ipythonblocks.org Move: Part 3 — Database Interface

This is Part 3 in a series of blog posts describing my move of ipythonblogs.org from Rackspace to Heroku. In this post I’ll describe the updates I’ve made to the database interface module of ipythonblocks.org. Other posts are:

  • Part 1: Introduction and Architecture
  • Part 2: Data Migration
  • Part 3: Database Interface Updates
  • Part 4: Application Updates

The big change to the database interface module was the switch from dataset to SQLAlchemy for database abstraction. This involves using the ORM models described in Part 2, removing the JSON de/serialization functions needed to use SQLite, removing use of memcached, and updating tests to use a Postgres database to match production. The full diff is here, but I’ll breakdown the important points below.

SQLAlchemy ORM

With the SQLAlchemy ORM you write Python classes representing your tables and use instances of those classes to represent rows of data. Here’s how I’m now adding a new grid to the ipythonblocks.org database using the models introduced in Part 2:

def store_grid_entry(session, grid_spec):
    Add a grid spec to the database and return the grid's unique ID.

    session : sqlalchemy.orm.session.Session
    grid_spec : dict

    hash_id : str

    table = models.SecretGrid if grid_spec['secret'] else models.PublicGrid
    new_grid = table(**grid_spec)

    return encode_grid_id(new_grid.id, grid_spec['secret'])

session is a SQLAlchemy Session instance and is the primary means of communicating with the database when using the ORM. I’ll talk more about where this comes from in my next post. Note that after calling session.flush() above (which sends the new row to the database) I can access new_grid.id on the same instance I started with and SQLAlchemy will automatically load the primary key ID assigned by the database when the row was added. Reading a specific grid from the database is similarly brief:

def get_grid_entry(session, hash_id, secret=False):
    Get a specific grid entry.

    session : sqlalchemy.orm.session.Session
    hash_id : str
    secret : bool, optional
        Whether this is a secret grid.

    grid_spec : dict
        Will be None if no matching grid was found.

    grid_id = decode_hash_id(hash_id, secret)
    if not grid_id:
        # couldn't do the conversion from hash to database ID

    table = models.SecretGrid if secret else models.PublicGrid
    grid_spec = session.query(table).filter(table.id == grid_id).one_or_none()

    return grid_spec

The ORM has many features I’m not using here, for example taking advantage of foreign keys to automatically load linked entities.


Some of the data I store for ipythonblocks.org can be represented by JSON, i.e. lists and dictionaries containing strings and numbers (and other lists and dictionaries). To store these data in SQLite I used Python’s json module to convert Python objects to strings to be stored as text in the database (and to convert back to Python containers when reading). With Postgres’ JSON types, and SQLAlchemy’s support thereof, I don’t have to think about this. When I load records from the database, the JSON fields are converted straight to Python containers:

record = session.query(models.PublicGrid).filter(
    models.PublicGrid.id == grid_id).one()
record.grid_data  # this will be a dictionary containing lists, numbers, etc.


Database Fixtures

For robust testing I want to test against a live database, not use mocks. With SQLite this was relatively easy because a SQLite database is a single file, but a Postgres database requires a running server. Using pytest fixtures and the testing.postgresql library it’s possible to temporarily create a Postgres database for the duration of tests. This fixture uses testing.postgresql to create a database and a SQLAlchemy engine to be shared by all the tests:

def pg_engine():
    with testing.postgresql.Postgresql() as postgresql:  # create database
        engine = sa.create_engine(postgresql.url())
        models.Base.metadata.create_all(bind=engine)  # create tables before tests

        yield engine

        engine.dispose()  # close any open connections

This fixture operates kind of like a context manager: the stuff before the yield engine line happens as part of fixture setup before tests and the stuff after happens after tests have run. The scope='module' declares that this fixture needs to be evaluated only once for all the tests in the module.

This next fixture creates a new connection, starts a transaction, and makes a session for an individual test:

def session(pg_engine):
    conn = pg_engine.connect()  # create new connection to DB
    transaction = conn.begin()  # start a new transaction

    Session = sessionmaker(bind=conn)
    session = Session()  # create new session for tests

    yield session

    # rollback session/transaction to leave DB in a clean state
    # plus close resources

The setup portion of this fixture will be run before every test that uses it and the teardown will be run after. A critical piece of this fixture is that it starts and rolls back a transaction in order to leave the database in a clean state for the next test. If this fixture left the database in a dirty state the pg_engine fixture would have create a fresh slate for tests by creating a brand new databse, which is likely to be slower than issuing a transaction rollback.


With the database and connections taken care of it’s now possible to test the grid storage and retrieval code:

@pytest.mark.parametrize('secret', [False, True])
def test_get_store_grid_entry(secret, basic_grid, session):
    data = basic_grid._construct_post_request(None, secret)

    # hack to normalize tuples to lists in the data dict so it matches JSON
    comp_data = json.loads(json.dumps(data))

    hash_id = dbi.store_grid_entry(session, data)

    grid_id = dbi.decode_hash_id(hash_id, secret)
    assert grid_id == 1

    grid_inst = dbi.get_grid_entry(session, hash_id, secret=secret)
    assert grid_inst.id == 1
    for key, value in comp_data.items():
        assert getattr(grid_inst, key) == value

The _construct_post_request method from ipythonblocks returns the dictionary of grid data sent to ipythonblocks.org. The test calls the storage and retrieval code from the database interface module and compares the results to the original dictionary of data.

This test requires three inputs: secret, basic_grid, and session. What are those and where do they come from? session we’ve already seen from fixtures described above. basic_grid is another fixture that provides an ipythonblocks BlockGrid instance to generate test data. Finally, this test uses pytest’s parametrization feature to run the same test code for multiple inputs, in this case to run the test with both secret=True and secret=False. Part of the magic of pytest is that it allows you to combine fixtures and parametrization in this natural way.

What’s Next

In the next post I’ll describe the updates to the Tornado application code, in particular the changes required to provide SQLAlchemy sessions to the database interface code when serving requests.

ipythonblocks.org Move: Part 3 — Database Interface

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