SQLAlchemy with Grok

  • By Martijn Faassen
  •  • 
  • 2008-04-08
  •  • 
  • Tags: 
  • grok

Grok needs a great relational database integration story. Grok already has a great database story: by default, we use an object database: the ZODB. The ZODB is great as you can just store normal Python objects. You can persist complicated nested structures easily. But this entry isn't about the ZODB. Relational databases are also great. You can query tables every which way very easily. You can manage your data in a RDMS, a familiar system for many, and integrate with existing RDMS that already exist in many places.

Thanks to object relational mappers (ORMs), working with relational databases has become pretty easy as well. Python has a number of object relational wrappers available for it. Recently I started a project that uses Grok with a relational database. It was a good opportunity to investigate this topic more deeply, keeping in mind what might be useful for Grok. I evaluated two object relational mappers: Storm and SQLAlchemy. I don't claim to have done anything like an in-depth technical evaluation. I didn't. I don't believe there are many technical reasons to choose one or the other. In the end I went with SQLAlchemy for this project. I think it would make a good default integration story for Grok.

I looked at Storm. Storm is nice, and is used by two large parties in the Zope community: Canonical (where it originated) and Lovely Systems (who use it a lot). The Storm developers maintain Zope 3 integration together with Storm. In the Grok community, we also have Christian Klinger actively working on Grok integration. One thing bothered me though: Storm lacks the ability to generate database schemas from Python code.

I asked why that may be so. It turns out this lack is a deliberate choice, and the Storm developers have good reasons: usually, with large scalable relational databases, you don't want auto-generation of schemas. Control and flexibility is important in these cases, and being limited by a Python-based schema language would hinder a project and, possibly even worse, piss off the database admins.

When I approached the Storm mailing list about this topic I got friendly and helpful responses, but it was quite clear that schema-generation, while not completely out of the question (perhaps in an extension), isn't part of the Storm culture. It's like threading and Twisted - you can do it if you want, but if you talk to the developers they will keep reminding you that in most cases you shouldn't do it. It also reminded me of the Zope 3 attitude - control and flexibility are of paramount importance.

Grok emphasizes slightly different things however. We happily use the control and flexibility that Zope 3 offers, and don't want to lose it if we can help it, but we let ease of use weigh more heavily when we make choices. That said, the "control & flexibility" attitude is actually great for Grok - it's very nice to be able to build on such a flexible and well-engineered base!

SQLAlchemy seems to share the Zope 3 attitude as well: it offers a lot of flexibility and control. People are building more high level declarative systems on top of it, such as Elixir. SQLAlchemy also offers some extra features compared to Storm. The one that mattered to me was schema generation from Python code. I myself think schema generation can be quite useful. Not for large-scale relational databases, but projects often start out small, and more often stay small. If you're just trying to develop a small web application, it's very nice to be able to get started quickly and just write Python code.

This approach suited my project, and I think it will suit Grok as well. For something like Grok, making it easy to get started is very important, and to me that means it needs to include schema-generation. I realize that schema-generation is the wrong choice for many projects, but I don't think it's the wrong choice for all projects, and I didn't feel like rolling my own with Storm while it was already there for SQLAlchemy.

When evaluating Storm, we saw it had several strong connections to our Zope community. Such connections are valuable, as it means that if I, as a community member, have a question or a problem, there's a good chance I'll get an answer. It also means that useful integration code is likely to be written. What's interesting is that while Storm has buy-in from larger companies in our community, SQLAlchemy seems to have more activity in open-source land.

The evidence I have for this is that we have almost too many integration layers that connect Zope's transaction machinery to SQLAlchemy. I've used z3c.sqlalchemy and z3c.zalchemy (yes, they are different!) in small projects in the past. This time I felt it was time to try out collective.lead, born in the Plone world. Besides these, there are also people advocating WSGI-based integrations!

I actually had to use an unreleased branch of collective.lead (I hope there will be a release soon, and for your reference, it's elro-tpc), and it didn't work right with sqlite. Once I switched to PostgreSQL, it did work quite well. Laurence Rowe, developer of collective.lead, was very helpful in answering my questions. Don't ask me for technical reasons on why it might be better than the others, though! Some time in the future, we'll need to figure out which Zope 3/SQLAlchemy integration layer is right for Grok.

So what does Grok code that uses SQLAlchemy look like? I'll give just a sketch here - this is not a complete application. Actually besides the database setup code, my project's code ended up very similar to code that uses the ZODB - the patterns are the same.

