You can actually get pretty far on a single MySQL database and not even have to worry about partitioning at the application level. You can “scale up” to a machine with lots of cores and tons of ram, plus a replica. If you have a layer of memcached servers in front of the databases (which are easy to scale out) then the database basically only has to worry about writes. You can also use S3 or some other distributed hash table to take the largest objects out of rows in the database. There’s no need to burden yourself with making a system scale more than 10x further than it needs to, as long as you’re confident that you’ll be able to scale it as you grow.

– This. Adam D’Angelo’s answer to Why does Quora use MySQL as the data store rather than NoSQLs such as Cassandra, MongoDB, CouchDB, etc? – Quora