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The Solution to The Object Relational Impedance Mismatch

Object Relational Mappings (ORMs) are really pervasive infrastructure in the modern tech stack. They were already something of a thing when I began my first serious programming job for a ChemInformatics company just around the time of the first DotCom bubble.

The product (Afferent) had some sophisticated modules which did searching of molecules (using hash-networks), planning and scheduling for robots, and a reaction engine. The reaction engine would virtually carry out some number of chemical reaction steps defined by the user to try to get a better understanding of what chemicals might be produced by a given reaction which could later be compared to spectroscopy data to find out what did happen.

But I think it is fair to say that the bulk of the code, and the bulk of the development work went into the not-so-glamorous task of marshaling data from Lisp objects (We were using Common Lisp), into Oracle, and back again.

And this task was awkward. One of the senior engineers, Mike Travers, had developed some really great tooling for simplifying the task, but the problem is that there is, what has been called, an Object Relational Impedance Mismatch.

This mismatch intrigued me so much, that I’ve been thinking about problems related to it ever since, and it has led me to be in two graph database startups. Graphs are, in my opinion, ‘The Right Way’™ to deal with the mismatch.

In TerminusDB, we store data objects and the relationships between them in a way that is:

  • Pervasively Indexed: We are fast to retrieve on any data which is stored.
  • Transactional: We have an ACID transaction model built into the core.
  • Data only: We do not store methods but we can store declarative queries.
  • Marshaling uses JSON

These approaches remove the need for an ORM, and kill the object relational impedance mismatch at the cost of requiring two1 systems to model objects, the host system, and TerminusDB.

This approach gives us the best features of graph databases, document stores, and relational database systems, all at the same time.

Let’s take a little detour to see why we solved the problem this way.

What is the Impedance Mismatch?

Object Relational Impendence Mismatch

Relational database systems are mature and powerful, with simple query languages (now almost universally some SQL variant), based on the relational model. That is, you create relations between data to model your problem.

Clearly, it is possible to model many things using relations, as the decades of software development on the basis of RDBMSs attest. However, programming languages are almost universally (with the possible exception of Prolog) based on a very different model.

That is, in programming languages, we deal with objects. Even functional programmers deal almost exclusively with objects, and modeling by constructing functions between them. This creates a real problem since our main storage model is different than our computational model.

(Mis)steps on the Path to Object Utopia

There have been a lot of attempts to overcome this mismatch, and many of them have worked more, or less, well.


The ORM is an attempt to build an object model, embedded in the relational model, such that we can move data in and out, hopefully with some sort of isomorphism (or at worst a Galois connection). This is what we did at Afferent, and it is apparently pretty widely done since Google says there are 8,250,000 results for “ORM solutions”.

When we create objects in our database, we need to choose a large number of different things to model.

  1. Identifiers: First and foremost is the choice of object identifier. We need to have some way to represent an object’s identity so that updates to an object are reflected in storage. What constitutes identity is also an issue (what kinds of keys do we want on our data).

  2. Data type marshaling: We need to figure out how to represent all of our data types, and marshall them to a storage format that our relational database supports. This involves a lot of complexity in modeling collections, enumerated types, and more prosaic things like dates.

  3. Indexing: How can we get elements back quickly, and how do we tell the relational system that this is the case? We need to write down information beyond just the kinds of types that our programming language supports. Essentially we need an intermediate language.

In practice, once we get into using the system in anger, we end up having to understand the complexities of three systems, our programming languages object model, the intermediate ORM model, and the database model. And it can often be challenging to make this work correctly.

The Object Store

The first approach that I played with to overcome our mismatch was the object store. This approach creates a place to put our programming objects persistently. It essentially creates a way to marshall our programming language’s current model in and out of something more persistent than RAM.

This is a very appealing concept at first, but has a number of problems, perhaps not insurmountable, but tricky nonetheless.

The first is that persistence immediately starts raising questions about ACID properties. How do we instigate a transaction? What is connected in a transaction? What kinds of data can we marshall (file handles? streams? functions?).

We now also need additional meta-linguistic tools to describe how to index so that we can find and explore objects sitting on our persistent heap. Heaps with pointers can become messy places, and good organizational principles for persistence are not the same as we generally think about in programming languages.

Garbage collection also becomes a serious issue. In programming languages, we often perform the ultimate garbage collection by halting and restarting the program. This is impossible for the database, so the garbage collection approach has to be sensible.

Here we’ve actually opened a can of worms that might be worse than the ORM. And I’d wager this is one of the reasons that this solution is not used.

Matching the Impedance

The best approach to the problem that I encountered was to build a graph database. Instead of having pointers to memory objects, we would store things in a more declarative fashion, much in the same way as we might do in an ORM.

However, unlike most ORM approaches, I figured it was best to just assume that most things should be retrievable in a reasonable time. We seldom know precisely what we want to pay for ahead of time with indexing, so we can make the modeling job easier by just indexing everything.

Of course, this only works if your indexing methodology is compact enough that you can get away with it! Which is part of the reason we have used succinct data structures for representation.

The other choice was to explicitly ignore methods. Methods create a lot of difficulties in modeling correctly, including problems such as violations of the Liskov substitution principle.

With TerminusDB you get data in and out as a JSON object, which is well supported in virtually every modern programming language. This makes it easy to manipulate in your language of choice, whether it be functional or object-oriented.

For instance, some data retrieved from our Star Wars example:

					{  "manufacturer": "Aratech Repulsor Company",
   "model": "74-Z speeder bike",
   "url": "http://swapi.co/api/vehicles/30/",
   "pilot": [
            "label": "Luke Skywalker"
            "label": "Leia Organa"

Give TerminusDB a try and I think you’ll find that modeling is both simpler and more satisfying than attempting to wedge the problem into an ORM. Good luck!

  1. In the near future we intend to include tools to mode everything you need in GraphQL’s schema language, which will be useable directly by many popular programming languages leading to one modelling tool for objects rather than two. 

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