05 May 2015

Using database columns as the golden source of constraints with Clojure

I’ve recently been working on data input on a project using Clojure and PostgreSQL. The database columns were created, specifying maximum column sizes on columns such as username and password:

    CREATE TABLE users
      id         SERIAL PRIMARY KEY,
      username   VARCHAR(50)  NOT NULL UNIQUE,
      email      VARCHAR(100) NOT NULL UNIQUE,
      -- more columns here....

It’s been a while since I’ve used a SQL database in anger, and there is something very reassuring about having a reliable backing store that will not let any bad data in. However, I found that I had these max-length properties of 50 for username and 100 for email in several places:

  • the database DDL scripts
  • controllers, used to validate on the server side
  • the login HTML page, setting maxlength attributes on input tags
  • the registration page
  • the forgotten-password page

After a bug was found that was caused by the value being wrong in one of those 5 places, I decided that there must be a better approach.

The approach in a nutshell

The database is the best golden source for something like max-column lengths, because that’s where the data lives. By enforcing in the database, it doesn’t matter how bug-ridden your software is, no bad data will get in. So, the approach is this:

  1. On application startup, load column meta data from the database for the current schema
  2. Create a mapping of tables and columns to their various constraint values
  3. Query this mapping from code to get values, and associate the map with the HTML templating engine for use in HTML.

Querying the data and creating the map

The following SQL will give you lots of information on the columns in your database for a schema named public (change this to whatever your schema is), and although tested only in PostgreSQL should work in most database servers:

    WHERE table_schema = 'public'

Of interest for max column lengths are the columns table_name, column_name, and character_maximum_length. By querying just those 3 columns, it’s quite trivial to build up a map in clojure containing all the tables and columns in your database:

    (def constraints

        ; load constraints from DB into cols
        (let [cols (db/query "SELECT table_name, column_name, 
                              FROM INFORMATION_SCHEMA.COLUMNS
                              WHERE table_schema = 'public'")]
             ; convert the result-set into a map
             (reduce (fn [map val]
                         (assoc-in map 
                            [(keyword (val :table_name))
                            (keyword (val :column_name))
                            (:character_maximum_length val)))
                    {} cols)))

Note that this assumes there is a DB function called query that returns a list of column-value pairs for a SQL query. All this does is query the column info, then add values keyed by table name, column name, and constraint type. Here is a test showing example usage from Clojure:

(deftest constraints-map
    (testing "maximum lengths can be accessed via the big map of constraints"
        (is (= 50 (get-in constraints [ :users :username  :max-length])))))

Of course, you might want to make it a bit easier:

(defn max-length [table-key column-key]
    (get-in constraints [table-key column-key :max-length]))
(testing "the maximum length of the username field is known"
    (is (= 50 (max-length :users :username))))

To use this from an HTML templating engine, one approach is to simply associate the whole constraints map with your templating library. For example, you may have a place where some default values are assigned to the model, in which case you can just associate :constraints constraints and then use it from any HTML page. For example, the following sets the maxlength attribute on the login page:

<input type="text" name="username" 

Now if we need to increase or decrease the length of something like the username, we just change the column length in the database and all the validation in the HTML and server-side code will be updated.

Taking it further

It would also be possible to check if columns were nullable or not, and use this to figure out if fields are required or not. More interesting is the fact that check constraint values in many DBs support regexes. You could extract the check constraint value from the DB, and then associate it with the pattern attribute on input fields so that you don’t have duplicate regexes throughout your code.

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