Overcoming Software

Sum Types In SQL

Algebraic datatypes are a powerful feature of functional programming languages. By combining the expressive power of “and” and “or,” we can solve all kinds of problems cleanly and elegantly. SQL databases represent product types – “and” – extremely well - a SQL table can correspond easily and directly to a product type where each field in the product type can fit in a single column.

On the other hand, SQL databases have trouble with sum types – “or”. Most SQL databases support simple enumerations easily, but they lack the ability to talk about real sum types with fields. We can encode sum types in SQL in a few different ways, each of which has upsides and downsides.

For each of these examples, we will be encoding the following Haskell datatype:

data Animal
    = Cat Name Age FavoriteFood
    | Dog Name OwnerId
    | Bird Name Song

type Name = Text
type Age = Int
type FavoriteFood = Text
type OwnerId = Int
type Song = Text

We’re going to ignore that this datatype could be normalized (though I will describe datatype normalization and show what I mean at the end of the post).

The SQL examples in this blog post will use PostgreSQL. The Haskell query code will use the persistent syntax for entities and queries.

Shared Primary Keys

The first technique is the one that I have used with the most success. It has a good set of tradeoffs with respect to SQL normalization and Haskell types.

First, we are going to create a table for all animals and a type for the constructors:

CREATE TYPE animal_constr AS ENUM ('cat', 'bird', 'dog');

  id    SERIAL          NOT NULL,
  type  animal_constr   NOT NULL,

  PRIMARY KEY (id, type)

The type field on the table will distinguish the different constructors and tables we’ll use.

Let’s create the cat table:

        animal_constr NOT NULL 
        DEFAULT 'cat' 
        CHECK (type = 'cat'),
        TEXT    NOT NULL,
        TEXT 	NOT NULL,
    FOREIGN KEY (id, type) 
        REFERENCES animal (id, type)

The contents of the type column for the cat table are completely constrained – we cannot insert any record into the table that does not have a value of type 'cat'. Fortunately, this is automated - we can omit specifying it, and it’ll be filled in automatically from the DEFAULT 'cat' clause.

The other SQL tables will have a similar format. The type field will be constrained to the constructor.

If we add new constructors to the Haskell datatype, we can use the SQL command:

ALTER TYPE animal_constr ADD VALUE 'alligator';

Then we can create an additional table 'alligator', and the constraints all work out exactly like we want.

This representation has a downside. It is possible to insert entries into the animal table which have no corresponding entry in any other table. Indeed, this is necessary - there must first be an entry in the animal table before we can insert the corresponding cat.

Let’s check out how to query this from Haskell. We are going to use the following persistent definition:

    type         AnimalConstr

    type         AnimalConstr
    name         Text
    age          Int
    favoriteFood Text

This corresponds exactly with the SQL description above, though it will generate migrations that are different. I am going to elide the PersistField definitions, as they are irrelevant, but AnimalConstr is defined as:

data AnimalConstr = Cat | Dog | Bird
    deriving (Eq, Show, Read)

Assuming we have defined the other animal tables, we’ll use this SQL query:

SELECT ??, ??, ??, ??
FROM animal
    ON cat.id = animal.id
    ON dog.id = animal.id
    ON bird.id = animal.id
    OR dog.id IS NOT NULL
    OR bird.id IS NOT NULL

We need the WHERE clause to ensure that we do not select animal records that do not have corresponding records in the subtables.

The Haskell code to load these records out of the database looks like this:

    :: SqlPersistM
        [ ( Entity Animal
          , Maybe (Entity Cat)
          , Maybe (Entity Dog)
          , Maybe (Entity Bird)
selectAnimalsDb = rawQuery theAboveSqlQuery []

We have a post-condition on the return value of this query that is guaranteed by the database schema, but not present in the types. One of the Maybe values will be a Just constructor, and the Just constructor will be determined by the AnimalConstr value on the Entity Animal value. This allows us to unsafely extract the Just value based on the constructor.

We would write our conversion function as so:

    :: Entity Animal
    -> Maybe (Entity Cat)
    -> Maybe (Entity Dog)
    -> Maybe (Entity Bird)
    -> Domain.Animal
toDomainType (Entity _ animal) mcat mdog mbird =
    case (animalType animal, mcat, mdog, mbird) of
        (Cat, Just cat, _, _) ->
            toCat cat
        (Dog, _, Just dog, _) ->
            toDog dog
        (Bird, _, _, Just bird) ->
            toBird bird
        _ ->
            error "Impossible due to database constraints"
    toDog  :: Entity Dog  -> Animal
    toCat  :: Entity Cat  -> Animal
    toBird :: Entity Bird -> Animal

This approach is safe, easy to extend, and conforms to good relational database design. It is possible to make the Haskell-side even safer, by adding some fancier type-level tricks to the SQL conversion layer. However, that differs based on the database library you are using, and I would like to keep this post generalizable to other libraries. A followup post (or library?) might provide insight into this.

