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Schema migration

Schema Migration for Graph Databases

Data is always changing – that’s why we have databases in the first place! And it is not just the content that changes, but also the shape of the data.

I spend a lot of time thinking about change management for data – how to make change requests with approval workflows function smoothly, allowing users to update their content and see what it would look like in practice before putting their data into production.

But part of the data lifecycle is managing these changes to the data model itself.

Schema Migration in Graph Databases

In a normal RDBMS there is a command language of “schema” operations that can be performed. You can add or drop tables, add or drop foreign keys, and add or drop columns from your tables.

Similar things are needed in a graph database, where you will need to add and drop edges in the graph, drop node types, add new node types, and alter keys.

However, when it comes to change management with branches and merges, things get a little bit trickier. To make things work smoothly, we need to keep track of how we got where we are.

Schema Migrations as First-Class Citizens

In the latest version of TerminusDB, we have added tracking of schema migration to each commit. This schema migration information can be used to ensure that branches can be made comparable so that we can do change requests between them.

In addition, this will later allow us to have model products that can be updated in ways that downstream users of the model products can track the schema alterations without having to figure out how to alter their data.

Weakening and Strengthening of Schemas

We can split the kinds of schema changes into two types: weakening and strengthening.

A weakening operation is backward compatible. It changes the schema in such a way that it can not invalidate data that already exists, and does not require any change to be made to existing data.

In an SQL world this might be something like adding a new table, or adding a nullable column to a table.

In TerminusDB it means operations such as adding optional or set properties to a class, or adding new classes, or extending an enum with new values.

One additional interesting point about these operations is that the operations can be inferred. We can guess from the addition of a new schema document, or update of a schema document that it is a weakening operation, which means you don’t have to explicitly migrate your schema, but can just edit the schema directly.

Weakening Inference

So how might we infer a schema migration? Let’s demonstrate with the command line tool.

					terminusdb db create admin/m
echo '{ "@type" : "Class", "@id" : "A", "a": "xsd:string" }' | ./terminusdb doc insert admin/m -g schema

We have created a new database (called m), and added one type of class A to the schema.

If we look at the log of this (with the verbose flag) we can see the inferred migration reported.

					terminusdb log admin/m -v

You’ll get something along the lines of:

Date: 2023-04-21T11:24:49+00:00
Author: admin
Message: cli: document insert
	"class_document": {"@id":"A", "@type":"Class", "a":"xsd:string"}

The migration operation to obtain this schema has been inferred.

In addition we can make a slightly more complex change to the schema which is also a weakening, such as:

					echo '{ "@type" : "Class", "@id" : "A", "a" : "xsd:string", "b" : { "@type" : "Optional", "@class" : "xsd:boolean" }}' | terminusdb doc replace admin/m -g schema

The most recent commit is given from the command:

					terminusdb log admin/m -v -c 1

It will now be along the lines of:

Date: 2023-04-21T11:26:35+00:00
Author: admin
Message: cli: document replace
	"type": {"@class":"xsd:boolean", "@type":"Optional"}

This migration operation tells the system that we updated the class A with a weakening operation.

Strengthening operations are also possible implicitly using inference but we have not exposed this feature yet as it is still experimental (it can potentially change your instance data!)

Explicit Migration

It is also possible to perform explicit migrations, whether strengthening or weakening, by stating them explicitly through the API or via the CLI.

First, lets add a bit of data to illustrate.

					echo '{ "a" : "foo", "b": true }' | terminusdb doc insert admin/m

This is now legal because of our above alterations which introduced the b property.

Now, to add a new required property c to our class A which is an integer, we can write the following:

					terminusdb migration admin/m --operations '[{"@type" : "CreateClassProperty", "class" : "A", "property" : "c", "type" : "xsd:integer", "default" : 0 }]'

This returns:

					{"instance_operations":1, "schema_operations":1}

Meaning that we changed the data in the database.

To see this we can get the documents back out:

					terminusdb doc get admin/m

Which returns:


With a new default value of 0 (represented as a string, unfortunately, since it is in fact an unbounded integer that causes problems with many programming languages if not represented as a string).

Targeting a Migration

This is pretty great in itself as we can migrate the shape of our data even when we have instance data, but it’s especially important when doing change-request-type workflows.

For instance, if I branch the database now (branching with an implicit base of main):

					terminusdb branch create admin/m/local/branch/other

I can now update the main branch again as follows:

					echo '{ "@type" : "Class", "@id" : "B", "b": "xsd:string" }' | ./terminusdb doc insert admin/m -g schema

Now my other branch has difficulties comparing with the main branch since the schema is not symmetric.

To alleviate this problem I can simply target the schema of the branch in main by writing:

					terminusdb migration admin/m/local/branch/other -t admin/m

Now if I look at the schema, I’ll see that it has been made symmetric, including adding default values on a required property!

					terminusdb doc get admin/m/local/branch/other




Of course this requires that we have migrations the entire way along, so we’ll be adding a mode that forces all schema updates (via the document interface or otherwise) to have a valid migration, or throw an error.

And for model products that are meant to be imported as schema components for other data products, this should also be required.

However if you keep to explicit migrations for schema changes, or restrict to weakening operations, you should always be able to move your branches along with you.

Hope you enjoy the new-found model flexibility!


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