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HBase is a column-oriented database management system that runs on top of HDFS. It is well suited for sparse data sets, which are common in many big data use cases. Unlike relational database systems, HBase does not support a structured query language like SQL; in fact, HBase isn’t a relational data store at all. HBase applications are written in Java much like a typical MapReduce application. HBase does support writing applications in Avro, REST, and Thrift.

An HBase system comprises a set of tables. Each table contains rows and columns, much like a traditional database. Each table must have an element defined as a Primary Key, and all access attempts to HBase tables must use this Primary Key. An HBase column represents an attribute of an object; for example, if the table is storing diagnostic logs from servers in your environment, where each row might be a log record, a typical column in such a table would be the timestamp of when the log record was written, or perhaps the server name where the record originated. In fact, HBase allows for many attributes to be grouped together into what are known as column families, such that the elements of a column family are all stored together. This is different from a row-oriented relational database, where all the columns of a given row are stored together. With HBase you must predefine the table schema and specify the column families. However, it’s very flexible in that new columns can be added to families at any time, making the schema flexible and therefore able to adapt to changing application requirements.

Just as HDFS has a NameNode and slave nodes, and MapReduce has JobTracker and TaskTracker slaves, HBase is built on similar concepts. In HBase a master node manages the cluster and region servers store portions of the tables and perform the work on the data. In the same way HDFS has some enterprise concerns due to the availability of the NameNode, HBase is also sensitive to the loss of its master node.