vector databases overview

We wanted to create a vector databases overview because though they are an important part of next-gen AI applications as they aren’t intuitive to understand. Vector databases have emerged as a critical component in driving the development of next-generation AI applications such as in Retrieval Augmented Generation (RAG), recommender systems, search engines, fraud detection, customized chatbots, and more.

These specialized storage systems are transforming how AI processes and analyzes complex data, enabling unprecedented levels of efficiency and accuracy. In this post, we’ll explore the significance of vector databases, delve into their inner workings, and showcase their potential across various industries. These databases are not just a storage solution; they are transformative tools that allow AI to operate with unprecedented precision and flexibility on many representations of data such as text, images, and audio.

Vector Databases Overview

Vector databases, also known as vector stores, are designed to store and manage high-dimensional data in the form of vectors. These vectors are generated through a process called embedding, which converts raw data (such as text, images, or audio) into numerical representations. By leveraging advanced indexing techniques and similarity search algorithms, vector databases enable AI systems to efficiently retrieve and analyze data based on their similarity rather than exact matches.

At VagaVang, we recognize the immense potential of vector databases in revolutionizing AI applications. Our portfolio company, Legal1Up, is harnessing the power of vector databases to transform legal discovery processes. By representing legal documents as vectors and building vector based knowledge bases, Legal1Up’s AI-powered platform can quickly identify similar cases, streamline discovery efforts, and provide valuable insights to legal professionals.

How Vector Databases Work

At the core of vector databases lies the concept of vectors. In simple terms, a vector is a list of numbers that represents an entity in a multidimensional space. Each number in the vector corresponds to a specific dimension, capturing different abstract properties or features of the entity.

Let’s consider an example to illustrate this concept. Imagine we have vectors representing various animals and objects:

Cat:       [0.81, -0.10, 0.50, -0.30, 0.05, 0.21, 0.02, 0.00, 0.15, ..., 0.23]
Dog:       [0.79, -0.11, 0.48, -0.28, 0.06, 0.20, 0.01, -0.01, 0.14, ..., 0.21]
Lion:      [0.80, -0.12, 0.51, -0.33, 0.07, 0.23, 0.03, -0.02, 0.16, ..., 0.25]
Lizard:    [0.30, 0.15, -0.25, 0.40, -0.30, -0.20, 0.20, 0.35, -0.15, ..., -0.08]
Dinosaur:  [0.31, 0.16, -0.24, 0.42, -0.29, -0.21, 0.21, 0.36, -0.14, ..., -0.07]
Cup of Coffee: [-0.20, 0.55, -0.10, 0.50, 0.40, -0.30, -0.60, 0.45, 0.20, ..., -0.50]
Boulder:   [-0.09, 0.41, 0.29, 0.58, -0.33, 0.12, 0.52, 0.68, -0.23, ..., 0.43]

Each vector consists of a fixed number of dimensions (typically ranging from 50 to 300), with each dimension representing an abstract feature. The magnitude of each number indicates the presence or absence of that feature, while the sign (positive or negative) represents the direction in the vector space. With that said, these vectors aren’t comprehensible to humans and rely on machine learning techniques to be generated into embeddings.

Not all vector embeddings are the same. Some embedding models, generate a single, largely static vector for each word, regardless of the context in which it appears. However, more advanced models, such as BERT and ELMo, take into account the entire context surrounding a word to generate more nuanced and contextually relevant embeddings.

Consider the word “cat” in different contexts:

  • “My cat is so cute”: BERT and ELMo would generate embeddings that reflect the positive sentiment and domestic context.
  • “That cat is so dirty”: The embeddings would capture the negative sentiment and potentially different characteristics associated with the cat.
  • “Tigers are big vicious cats”: In this context, the embedding for “cat” would be closer to other large felines or wild animals, differing from its representation in a domestic setting.

By considering the context, these models produce embeddings that better capture the meaning and relationships between words in specific scenarios.

Vector Spaces and Similarity

Vector databases operate in high-dimensional vector spaces, where each dimension represents a distinct feature or attribute. Think of this is graphical mathematical spaces, and distance is based on the similarity or the difference of the plots rather than a unit of distance. The number of dimensions in a vector space can range from a few dozen to several hundred, allowing for rich and nuanced representations of data.

The core functionality of vector databases relies on approximate nearest neighbor (ANN) search algorithms. These algorithms manage to efficiently sift through millions, or even billions, of vectors to find those closest to the input query vector. This is possible through advanced indexing techniques that organize data in such a way that searching becomes much faster than linear scanning.

The closer two vectors are in the vector space, the more similar they are considered to be. This notion of similarity is what powers the efficiency of vector databases. By organizing vectors based on their similarity, vector databases can quickly retrieve the most relevant results for a given query, even in massive datasets and across different data types.

Example Use Cases for Vector Database Applications

In this vector databases overview we wanted to also explore some of the ways that they can be used in applications.