The persistent Approach

The persistent library has an approach to encoding sum-type entities. The documentation describes this feature. Given that I wrote the documentation, I’m going to copy it in here:

The schema in the test is reproduced here:

share [mkPersist persistSettings, mkMigrate "sumTypeMigrate"] [persistLowerCase|
    brand T.Text
    make T.Text
    model T.Text
    bicycle BicycleId
    car CarId

Let’s check out the definition of the Haskell type Vehicle. Using ghci, we can query for :info Vehicle:

>>> :i Vehicle
type Vehicle = VehicleGeneric SqlBackend
        -- Defined at .../Projects/persistent/persistent-test/src/SumTypeTest.hs:26:1

>>> :i VehicleGeneric
type role VehicleGeneric nominal
data VehicleGeneric backend
  = VehicleBicycleSum (Key (BicycleGeneric backend))
  | VehicleCarSum (Key (CarGeneric backend))
        -- Defined at .../persistent/persistent-test/src/SumTypeTest.hs:26:1
-- lots of instances follow...

A VehicleGeneric has two constructors:

The Bicycle and Car are typical persistent entities.

This generates the following SQL migrations (formatted for readability):

CREATE TABLE "bicycle" (
    "id"        INTEGER PRIMARY KEY,
    "brand"     VARCHAR NOT NULL

    "id"        INTEGER PRIMARY KEY,
    "make"      VARCHAR NOT NULL,
    "model"     VARCHAR NOT NULL

CREATE TABLE "vehicle"(
    "id"        INTEGER PRIMARY KEY,
    "bicycle"   INTEGER NULL REFERENCES "bicycle",
    "car"       INTEGER NULL REFERENCES "car"

The vehicle table contains a nullable foreign key reference to both the bicycle and the car tables.

A SQL query that grabs all the vehicles from the database looks like this (note the ?? is for the persistent raw SQL query functions):

SELECT ??, ??, ??
FROM vehicle
    ON vehicle.car = car.id
LEFT JOIN bicycle
    ON vehicle.bicycle = bicycle.id

If we use the above query with rawSql, we’d get the following result:

    :: SqlPersistM 
        [ ( Entity Vehicle
          , Maybe (Entity Bicycle)
          , Maybe (Entity Car)

This result has some post-conditions that are not guaranteed by the types or the schema. The constructor for Entity Vehicle is going to determine which of the other members of the tuple is Nothing. We can convert this to a friendlier domain model like this:

data Vehicle'
    = Car' Text Text
    | Bike Text

check = do
    result <- getVehicles
    pure (map convert result)

    :: Entity Vehicle
    -> Maybe (Entity Bicycle)
    -> Maybe (Entity Car)
    -> Vehicle'
convert (Entity _ (VehicycleBicycleSum _)) (Just (Entity _ (Bicycle brand))) _ =
    Bike brand
convert (Entity _ (VehicycleCarSum _)) _ (Just (Entity _ (Car make model))) =
    Car make model
convert _ =
    error "The database preconditions have been violated!"

The SQL table that is automatically generated from the entities does not guarantee that exactly one ID column is present. We can resolve this by adding a CHECK constraint:

We need to add another check to ensure that at most one of the columns is present.

    ( (bicycle IS NOT NULL AND car     IS NULL)
   OR (car     IS NOT NULL AND bicycle IS NULL)

As compared to the “Shared Primary Keys” approach, this inverts the foreign key relationship. This means that we would need to insert an Cat or Dog into the database before we can insert an Animal into the database. Where the previous method would allow “orphan” animal records with no corresponding cat, dog, etc, this method allows for orphan cats and dogs without corresponding animal records.

Adding constructors is easy - you add a new column to the animal table, and adjust the CHECK constraints so that only one can be present.

This requires less work with adding custom ENUM types, requires fewer and less complicated foreign keys, and has less “dynamic” behavior (linking the id and type field at runtime vs statically known relationship).

Nullable Columns

This approach dispenses with multiple tables and represents the sum-type in a single table. It is an awkward encoding, and it is not considered good database design. However, it does avoid many JOINs, and is slightly more straightforward.

We will start by creating a table for animal and denormalize the other tables in, with NULLable columns.

