Null, Undefined, NaN and Missing Property: Goto Considered Harmful (Part 2)

Wait a minute: ‘undefined’ and ‘NaN’ is not legal JSON! Part 1 of this blog must have made a mistake?

MongoDB, JSON and Javascript

The MongoDB shell operates on Javascript data types, not JSON data types. Therefore, this is legal and working (MongoDB 2.2.0):

> use blog
switched to db blog

So, using Javascript constants like ‘null’, ‘undefined’ and ‘NaN’ is possible and legal in context of the MongoDB shell.

MongoDB: Transformation of Input

As discussed elsewhere, MongoDB does transform data types and values at the point of insertion. When retrieving the above, the following result is displayed:

> db.blogColl.find()
{ "_id" : ObjectId("50955b2eeb749e2e4a36d779"), "amount" : 25 }
{ "_id" : ObjectId("50955b38eb749e2e4a36d77a"), "amount" : null }
{ "_id" : ObjectId("50955b3feb749e2e4a36d77b"), "amount" : null }
{ "_id" : ObjectId("50955b47eb749e2e4a36d77c"), "amount" : NaN }
{ "_id" : ObjectId("50955b4eeb749e2e4a36d77d"), "balance" : 33 }

MongoDB decided to honor the Javascript ‘null’ and ‘NaN’, but ‘undefined’ is changed to ‘null’. From a data modeling perspective this is significant as there is no difference in meaning between ‘undefined’ and ‘null’ in the context of MongoDB. An application having a distinct interpretation of those values will cause errors due to the distinction in interpretation it makes, but not MongoDB.

MongoDB: Aggregation Results

Coming back to Part 1 now, the question is, how would the default aggregation operators of MongoDB interpret the above data set in MongoDB? The following is an aggregation framework query:

    { $group : {
        _id : 1,
        noDocs: { $sum : 1},
        totalamount: { $sum : "$amount" },
        averageamount: { $avg : "$amount" },
        minamount: { $min : "$amount"},
        maxamount: { $max : "$amount"},
        totalbalance: { $sum : "$balance"},
        averagebalance: { $avg : "$balance" },
        minbalance: { $min : "$balance"},
        maxbalance: { $max : "$balance"}

The ‘group’ pipeline step ensures that all documents are seen as one group for the purpose of aggregation. The aggregation operators are applied to all documents in that group. In this example, to all documents.

The documents have either ‘amount’ or ‘balance’ as properties and for both some aggregate values are computed. The outcome when executing the above is:

        "result" : [
                        "_id" : 1,
                        "noDocs" : 5,
                        "totalamount" : NaN,
                        "averageamount" : NaN,
                        "maxamount" : 25,
                        "totalbalance" : 33,
                        "averagebalance" : 33,
                        "maxbalance" : 33
        "ok" : 1

There are a few things to call out:

  • The minimum aggregation operator was not successful and the result was left out (the reason is unclear to me).
  • The maximum operator ignored ‘null’ and ‘NaN’ and produced the correct values.
  • The sum and average operators do not ignore ‘null’ and ‘NaN’; so if a non-number is present, the operators indicate that by stating that there was at least one entry that is not a number.

Implications to Modeling Considerations

Part 1 of this blog highlighted that fact that there needs to be a common understanding on dynamic schemas as well as the interpretation of property values, especially constants and (aggregation) operations on those.

Unless your interpretation precisely matches the interpretation of MongoDB, you will have to implement those operators and their interpretation outside MongoDB or in a different way with the capabilities that MongoDB provides.

The above example shows that this is an important design discussion that must take place before system construction in order to avoid bigger problems down the road.

One thought on “Null, Undefined, NaN and Missing Property: Goto Considered Harmful (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Schema-free Database (Part 1): An Oxymoron | r e a l - p r o g r a m m e r

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