Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Book: Essential SQLAlchemy

Essential SQLAlchemy by Rick Copeland
O'Reilly Media
ISBN 10: 0-596-51614-2 / ISBN 13: 9780596516147

This is a great book describing how to use SQLAlchemy to connect Python programs to databases. In fact, at the moment (mid-summer 2008), it is the book, since there are no other books on the subject, yet. Athough I am not (yet) a SQLAlchemy user, this book seems to cover all of the core topics in SQLAlchemy. The text includes many straightforward examples of how to use various facilities in SQLAlchemy and how to map various database programming problems into Python code via SQLAlchemy. Copeland also provides a whirlwind tour of some extensions to SQLAlchemy.

I heard about SQLAlchemy project on the This Week in Django podcast. Django doesn’t use SQLAlchmey, but it does use a similar object-relational mapper (ORM). As I mentioned, I haven’t used SQLAlchemy so I came into this book with a somewhat blank slate. I have, however, been programming in Python since before 1.0, and I’ve worked with database APIs and ORMs since the early 90s in C++, Java, and Python. So, I was familiar with the basic landscape of database programming, even if I hadn’t used SQLAlchemy. And, I’m currently working on a large Python project that is coded using the Python database API directly, which is very tedious. So, the whole time I was reading this book, I was looking at how to fit SQLAlchemy into this existing code base.

To be honest, the first chapter (the proverbial introduction) almost turned me off. The author starts out slowly enough, but then he starts touching on a huge number details, which were glazing my eyes over. However, the second chapter (getting started) started back at ground zero and stepped through everything in a nice clear fashion, and the rest of the book continued in that vein. He covers all the topics you would expect in a database programming book: queries, updates, joins, the built-in types, and how to hook in to provide support for your own types.

Something I didn’t realize about SQLAlchemy coming into this is that SQLAlchemy is both an ORM (what I expected) as well as a high-level, database-independent API. Which is to say, you can just access the database as tables, columns and rows rather than as classes, attributes, and object instances. Although I’d personally prefer to use the ORM, I can imagine cases where it might not be the right tool for the job, and it’s good to have a choice.

I was also surprised to see the ORM supports two styles of object-relational access: the data mapper pattern (which I had seen in Django and Hibernate) and the active record (used in Ruby). The author does a good job of explaining both of these and how to use them. He even devotes a whole chapter to Exlir, which is an extension that implements the active record pattern.

One thing that many people might consider odd is the fact that although SQLAlchemy is an ORM, the author waits until chapter eight to discuss how to map object inheritance hierarchies onto relational databases. Most books I’ve read on ORMs discuss this topic early, but I applaud Copeland’s decisions to hold off on discussing it. When books bring this up early (e.g., in chapter three), the discussion often gets bogged down in details, which glaze the reader’s eyes. I’ve dealt with the issue of inheritance mapping enough in ORMs I’ve used and those I’ve written enough that I’m not that interested in the topic (assuming the tool provides the typical, reasonable solutions), and was grateful that he held off on it.

One issue I had with the overall structure of the book is that I’m hard pressed to pigeon-hole the book. Books about a single technology such as SQLAlchemy usually occupy one end or the other of a spectrum. Either they’re hard-core references, often times copying-and-pasting API documentation from a web site (I really hate that), or they’re largish tutorials that may or may not contain enough technical meat. This is a short (roughly 200 page) book that contains plenty of technical meat, but it also includes some simple tutorial motivations for using various capabilities of the tool. Although this mix felt odd to me, I’m sure it will be perfect when I go to apply SQLAlchemy to my existing database projects since I don’t really want a hand-holding tutorial, but a pure reference wouldn’t quite work for me either when I’m just starting out.

In conclusion, Essential SQLAlchemy provides a thorough presentation of the SQLAlchemy tool for interfacing Python code to SQL databases. The author covers a number of different methods in which SQLAlchemy can be used to access databases from Python, and he provides plenty of details of the various APIs available to the programmer.


No comments: