Active Record vs Objects

Posted by Uncle Bob on 11/02/2007

Active Record is a well known data persistence pattern. It has been adopted by Rails, Hibernate, and many other ORM tools. It has proven it’s usefulness over and over again. And yet I have a philosophical problem with it.

The Active Record pattern is a way to map database rows to objects. For example, let’s say we have an Employee object with name and address fields:

public class Employee extends ActiveRecord {

 private String name;

 private String address;



We should be able to fetch a given employee from the database by using a call like:

Employee bob = Employee.findByName("Bob Martin");

We should also be able to modify that employee and save it as follows:

bob.setName("Robert C. Martin");;

In short, every column of the Employee table becomes a field of the Employee class. There are static methods (or some magical reflection) on the ActiveRecord class that allow you to find instances. There are also methods that provide CRUD functions.

Even shorter: There is a 1:1 correspondence between tables and classes, columns and fields. (Or very nearly so).

It is this 1:1 correspondence that bothers me. Indeed, it bothers me about all ORM tools. Why? Because this mapping presumes that tables and objects are isomorphic.

The Difference between Objects and Data Structures

From the beginning of OO we learned that the data in an object should be hidden, and the public interface should be methods. In other words: objects export behavior, not data. An object has hidden data and exposed behavior.

Data structures, on the other hand, have exposed data, and no behavior. In languages like C++ and C# the struct keyword is used to describe a data structure with public fields. If there are any methods, they are typically navigational. They don’t contain business rules.

Thus, data structures and objects are diametrically opposed. They are virtual opposites. One exposes behavior and hides data, the other exposes data and has no behavior. But that’s not the only thing that is opposite about them.

Algorithms that deal with objects have the luxury of not needing to know the kind of object they are dealing with. The old example: shape.draw(); makes the point. The caller has no idea what kind of shape is being drawn. Indeed, if I add new types of shapes, the algorithms that call draw() are not aware of the change, and do not need to be rebuilt, retested, or redeployed. In short, algorithms that employ objects are immune to the addition of new types.

By the same token, if I add new methods to the shape class, then all derivatives of shape must be modified. So objects are not immune to the addition of new functions.

Now consider an algorithm that uses a data structure.

switch(s.type) {

 case SQUARE: Shape.drawSquare((Square)s); break;

 case CIRCLE: Shape.drawCircle((Circle)s); break;


We usually sneer at code like this because it is not OO. But that disparagement might be a bit over-confident. Consider what happens if we add a new set of functions, such as Shape.eraseXXX(). None of the existing code is effected. Indeed, it does not need to be recompiled, retested, or redeployed. Algorithms that use data structures are immune to the addition of new functions.

By the same token if I add a new type of shape, I must find every algorithm and add the new shape to the corresponding switch statement. So algorithms that employ data structures are not immune to the addition of new types.

Again, note the almost diametrical opposition. Objects and Data structures convey nearly opposite immunities and vulnerabilities.

Good designers uses this opposition to construct systems that are appropriately immune to the various forces that impinge upon them. Those portions of the system that are likely to be subject to new types, should be oriented around objects. On the other hand, any part of the system that is likely to need new functions ought to be oriented around data structures. Indeed, much of good design is about how to mix and match the different vulnerabilities and immunities of the different styles.

Active Record Confusion

The problem I have with Active Record is that it creates confusion about these two very different styles of programming. A database table is a data structure. It has exposed data and no behavior. But an Active Record appears to be an object. It has “hidden” data, and exposed behavior. I put the word “hidden” in quotes because the data is, in fact, not hidden. Almost all ActiveRecord derivatives export the database columns through accessors and mutators. Indeed, the Active Record is meant to be used like a data structure.

On the other hand, many people put business rule methods in their Active Record classes; which makes them appear to be objects. This leads to a dilemma. On which side of the line does the Active Record really fall? Is it an object? Or is it a data structure?

This dilemma is the basis for the oft-cited impedance mismatch between relational databases and object oriented languages. Tables are data structures, not classes. Objects are encapsulated behavior, not database rows.

At this point you might be saying: “So what Uncle Bob? Active Record works great. So what’s the problem if I mix data structures and objects?” Good question.

Missed Opportunity

The problem is that Active Records are data structures. Putting business rule methods in them doesn’t turn them into true objects. In the end, the algorithms that employ Active Records are vulnerable to changes in schema, and changes in type. They are not immune to changes in type, the way algorithms that use objects are.

You can prove this to yourself by realizing how difficult it is to implement an polymorphic hierarchy in a relational database. It’s not impossible of course, but every trick for doing it is a hack. The end result is that few database schemae, and therefore few uses of Active Record, employ the kind of polymorphism that conveys the immunity of changes to type.

So applications built around ActiveRecord are applications built around data structures. And applications that are built around data structures are procedural—they are not object oriented. The opportunity we miss when we structure our applications around Active Record is the opportunity to use object oriented design.

No, I haven’t gone off the deep end.

I am not recommending against the use of Active Record. As I said in the first part of this blog I think the pattern is very useful. What I am advocating is a separation between the application and Active Record.

Active Record belongs in the layer that separates the database from the application. It makes a very convenient halfway-house between the hard data structures of database tables, and the behavior exposing objects in the application.

Applications should be designed and structured around objects, not data structures. Those objects should expose business behaviors, and hide any vestige of the database. The fact that we have Employee tables in the database, does not mean that we must have Employee classes in the application proper. We may have Active Records that hold Employee rows in the database interface layer, but by the time that information gets to the application, it may be in very different kinds of objects.


So, in the end, I am not against the use of Active Record. I just don’t want Active Record to be the organizing principle of the application. It makes a fine transport mechanism between the database and the application; but I don’t want the application knowing about Active Records. I want the application oriented around objects that expose behavior and hide data. I generally want the application immune to type changes; and I want to structure the application so that new features can be added by adding new types. (See: The Open Closed Principle)

Posted by Uncle Bob on 10/21/2007

Many companies are thinking about adopting SOA as a way to reduce the cost of enterprise development. The thought of diverse and reusable services, effortlessly communicating through an intelligent Enterprise Service Bus is a powerful siren song for executives who see their development and maintenance budgets spiraling upwards. What’s more, vendors are displaying savory looking wares that promise to ease the transition.

Caveat Emptor!

The reality is that cramming an old and rickety enterprise system into services that communicate over a complex buss, is not an easy job. The long and short of the problem can be seen in the following catch-22:

The benefit of SOA comes from the decoupled nature of the services. But in order to create an SOA you have to decouple your services.

Decoupling your services is the issue. Once you have decoupled them, then all the wonderful tools might be useful in facilitating an SOA. On the other hand, if you have decoupled your services, you probably don’t need all those wonderful tools.

I have a client that has implemented SOA to good effect. They avoided the vast majority of the tools. For example, they are not using a big expensive buss. They aren’t using a BPEL engine, or message translators, or routing services. About the only thing they have decided to use is SOAP.

They are creating their services from scratch, and wiring the system together manually. Each service knows where each of it’s client services is. There is no registry service, no common dictionary, no fancy routing.

The system is simple, elegant, and it works. It was designed to work from the start. It is not an old crufty system crammed under a soap layer and called a service provider. Rather it is a nicely arrayed suite of services that were designed to work together from the get-go.

And that’s really the moral of the story.


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