Sharding is a type of database partitioning that separates very large databases the into smaller, faster, more easily managed parts called data shards. The word shard means a small part of a whole.

Here's how Jason Tee explains sharding on The Server Side: "In the simplest sense, sharding your database involves breaking up your big database into many, much smaller databases that share nothing and can be spread across multiple servers."

Technically, sharding is a synonym for horizontal partitioning. In practice, the term is often used to refer to any database partitioning that is meant to make a very large database more manageable.

The governing concept behind sharding is based on the idea that as the size of a database and the number of transactions per unit of time made on the database increase linearly, the response time for querying the database increases exponentially. 

Additionally, the costs of creating and maintaining a very large database in one place can increase exponentially because the database will require high-end computers. In contrast, data shards can be distributed across a number of much less expensive commodity servers. Data shards have comparatively little restriction as far as hardware and software requirements are concerned. 

In some cases, database sharding can be done fairly simply. One common example is splitting a customer database geographically. Customers located on the East Coast can be placed on one server, while customers on the West Coast can be placed on a second  server. Assuming there are no customers with multiple locations, the split is easy to maintain and build rules around.

Data sharding can be a more complex process in some scenarios, however. Sharding a database that holds less structured data, for example, can be very complicated, and the resulting shards may be difficult to maintain.

This was last updated in December 2011

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