    -- Common fields:
    type    animal_constr NOT NULL,

    -- Cat fields:
    cat_name    TEXT,
    cat_age     INTEGER,
    cat_food    TEXT,

    -- Dog fields:
    dog_name        TEXT,
    dog_owner_id    INTEGER REFERENCES owner,
    -- Bird fields:
    bird_name       TEXT,
    bird_song       TEXT


Now, when we parse fields out of the database, we will look a the type field, and assume that the relevant fields are not null. We can make this safe by using a CHECK constraint to ensure that the corresponding fields are not null, and that the irrelevant fields are null.

    ( type = 'cat'
    AND cat_name     IS NOT NULL
    AND cat_age      IS NOT NULL
    AND cat_food     IS NOT NULL
    AND dog_name     IS NULL
    AND dog_owner_id IS NULL
    AND bird_name    IS NULL
    AND bird_song    IS NULL
    ) OR 
    ( type = 'dog'
    AND dog_name     IS NOT NULL
    AND dog_owner_id IS NOT NULL
    AND cat_name     IS NULL
    AND cat_age      IS NULL
    AND cat_food     IS NULL
    AND bird_name    IS NULL
    AND bird_song    IS NULL
    ) OR
    ( type = 'bird'
    AND bird_name IS NOT NULL
    AND bird_song IS NOT NULL
    AND dog_name     IS NULL
    AND dog_owner_id IS NULL
    AND cat_name     IS NULL
    AND cat_age      IS NULL
    AND cat_food     IS NULL

This CHECK constraint is getting pretty gnarly, and it’s only going to get worse if we add additional constructors and fields. This kind of boilerplate can be automated away. I suspect that a complex CHECK constraint like this might become computationally intensive, as well, though I have no idea what the performance characteristics of it are.

This approach is explicitly denormalized, and your DBA friends may scoff at you for implementing it. However, it has many upsides, as well. It is simple and easy to query, and aside from the safety CHECK constraints to guarantee data integrity, it is relatively low boilerplate.

If you want to provide this schema for convenience, you might consider using one of the previous two choices and exposing this as a VIEW on the underlying data. The query to provide the same schema from the “Shared Primary Keys” approach is here:

CREATE VIEW animal_a (
    id      INTEGER,
    type    animal_constr NOT NULL,

    cat_name    TEXT,
    cat_age     INTEGER,
    cat_food    TEXT,

    dog_name        TEXT,
    dog_owner_id    INTEGER REFERENCES owner,
    bird_name       TEXT,
    bird_song       TEXT
) AS 
    id, type, 
    cat.name as cat_name, cat.age as cat_age, cat.food as cat_food,
    dog.name as dog_name, dog.owner_id as dog_owner_id,
    bird.name as bird_name, bird.song as bird_song
FROM animal
    ON animal.id = cat.id
    ON animal.id = dog.ig
    ON animal.id = bird.id
   OR dog.is IS NOT NULL
   OR bird.id IS NOT NULL

The view from the “Persistent” approach is slightly different, because the IDs for the cats/dogs/birds differ from the animal ID. If you needed to provide absolute backwards compatibility here, then you could provide the view with redundant cat_id etc columns.

CREATE VIEW animal_b (
    id      INTEGER,
    type    animal_constr NOT NULL,

    cat_id      INTEGER
    cat_name    TEXT,
    cat_age     INTEGER,
    cat_food    TEXT,

    dog_id          INTEGER
    dog_name        TEXT,
    dog_owner_id    INTEGER REFERENCES owner,
    bird_id         INTEGER
    bird_name       TEXT,
    bird_song       TEXT
) AS
    id, type, 
    cat.id as cat_id, cat.name as cat_name, cat.age as cat_age, cat.food as cat_food,
    dog.id as dog_id, dog.name as dog_name, dog.owner_id as dog_owner_id,
    bird.id as bird_id, bird.name as bird_name, bird.song as bird_song
FROM animal
    ON animal.cat_id = cat.id
    ON animal.dog_id = dog.id
    ON animal.bird_id = bird.id

Since this option is expressible as a VIEW on the other two options, I’d suggest doing that if you need to provide this schema.

Datatype Normalization

Above, I mentioned that the Animal datatype we’re using is not normalized. Haskell datatypes can be normalized in much the same way that SQL relations can be. The Wikipedia is a good way to learn about this, and the process is essentially the same.

First, we notice that the Name field is repeated in each constructor. We are going to factor that field out.

data AnimalDetails
    = Cat Age FavoriteFood
    | Dog OwnerId
    | Bird Song

data Animal 
    = Animal Name AnimalDetails

All of the repetition has been factored out.


@cliffordheath commented that these three strategies have well-known names in the database world - absorption, separation, and partition.