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The Essence of an Embedded Database

What is an embedded database?  The term ’embedded database’ has been around since the mid-1980’s. It was originally created to mean a database system that is embedded within application code. In other words, the database management system is delivered as one or more libraries of object code that you, the developer, link with your application code (and other libraries) to create an executable. Hence, the essence of an embedded database is that the database system functionality is ’embedded’ within your application code.

Since the late 1990’s, embedded database system vendors have been trying to sell their technology to developers of embedded systems. This has created a lot of unfortunate confusion. In the years since, some folks have come to equate “embedded database” with “embedded systems”, which has led them down a path to frustration and, in some cases, project failure.

What is an Embedded Database System?  Stay and learn more
Why? Because the vast majority of embedded databases were not written with the unique characteristics of embedded systems in mind: slower CPUs, limited memory, no persistent storage, etc. In fact, many embedded database systems were created in the 1980’s, long before anyone considered using a database system in embedded systems (remember that most embedded systems in that era were 8- and 16-bit systems that simply couldn’t address enough memory to permit the use of an embedded database system).

Unfortunately, some embedded database vendors haven’t helped the situation. They have adjusted to changing market conditions by re-casting their embedded database products as a solution for the data management needs of embedded systems, even though their technology was not written – and, in fact, is not suited – for embedded systems. These changing market conditions include the rise of open source/dual-license products like MySQL and BerkeleyDB that became dominant players in the line-of-business client/server database management system (DBMS) and embedded database system markets respectively, and the emergence of free entry-level RDBMS offerings from Oracle and Microsoft (Oracle 10g Express Edition and SQL Server Express edition, respectively). Faced with these challenges, vendors of proprietary, closed source, and commercial (not free) embedded database products found it increasingly difficult to compete, and sought “green fields” in the embedded systems software market for their products.

As an aside, the media recognized the situation in the early part of the 2000s and, SD Times in particular, tried to popularize a new term, “application-specific database.” Unfortunately, the effort didn’t stick and we are still left with the term ’embedded database’.

So, back to the subject herein. What is the essential attribute of an embedded database system? It is exactly what I described in the opening paragraph: The database system functionality is linked with application code and resides in the same address space. This contrasts to a client/server architecture DBMS in which the database server exists as a standalone executable, accessed by client programs through an inter-process communication (IPC) and/or remote-procedure-call (RPC) mechanism. (See

In short, an embedded database system should exist wholly within the application’s address space and not require communication with any external agent. Anything external is an immediate tip-off that the DBMS is not, in fact, wholly embedded.

As a former colleague of mine, a VP of marketing, once said to me: “What is the ‘so, what’ of it?” Excellent question. Why should anyone give a hoot?

Perhaps in the non-embedded systems market of embedded databases, nobody does (though even that is arguable). But in embedded and real-time systems, one significant “so, what?” is performance. The need to communicate with an external program, for any purpose, imposes a performance hit that few real-time/embedded systems can afford. This is true regardless of whether that external program is a database server, lock manager, lock arbiter, dead-lock detector, or anything else.

Another “so, what?” is the introduction of dependencies on external components, notably a communication protocol like TCP/IP. Communication between the application (with the database system embedded within it) and an external component also necessarily increases the complexity, fragility, and, consequently, the potential need for administration. These dependencies might not be a big deal in line-of-business systems running on PCs and other systems running robust operating systems like Windows, Linux and Solaris and in organizations with an IT staff. But for an unattended embedded system running on a relatively modest CPU, with a simple RTOS and limited network connectivity/bandwidth, it can be a killer.

Since McObject is publishing this webpage, it should be no surprise that eXtremeDB is an embedded database system in the true sense. eXtremeDB never requires communication with an external component. In fact, eXtremeDB can have no external dependencies; it does not require the C runtime library, and can run on ‘bare metal’ (i.e. without an operating system). We do offer remote interfaces to eXtremeDB databases through both our native and SQL APIs, and the High Availability and Cluster modules require a communication channel for synchronizing databases and replicating transactions. But these are optional.

If you have demanding performance requirements, limited resources, and/or simply want to develop a faster embedded system that absolutely, positively must run un-attended (i.e. “zero administration”) then carefully consider your choice of embedded database system.

An embedded database is essential to a faster embedded system.



Embedded database systems are all around us.

At McObject, our only focus is database management systems. We are a dedicated group of specialists and we invite you to delve into the following resources.  Then, try our software free for 60 days to see if eXtremeDB or Perst can meet your needs.

Articles about data management solutions

Database management system solutions are our only focus at McObject.  We are proud to employ some of the best database management system specialists in the field, and invite you to read these and other published articles.

Change Data Capture in Embedded Databases
Embedded Computing Design CDC in embedded database systems can be implemented in several different ways that are sometimes invisible to applications, and ways that applications can exploit for data sharing, responding to events, and incremental back up. Learn more about Change Data Capture with eXtremeDB.

The Future of Embedded Databases 
Insights Tech the Future  Challenges and solutions for managing IoT data at rest and in flight.

What is a Distributed Database System?
IoT Agenda.TechTarget An in-depth article about three use cases integral to the deployment of scalable and reliable IoT systems.

White papers about data management solutions

Database management research for professional developers from McObject.

Platform independent eXtremeDB

Portability Techniques for Embedded Systems
Truly portable embedded systems data management code carries its optimization with it, requiring the absolute minimum adaptation to deliver the best performance in new environments.

Will the Real IMDS Please Stand Up?
Real v. imitation in-memory database systems. Understanding the distinction is critical to determining the performance, cost and ultimately the success or failure of a solution.

Distributed Database Systems and Edge/Fog/Cloud Computing
A distributed database system is one in which the data belonging to a single logical database is distributed to two or more physical databases. Beyond that simple definition, there are a confusing number of possibilities for when, how, and why the data is distributed.

Webinars about data management solutions

Watch one of our many on-demand Webinars

Embedded Databases: Building In Always On High Availability
This Webinar presents development solutions that address the “always on” needs of fault-tolerant systems, while taming these applications’ growing data complexity.

Using Data Indexes to Boost Performance and Minimize Footprint in Embedded Software
The right index can boost lookup speed logarithmically, and reduce RAM and CPU demands. While the B-Tree is the best known index, many others can be more efficient in specific circumstances, such as geospatial/mapping and telecom/networking applications.

Edge Node Database Systems, the Internet of Things’ Hidden Workhorses
A review of edge node DBMS requirements and a look at the field of available solutions. Topics covered include DBMS architectures, NoSQL, data complexity, off-the-shelf vs. roll-your-own data management approaches, and more.

eXtremeDB high availability database

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Search our site and documentation

Evaluate our software


Call us at +1-425-888-8505, or send us an email.


Search our site and documentation