Let's start with setting up the database. collective.lead needs us to register a global utility that includes the database URL, table definitions and the object/relational mappers:

from collective.lead import Database
from collective.lead.interfaces import IDatabase
import sqlalchemy as sa
from sqlalchemy import Table, Column

class MyDatabase(grok.GlobalUtility, Database):

    _url = sa.engine.url.URL(drivername='postgres', database='foo')

    def _setup_tables(self, metadata, tables):
        user_table = Table(
          'user', metadata,
            Column('user_id', Integer, primary_key=True),
            Column('username', String(20), unique=True, index=True),
            Column('password', String(100)))
        tables['user'] = user_table

    def _setup_mappers(self, tables, mappers):
         mappers['user'] = mapper(
            User, tables['user'],

I find the use of underscores in collective.lead here a bit ugly. I actually hope we can make much of this utility go away again by defining some clever grokkers and using some declarative approach combining class and table definitions (Elixir is one option to explore). What the right way is needs careful thought (perhaps at the Grokkerdam sprint?).

Above we define a table user, then map it to the class User. We haven't defined this class yet, so let's do that now:

import grok

class User(grok.Model):

This is in fact an entirely normal Grok model. You can do everything with it that you can do with a normal model, connect views to it, adapters, traversers, etc. Just about the only thing that you probably shouldn't be doing is stuffing it into the ZODB - that would be rather confusing! I think eventually Grok wants to introduce a new base-class for ORMed classes, but for now, the grok.Model approach actually appears to work just fine. The fields in a record, as defined by the user table, become attributes on User instances.

Creating an object is a trifle more involved than just instantiating it and sticking it into a container, like you'd do with the ZODB, but still very easy. You can create new users like this:

from zope import component

session = component.getUtility(IDatabase, name='mydb').session
user = User()

The getUtility call looks up the utility we defined above. It's a bit verbose to keep looking up the session this way, but this can be easily abstracted away into a small utility function. More high-level abstractions also are possible: there is some work going on involving ORM-based container classes, which act like Zope 3 containers (folders). Zope 3 containers in turn act much like Python dictionaries. Such a container should make this pattern even more similar to the ZODB pattern.

All the stuff you can do with Grok add and edit forms also works fine, including applyData. To make automatic form generation work, you do need to define a Zope interface for User to define the schema. Unfortunately defining the Zope 3 schema for User violates DRY (Don't Repeat Yourself) - you need to define the columns (which become attributes) in the user table definition and then also define them again, in a different way, in the IUser schema. This is another important topic to think about - perhaps we can devise a way to generate Zope 3 schemas from SQLAlchemy table definitions or vice versa. There are projects in the Plone world (Alchemist, collective.mercury) that offer such a facility, so we need to investigate those.

Grok makes it very easy to make custom traversers to set up your URL space. Let's combine it with a query example. If you want to make an object that acts as the base of all users in URL space (base/username), you could do this:

class UserContainer(grok.Model):
     def traverse(self, name):
         session = component.getUtility(IDatabase, 'mydb').session
         return session.query(User).filter(User.username == name).first()

This contains a query that looks for users by name. If it can be found, a User instance is returned. If not, SQLAlchemy's first() will return None, which is exactly what traverse wants too if the object cannot be found. Nice!

This code is similar to the code that would go into a generic ORM container (base)class that I talked about before. In fact, in my project, the code almost automatically started evolving other bits and pieces needed to create such a container, such as way to remove items, and a way to get all the items in the container (defined by a query). With use of zope.location.location.locate() you can make the results of such a query fit right into Grok, so you can also use view.url() on User instances to get their absolute URL, just like you can do with ZODB-backed objects.

In my project, I combined the ZODB with SQLAlchemy. The transaction machinery is integrated, so if you have an uncaught exception in your code both the ZODB transaction and the relational transaction are aborted (and rolled back) at the same time. A successful request commits both. This way I could store things that most easily fit in the ZODB in the ZODB, and use relational tables where I wanted to. In many systems, the filesystem is used directly where a relational databases don't work well, but then you lose the benefit of transactions. A combination of ZODB and RDMBS gives us quite interesting possibilities to explore.

In conclusion: the Grok community has various things to think about and improve concerning relational database integration - some of it I discussed here. Even without those features, using SQLAlchemy with Grok already felt very natural and easy. This is no doubt in large part thanks to SQLAlchemy's and Zope 3's flexibility.

I hope we can get some people to work on this during the Grokkerdam sprint and afterward, and soon make ORM integration a first-class citizen for Grok. It will add another important feature to Grok, and take away another reason not to use Grok (unfamiliarity with the ZODB). Once we have the basic integration done, we can explore building higher-level features. If you don't mind some DRY violations, it's not hard to create powerful CRUD interfaces with Grok and SQLAlchemy right now, but of course we want to eliminate the DRY violations.