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The Behavioral Problem

When people talk about O/R mapping, they usually focus on the structural aspects—how you relate tables to objects. However, I've found that the hardest part of the exercise is its architectural and behavioral aspects. I've already talked about the main architectural approaches; the next thing to think about is the behavioral problem.

That behavioral problem is how to get the various objects to load and save themselves to the database. At first sight this doesn't seem to be much of a problem. A customer object can have load and save methods that do this task. Indeed, with Active Record (160) this is an obvious route to take.

If you load a bunch of objects into memory and modify them, you have to keep track of which ones you've modified and make sure to write all of them back out to the database. If you only load a couple of records, this is easy. As you load more and more objects it gets to be more of an exercise, particularly when you create some rows and modify others since you'll need the keys from the created rows before you can modify the rows that refer to them. This is a slightly tricky problem to solve.

As you read objects and modify them, you have to ensure that the database state you're working with stays consistent. If you read some objects, it's important to ensure that the reading is isolated so that no other process changes any of the objects you've read while you're working on them. Otherwise, you could have inconsistent and invalid data in your objects. This is the issue of concurrency, which is a very tricky problem to solve; we'll talk about this in Chapter 5.

A pattern that's essential to solving both of these problems is Unit of Work (184). A Unit of Work (184) keeps track of all objects read from the database, together with all objects modified in any way. It also handles how updates are made to the database. Instead of the application programmer invoking explicit save methods, the programmer tells the unit of work to commit. That unit of work then sequences all of the appropriate behavior to the database, putting all of the complex commit processing in one place. Unit of Work (184) is an essential pattern whenever the behavioral interactions with the database become awkward.

A good way of thinking about Unit of Work (184) is as an object that acts as the controller of the database mapping. Without a Unit of Work (184), typically the domain layer acts as the controller; deciding when to read and write to the database. The Unit of Work (184) results from factoring the database mapping controller behavior into its own object.

As you load objects, you have to be wary about loading the same one twice. If you do that, you'll have two in-memory objects that correspond to a single database row. Update them both, and everything gets very confusing. To deal with this you need to keep a record of every row you read in an Identity Map (195). Each time you read in some data, you check the Identity Map (195) first to make sure that you don't already have it. If the data is already loaded, you can return a second reference to it. That way any updates will be properly coordinated. As a benefit you may also be able to avoid a database call since the Identity Map (195) also doubles as a cache for the database. Don't forget, however, that the primary purpose of an Identity Map (195) is to maintain correct identities, not to boost performance.

If you're using a Domain Model (116), you'll usually arrange things so that linked objects are loaded together in such a way that a read for an order object loads its associated customer object. However, with many objects connected together any read of any object can pull an enormous object graph out of the database. To avoid such inefficiencies you need to reduce what you bring back yet still keep the door open to pull back more data if you need it later on. Lazy Load (200) relies on having a placeholder for a reference to an object. There are several variations on the theme, but all of them have the object reference modified so that, instead of pointing to the real object, it marks a placeholder. Only if you try to follow the link does the real object get pulled in from the database. Using Lazy Load (200) at suitable points, you can bring back just enough from the database with each call.

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