SQL for JSON and Schema Support (Part 1): Preliminaries

Missing schema support and schema enforcement is touted as a good thing: is it really?

“Schema Free”, “Flexible Schema”, “Schema Per Document”

What is meant by a database supporting the JSON data structure without providing support and enforcement for schemas? Such a database is often characterized as “schema free”, or supporting a “flexible schema” or “schema per document”. What does it mean?

No matter how such a database supporting JSON it is labelled, it does not provide an interface to define, to manage or to enforce schema(s) for the data, aka JSON documents, it is managing (“enforcing” is used in the semantics a relational database enforces a schema). This means that a client (e.g., application code) can store JSON documents that have any form as long as those comply to the JSON (syntax) standard (and possibly proprietary extensions by the database system).

It furthermore means that JSON documents representing instances of the same concepts (like e.g. orders or games or employees) do not have to have the same structure. Those JSON documents can be different from each other, not only in values, but also in structure.

An example follows of a possible scenario (using MongoDB).

Example

The example stores initially two documents that have the same structure, and subsequently their structure diverges through updates. No schema enforcement prevents the changes.

use blog;
db.blogColl.insert({
  "orderId": 1,
  "orderDate": "9/30/2017",
  orderLineItems: [{
      "itemId": 55,
      "numberOrdered": 20
    },
    {
      "itemId": 56,
      "numberOrdered": 21
  }]
});
db.blogColl.insert({
  "orderId": 2,
  "orderDate": "9/30/2017",
  orderLineItems: [{
      "itemId": 55,
      "numberOrdered": 30
    }, 
    {
      "itemId": 56,
      "numberOrdered": 31
  }]
});
db.blogColl.update({
    "orderId": 1
  }, {
    "$set": {
    "specialInstructions": 
      "Drop of in front, not back of location"
  }
});
db.blogColl.update({
    "orderId": 2,
    "orderLineItems.itemId": 55
  }, {
    $set: {
      "orderLineItems.$.color": "transparent"
  }
});

The ability to store different JSON documents with different structures, even if they represent (instances of) the same concept, can be seen as a powerful feature. It allows modifying the data as needed to represent changing requirements or specific representation needs. Data migration is easier, too, as data can be changed in place.

This flexibility also has downsides and (engineering) cost that need to be considered and dealt with in a concrete implementation.

Application Implementation

Application code accessing a database has a full or partial representation of the data it queries (or in general manages) in the type system of the deployed programming language.

There are basically two choices an application (short for application code) has to represent data:

  • Direct representation
  • Indirect representation

In a direct representation the concept as stored in the database is defined as data structure in the programming language. For example, using Java as the programming language example, an order is represented as a Java class “Order”. This class has all the methods required to access the various elements of an order (that might be implemented as Java classes themselves). In this approach an order stored in the database, when queried, will be managed as an instance of the Java class Order in the application code. Methods support access or modification to the instance of order, and the methods are order semantics specific, like getOrderDate() or updateOrderLineItem() or totalNumberInidividualItems().

In the indirect representation, an order would be represented not as instance of a Java class that reflects the concept, but an instance of a “meta” Java class. This “meta” class is able to store all data from the database, not just orders. Such a class would have methods like createInstance(), setIdentifier(), setType(), addAttribute(), etc. A type would be “Order”, an attribute would be “lineItem”, etc.

Consequences Of Choice

Given the two representations discussed earlier (direct and indirect), the choice seems to be clear. While the direct representation can capture the semantics of a concept directly (aka, a Java class “Order” can implement order specific methods), this approach would not be able to easily (or at all) deal with changes in the database representation of orders. For example, if an additional attribute is added to the JSON document representing an order (as shown above), the Java class would not be able to change dynamically and capture it.

The indirect representation, however, would not have any problems representing order JSON objects with different structure as e.g. attributes can be dynamically added. This means that instances of the “meta” Java class can represent any JSON document as stored in the database.

These “meta” Java classes are actually already available in form of JSON processing libraries. Such libraries support the creation of JSON structure representations and they can represent any JSON object (or JSON array) that implements a correct JSON syntax.

Summary

At a first glance it looks like databases that support JSON without enforcing a schema at the same time are a good choice for ease of data management. And, using the indirect representation approach applications can deal with dynamically changing JSON objects or JSON objects of different structure representing the same concept.

However, as always, there are more details to discuss and additional aspects are going to be examined in the next blog.

Go [ JSON | Relational ] SQL!

Disclaimer

The views expressed on this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Oracle.

 

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