RethinkDB database to support real-time virus analysis

Introduction to Rethinkdb

RethinkDB stores items as JSON documents in a non-relational SQL (noSQL) type database. This was useful for Nextstrain because

  • The noSQL database model is very flexible so data inserted later can have new information easy included. As a result though, more stringent data cleaning and formatting must occur before inserting into the database if you want a certain schema softly enforced.
  • Once it’s in the correct format the RethinkDB python module makes it very easy to insert and download JSON documents from the database as python dictionaries.
  • The opensource program chateau allows for easy visualization and editing of the database.

Using RethinkDB

Start a RethinkDB instance

The first thing you need to do to start using RethinkDB is start a RethinkDB server. This can be done by just running rethinkdb in the terminal. The server can be hosted locally or in the cloud (like on AWS). If hosted locally, data will be saved after stopping the server and loaded when rebooting the server, but you must run rehtinkdb from the same directory.

Import RethinkDB driver

from rethinkdb import r

Open connection to rethink database

To open a connection to a database on a local host run

r.connect(host='localhost', port=28015, db=database).repl()

To open a connection to a database on an external host that requires an authorization key run

r.connect(host=rethink_host, port=28015, db=database, auth_key=auth_key).repl()

Create new databases and tables

Rethinkdb allows multiple databases within each instance and multiple tables within each database. Each table stores similarly related data and each database stores similarly related tables. It’s recommended to have test databases and tables to see what the data looks like.

Chateau allows for easy creation of databases and tables. Sometimes it says it fails when creating new tables but it actually does create them. When creating the table, you can specify what fields to use as the primary key.


Each document in a table must have a unique primary key. This primary key can be a simple index (a string, in vdb this is strain) or a compound index (list of strings, used in tdb). If a primary key is not defined for a table, rethink will automatically assign a unique id to each document.

Inserting documents into the database

To insert one JSON document or a whole list of documents into a specific table, run


By default, this will error if a document with the same primary key is already in the table. There is also the option to ‘replace’ the old document, or ‘update’ fields of the old document with the new fields.

r.table(table).insert(documents, conflict='replace').run()
r.table(table).insert(documents, conflict='update').run()

Downloading documents from the database

To download a cursor of all documents in a table you can run the following and loop through the iterable cursor

cursor = r.table(table).run()
for document in cursor:

It’s also possible to filter the values you receive through RethinkDB or this can be done after receiving all the documents in the table.

cursor = r.table(table).filter(r.row[field] == field_value).run()

You can also retrieve a specific document using it’s index. This returns None if the document is not in the table.


More Information about Rethinkdb