February 11, 2021

SQL vs MySQL: A Simple Guide to the Differences

SQL and MySQL are two of the most popular data management tools in the world. But for a beginner, or even someone with more experience, the difference between the two can be confusing.

In this post, we’re going to define what SQL and MySQL are, investigate the differences between them and dive into some of the alternative products out there.

Must-Know SQL-Related Key Terms

Before we get started, let us explain a couple of the key terms that we will be using throughout. Feel free to skip this section by clicking here if you want to get straight into the article or return later on to understand more.


A database is a set of data stored in a computer and it is usually structured in a way that makes the data easily accessible.

Relational Database Management System

A relational database is a type of database that allows us to identify and access data in relation to another piece of data in the database. It stores data in rows and columns in a series of tables to make processing and querying efficient.

A simple example of a relational database: imagine a small business, Company X, that takes orders from customers. It sets up two tables in its database:

  • Customer_information_table (which has fields for customer_id, address, phone_number, etc…)
  • Customer_orders_table (which has fields for customer_id, product, quantity, etc…)

The two tables have a relationship (they share the customer_id field). That's what makes this a relational database.

In Company X’s warehouse, they process orders by going through records in the Customer orders table. But they can also use the customer_id in that orders table to grab more information about a customer from the Customer information table.

Not only is this a more efficient way of storing data but it means that if you need to update a customer's information you can do so in one place (the Customer information table), rather than having to update multiple tables with redundant information.

Our article on SQL basics goes into more detail on relational databases. Most modern databases are set up this way because they are much easier to manage, are flexible and scalable.

Relational databases are sometimes referred to as RDBMS — Relational Database Management Systems.

Storage Engine

A storage engine is a piece of software that a database management system uses to create, read and update data from a database.

Open Source

Open source simply means software in which the original source code is made freely available to all and may be redistributed and modified.

What is SQL?

SQL stands for Structured Query Language and is pronounced “S.Q.L.” or “Sequel”. It is a special kind of programming language that is used for communicating with a database.

If you want to add, retrieve, or update data in a database you can use SQL to do that.

This is important because most companies store their data in databases. There are many types of databases and most of them speak SQL. We will discuss two of these in this article (MySQL and SQL Server), but there are many others such as PostgreSQL, IBM Db2, and Amazon Aurora, just to name a few.

Learning the basics of SQL will likely serve you well with whichever database you or your company uses.

Fun Fact: SQL became the official standard of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) in 1986, and of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in 1987. Although it has been around for decades, it's still almost widely used and very in-demand today!

What is MySQL?

MySQL is an open source Relational Database Management System (RDBMS) owned by Oracle.

It is an extremely popular tool for several reasons. Firstly, its open source status means it is completely free to use. Experienced developers can even dive right in and change its source code to suit their needs, if they wish.

Even though MySQL is free to use, Oracle does offer premier support services which you can buy through a commercial license.

MySQL is also heavily supported and users can run the software on a variety of platforms and operating systems including Windows, Linux, UNIX and more.

MySQL provides various storage engines for its tables: MyISAM, InnoDB, Merge, MEMORY (HEAP), ARCHIVE, CSV and FEDERATED.

For example, the CSV engine will store the data in a CSV file format. This could be used to migrate data into alternative, non-SQL applications such as spreadsheet software.

Each of these storage engines has its own advantages and disadvantages. Prior to creating your database, it is important to understand each and choose the most appropriate one for your tables to maximize the performance of the database.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of what MySQL can offer. However, it should be enough to understand the differences between SQL and MySQL.

Fun Fact: MySQL owes its name to one of the founders - Michael "Monty" Widenius - who named it after his daughter My.

What is the difference between SQL and MySQL?

In a nutshell, SQL is a language for querying databases and MySQL is an open source database product.

SQL is used for accessing, updating and maintaining data in a database and MySQL is an RDBMS that allows users to keep the data that exists in a database organized.

SQL does not change (much), as it is a language. MySQL updates frequently as it is a piece of software.

In layman's terms, SQL could be seen as a bank teller and MySQL could be seen as the bank. You need the bank teller (SQL) to communicate with the bank (MySQL) and you need the bank to manage the money (the data). They work in tandem but they are completely different.

What is SQL Server?

Like MySQL, SQL Server is a relational database management system. However, unlike MySQL, SQL Server is not open source. It is owned by Microsoft and there are several editions available, depending on the users’ needs and budget.

One of these editions is called SQL Server Express and is free to download and distribute. It comprises of a database specifically targeted for embedded and smaller-scale applications

A common question for those new to the field is “are SQL and SQL Server the same thing?”. In a word: no. The difference between the two is similar to the difference we laid out between SQL and MySQL. SQL is a language for querying databases and SQL Server is a system for managing relational databases.

In terms of MySQL vs SQL Server, there’s no right answer for every organization.

If you’re a startup company strapped for cash, you’re likely to opt for MySQL.

If you’re a large company looking to run high volumes of activity on a database, then you might lean towards SQL Server.

When it comes down to it each of the systems has their own advantages and disadvantages.

Why should I use SQL?

If you want a job in data then you’re going to need to learn SQL. It’s well supported, it’s the most commonly used language in data science and it’s constantly in high demand.

Check out our article on SQL certification for more details on why it’s such an important skill to learn.

Why should I use MySQL?

You should use MySQL if you are looking to set up a database that is cheap (or free!), secure and reliable. You can download the software and be up-and-running in a matter of minutes.

You will then need to learn the SQL language to start using it effectively.


As we can see, it's difficult to actually compare SQL and MySQL. While they are related (and have similar names), they do completely different things and can be used individually or in tandem depending on what you are trying to achieve.

If you’d like to learn more about this topic, check out Dataquest's interactive Introduction to SQL and Databases course, and our SQL Fundamentals that will help you master these skills in around 2 months.

Charlie Custer

About the author

Charlie Custer

Charlie is a student of data science, and also a content marketer at Dataquest. In his free time, he's learning to mountain bike and making videos about it.