What If SQL Had Abstract Tables And Composite Types?

There are well-documented mismatches between the object-oriented paradigm and the relational database model. Despite the early adopters telling us we should all be using F# running against CouchDB, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that object-oriented languages and relational databases aren’t going away any time soon.

The more I see and learn about ORMs, the more I get this feeling like there’s a real “code vs data” mindset going on. To an object-oriented application developer, the database is a necessarily evil, the DBA is a pain-in-the-ass Luddite who won’t let you write code the way you want to, tables are an inadequate and inferior persistence mechanism for your beautiful object hierarchies, and – well, if someone could wave a magic wand and just make the whole database thing go away, you’d all be very happy. Even in the most wonderfully agile, test-driven greenfield project, there’s still this perception that the more we can abstract the project away from the database, the better off we’ll be. It’s like the Utopian ideal of ORMs is not to embrace the power of the database – they’d rather make the DB completely irrelevant.

I sit on both sides of this particular fence. As a developer, I find persistence as frustrating and time-consuming as everyone else – but as a business stakeholder, I want my data stored in normal, sensibly-named tables that I can get at using SQL-92 queries. Not because that’s what I’m doing now, but because I really have no idea what I’ll be doing with that data in 5-10 years, and I believe the relational model has stood the test of time. 

I’ve spent today at  Ayende’s NHibernate workshops at the Skillsmatter Progressive .NET event, and he’s shown us all sorts of NHibernate magic, including various strategies for modelling inheritance and class hierarchies with polymorphic associations, sparse tables, and the like. There’s been some discussion of stuff like composite keys, searching, indexes, unique constraints – and it’s pretty clear that when it comes to object-relational mapping, it’s the object folks that are doing all the work, and the relational side of things is really not doing anything much to make their lives easier.

There’s two things that stand out as being particular painful when it comes to object-relational mapping – composite keys and inheritance. Inheritance because it has no analogue in the relational model so you have to somehow “fake” it – which makes no difference to the code, but it can leave the DB in a bit of a mess. Composite keys because they have built-in limitations regarding nested queries (WHERE foo IN (SELECT…)) – and complex equality and value semantics, which means most ORMs strongly advise against using composite keys if you can help it.

(From this point forward I’m making stuff up as a sort of thought experiment. Don’t take any of it too literally :))

What if we added ABSTRACT and EXTENDS keywords to SQL? What if you could do this in your database?

  ID int identity(1,1) primary key

  CompanyName varchar(256)

   Forenames varchar(256),
   Surname varchar(256)

Here’s the rules:

  • Tables must be abstract or concrete.
  • You can’t insert, update or delete records from an abstract table
  • Both abstract and concrete tables can participate in foreign key relationships
  • One abstract record must have exactly one concrete record (i.e. you can’t insert a Company whose ID already represents a Person)
  • Concrete tables behave like the union of their own columns and their abstract base table’s columns

SELECT * FROM Customer




Id CompanyName
1 Monkey Butlers Ltd


Id Forenames Surname
2 Eddie Van Halen
3 Jack Sparrow


INSERT INTO Person(Id, Forenames, Surname) VALUES(4, “Ayende”, “Rahien”)

-- will work as expected

INSERT INTO Company(Id, Name) VALUES(4, “Rhino Ltd”)

-- will fail with “Distributed key violation” or some such thing, because ID4 is already taken by a Person and so can’t be used for a Company.

You can, e.g. associate Customer with Address (so every address is ‘owned’ by exactly one customer, regardless of whether the customer in question is a person or a company) – but you can also associate Employee with Company directly, so that your data schema enforces the business requirement that a Person cannot have Employees. As a database concept, it doesn’t really add anything – but with a suitably turbocharged ORM, think of what you could do. A simple Customer.ListAll() could return an array of Customer objects – each of which is ACTUALLY a strongly-typed Person or Company. You could do things like Customer.ListAll(typeof(Company)); you could switch on the type of the objects – and all without the compromise of sparse tables or child table inheritance.

Ok, what about composite keys? Imagine we’re booking flights for an airline. There is a real-world business constraint that the same person cannot be on the same flight twice, and composite keys are tailor-made for modelling this sort of “unique combination” scenario:

CREATE TABLE SeatReservation (
      PassengerId int,
      FlightNumber varchar(5)
   ) primary key,
   SeatRow char,
   SeatNumber int

CREATE TABLE SpecialMeal (

  -- Notice that the “type” of this column is a SeatReservation.Key – i.e. a reference
  -- to the composite type defined as Key in the SeatReservation table.
   SeatReservation.Key SeatReservation primary key,
   IsVegetarian bit,
   IsVegan bit,
   IsHalal bit

SELECT * FROM SeatReservation WHERE Key.PassengerId = 12

SELECT * FROM SeatReservation WHERE Key IN  (SELECT SeatReservationKey FROM SpecialMeal)

Think of this like adding a struct type to SQL, where COMPOSITE defines a collection of columns just as in C# a struct defines a collection of fields. Composites carry field-value semantics for comparison and equality; if all the columns are equal, the struct is equal. Composite literals are defined inline like:

select * from SpecialMeal WHERE SeatReservation.Key = (178189, ‘VS207’)

- using similar syntax to SQL’s familiar INSERT INTO (Column1, Column2) VALUES(Value1, Value2)

This would allow ORMs such as NHibernate to explicitly map a composite key as a struct, benefiting from intrinsic value-object semantics. The resulting database queries could use composite keys in exactly the same way as primary keys – because the database explicitly allows a composite ‘type’ to be used wherever a primitive type is currently supported – and, most importantly, the business meaning of a composite key is explicit in both the database schema and the object model.