  1. Legal Discovery: Legal1Up AI Discovery Solutions, a VagaVang company, utilizes vector databases to streamline the legal discovery process. This allows law firm clients to perform their discovery work more quickly and reduce the amount of time in doing basic research and classification of massive amounts of documentation. If interested in learning more about the rationale of the project see this post.
  2. Medical Diagnosis Assistance: In the medical field, vector databases can be employed to assist doctors in making accurate diagnoses. By representing patient symptoms, medical history, imaging, lab results, and clinical data as vectors, the system can identify similar patient profiles and suggest potential diagnoses or treatment options. This can aid medical professionals in making informed decisions and provide personalized care to patients.
  3. Fraud Detection in Fintech: Fintech companies can utilize vector databases to enhance their fraud detection capabilities. By representing financial transactions as vectors, the system can identify patterns and anomalies that may indicate fraudulent activities. This can help fintech companies proactively detect and prevent fraud, protecting both their customers and their own financial interests.
  4. Personalized Customer Support: Vector databases can revolutionize customer support by enabling personalized assistance. By vectorizing customer queries, product information, and support documentation, the system can quickly retrieve the most relevant answers and solutions for each customer’s specific needs. This can lead to faster resolution times, improved customer satisfaction, and reduced workload for support teams.
  5. Intelligent Personal Assistant: Vector databases can power intelligent personal assistants that understand and respond to user queries in a highly contextualized manner. By vectorizing user preferences, past interactions, and real-time context, the assistant can provide personalized recommendations, answers, and suggestions. This can be applied to various daily tasks, such as managing schedules, finding nearby services, or providing product recommendations based on user interests.

Performance and Architectural Differences from Traditional Databases

Vector databases differ significantly from traditional relational (SQL) and NoSQL databases in their architecture and performance:

  • Architecture: Unlike SQL databases that store data in tables with rows and columns, vector databases use a flat architecture where data points are indexed in a high-dimensional vector space. However, vector databases would not work well for storing more structured data such as user profile data or to perform queries where you need more precision.
  • Performance: Vector databases are optimized for similarity searches, which are inherently more complex than the exact match searches typical in relational databases. They can handle large-scale, high-dimensional data more efficiently, providing faster response times for complex queries.
  • Scalability: Due to their indexing structures, vector databases scale more efficiently when dealing with large volumes of high-dimensional data, unlike traditional databases that may struggle with performance degradation.

Leading Companies and Tools in the Vector Database Market

The vector database ecosystem is rapidly growing, with several vendors and frameworks offering powerful solutions:

  1. Pinecone: A fully-managed vector database service that simplifies the deployment and scaling of vector search applications.
  2. Qdrant: A newer vendor of vector databases that can be run locally or fully managed. We have been impressed with Qdrant with our work on Legal1Up.
  3. Weaviate: An open-source vector search engine that supports various data types and provides a GraphQL API for easy integration.
  4. Milvus: An open-source vector database designed for scalability and high performance, suitable for building large-scale AI applications.
  5. Faiss: A library developed by Facebook AI that offers efficient similarity search and clustering algorithms for vector databases.
  6. Azure Cosmos DB: Microsoft database with built in vector search while also housing other data types.
Retrieval Augmented Generation Overview

Work With Us

At VagaVang, our team of experts can help you navigate the landscape of vector databases and identify the best solution for your specific needs. From design and implementation to talent sourcing and change management, we’re here to support you every step of the way.


This vector databases overview aims to show how they are revolutionizing the way AI applications process and analyze complex data, unlocking new possibilities for innovation and efficiency. By leveraging the power of vector representations and similarity search, organizations can build smarter, more intuitive AI systems that deliver unparalleled value.

As the adoption of vector databases continues to grow, we at VagaVang are excited to be at the forefront of this transformation. Whether you’re looking to enhance your legal discovery processes, build personalized recommendation engines, or detect fraud in real-time, our team is ready to help you harness the potential of vector databases.

Raw Research Notes:

Vector Databases Overview notes and Their Importance in AI:

  • Enable efficient handling and searching of complex data
  • Allow retrieval of similar data rather than exact matches
  • Manage data as fixed-length lists of numbers called vectors
  • Use Approximate Nearest Neighbor (ANN) algorithms for similarity search based on query vectors
  • Represent vectors close to each other in the vector space as similar
  • Underlie the ability to improve domain-specific responses in LLMs

Retrieval Augmented Generation (RAG):

  • Common document retrieval method for RAG
  • Two phases: retrieval with embeddings and using LLM to formulate answers
  • Both query and documents are converted into vectors
  • Important for augmenting LLM knowledge beyond training data

Similarity Search:

  • Looks for spaces and similarities between objects
  • Search techniques are constantly improving
  • Helps create efficient indexing structures

Features and Vector Representation:

  • A feature is an individual and measurable property or characteristic of a phenomenon
  • Features can be numerical or categorical
  • Vectors are created by converting raw data into a computer-readable format
  • Vectors are derived from complex data transformations and feature extraction processes
  • Example: Cat = [0.12, -0.49, 0.32, …, 0.21]

Query Vectors:

  • A query is converted into a vector for matching against other vectors
  • Sophisticated systems vectorize the entire meaning of a query to be contextual
  • Different contexts can result in different embeddings for the same word (e.g., “cat”)

High-Dimensional Space:

  • Each dimension represents a different attribute or feature
  • Vector space can have many more dimensions than 3D spaces
  • Dimensions are essentially features of the data (e.g., height, weight, lifespan for animals)

Vector Distance and Similarity:

  • Vector distance is a calculation of similarity or difference between two vectors
  • Often calculated using cosine similarity rather than Euclidean distance
  • Example: Cat, Dog, Lion, and Lizard vectors

Indexing Structures:

  • Used to organize data and improve performance

Vector Vocabulary:

  • Vector: A list of numbers representing an entity in a multidimensional space
  • Dimension: A single position within the vector encoding abstract properties
  • Magnitude: The length of the vector, used in normalization
  • Direction: The orientation of the vector in the multidimensional space

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