So this might be overly vague, but here it is anyway I'm not really looking for a specific answer, but rather general design principles or direction towards resources that deal with problems like this. It's one of my first large-scale applications, and I would like to do it right.

Brief Explanation

My basic problem is that I have to write an application that handles a large library of meta-data, can easily modify the meta-data on-the-fly, is robust with respect to crashing, and is very efficient. (Sorta like the design parameters of iTunes, although sometimes iTunes performs more poorly than I would like).

If you don't want to read the details, you can skip the rest

Long Explanation

Specifically I am writing a program that creates a library of image files and meta-data about these files. There is a list of tags that may or may not apply to each image.

The program needs to be able to add new images, new tags, assign tags to images, and detect duplicate images, all while operating.

The program contains an image Viewer which has tagging operations. The idea is that if a given image A is viewed while the library has tags T1, T2, and T3, then that image will have boolean flags for each of those tags (depending on whether the user tagged that image while it was open in the Viewer). However, prior to being viewed in the Viewer, image A would have no value for tags T1, T2, and T3. Instead it would have a "dirty" flag indicating that it is unknown whether or not A has these tags or not. The program can introduce new tags at any time (which would automatically set all images to "dirty" with respect to this new tag)

This program must be fast. It must be easily able to pull up a list of images with or without a certain tag as well as images which are "dirty" with respect to a tag.

It has to be crash-safe, in that if it suddenly crashes, all of the tagging information done in that session is not lost (though perhaps it's okay to loose some of it)

Finally, it has to work with a lot of images (>10,000)

I am a fairly experienced programmer, but I have never tried to write a program with such demanding needs and I have never worked with databases.

With respect to the meta-data storage, there seem to be a few design choices:

Choice 1: Invidual meta-data vs centralized meta-data

Individual Meta-Data: have a separate meta-data file for each image. This way, as soon as you change the meta-data for an image, it can be written to the hard disk, without having to rewrite the information for all of the other images.

Centralized Meta-Data: Have a single file to hold the meta-data for every file. This would probably require meta-data writes in intervals as opposed to after every change. The benefit here is that you could keep a centralized list of all images with a given tag, ect, making the task of pulling up all images with a given tag very efficient

  • Have you considered using an off-the-shelf content management system / document management system / image management system for this? Your requirements actually seem pretty standard and straightforward but if you do find a need to you could still extend such a system programmaticlly.
    – nvogel
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 4:40
  • 1
    I don't think you need files, you should be using a database to do you all work for you.
    – the_lotus
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 13:00

1 Answer 1


There are several possible ways to tackle your needs. As sqlvogel mentioned, some content management system might work out-of-the-box for you. If you need more control in your own program, using a standard database should be the proper way, which will cover most topics you mentioned (speed, good scalability, crash-safety (if done properly). So I advice to read some stuff about databases and their properties - free versus commercial, speed etc..

Don't forget to hide all your database access behind a proxy or facade, so you can easily switch to another db system if needed later.

If this is your first real big thing, I also recommend you to draw a lot of sketches of your software and its modules and talk continuously to a lot of persons about them. Will do wonders to your understanding your own software and not getting lost! :-)

  • thank you, this is helpful. Would you have any specific database system recommendations? I will be working with python, but also using C and C++. I would like something preferably simple and native. Also some kind of introductory reading on databases would be useful too
    – Sam Bryant
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 20:12

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