MB of memory redislabs (the original author of redis left in 2020)
Azure SQL Edge  Designed as a SQL database for the IoT edge; however, due to the footprint it is no Edge Database Proprietary No Relational DB for IoT No No No will provide encryption No Not on-device 500 MB+ Microsoft

If you are interested in an indication of the diffusion rate of databases, check out the following database popularity ranking: http://db-engines.com/en/ran. If you are interested to learn more about SQLite, there is a great Podcast interview with Richard Hipp that is worthwhile listening to.

Is there anything we’ve missed? What do you agree and disagree with? Please share your thoughts with us via Twitter or email us on contact[at]objectbox.io. 

Make sure to check out the ObjectBox Database & try out ObjectBox Sync. You can get started in minutes and it’s perfect if you are using an object-oriented programming language, as it empowers you to work with your objects within the database. More than 1,000,000 developers already use this Edge Database designed specifically for high performance on small, connected, embedded devices.