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Database Connections

Most database interfaces rely on some kind of database connection object to act as the link between application code and the database. Typically a connection must be opened before you can execute commands against the database. Indeed, usually you need an explicit connection to create and execute a command. The whole time you execute the command this same connection must be open. Queries return a Record Set (508). Some interfaces provide for disconnected Record Sets (508), which can be manipulated after the connection is closed. Other interfaces provide only connected Record Sets (508), implying that the connection must remain open while the Record Set (508) is manipulated. If you're running inside a transaction, usually the transaction is bound to a particular connection and the connection must remain open while it is taking place.

In many environments it's expensive to create a connection, which makes it worthwhile to create a connection pool. In this situation developers request a connection from the pool and release it when they're done, instead of creating and closing the connection. Most platforms these days give you pooling, so you'll rarely have to do it yourself. If you do have to do it yourself, first check to see if pooling actually does help performance. Increasingly environments make it quicker to create a new connection so there's no need to pool.

Environments that give you pooling often put it behind an interface that looks like creating a new connection. That way you don't know whether you're getting a brand new connection or one allocated from a pool. That's a good thing, as the choice to pool or not is properly encapsulated. Similarly, closing the connection may not actually close it but just return it to the pool for someone else to use. In this discussion I'll use "open" and "close," which you can substitute for "getting" from the pool and "releasing" back to the pool.

Expensive to create or not, connections need management. Since they're expensive resources to manage, they must be closed as soon as you're done using them. Furthermore, if you're using a transaction, usually you need to ensure that every command inside a particular transaction goes with the same connection.

The most common advice is to get a connection explicitly, using a call to a pool or connection manager, and then supply it to each database command you want to make. Once you're done with the connection, close it. This advice leads to a couple of issues: making sure you have the connection everywhere you need it and ensuring that you don't forget to close it at the end.

To ensure that you have a connection where you need it there are two choices. One is to pass the connection around as an explicit parameter. The problem with this is that the connection gets added to all sorts of method calls where its only purpose is to be passed to some other method five layers down the call stack. Of course, this is the situation to bring out Registry (480). Since you don't want multiple threads using the same connection, you'll want a thread-scoped Registry (480).

If you're half as forgetful as I am, explicit closing isn't such a good idea. It's just too easy to forget to do it when you should. You also can't close the connection with every command because you may be running inside a transaction and the closing will usually cause the transaction to roll back.

Like a connection, memory is a resource that needs to be freed up when you're not using it. Modern environments these days provide automatic memory management and garbage collection, so one way to ensure that connections are closed is to use the garbage collector. In this approach either the connection itself or some object that refers to it closes the connection during garbage collection. The good thing about this is that it uses the same management scheme that's used for memory and so it's both convenient and familiar. The problem is that the close of the connection only happens when the garbage collector actually reclaims the memory, and this can be quite a bit later than when the connection lost its last reference. As a result unreferenced connections may sit around a while before they're closed. Whether this is a problem or not depends very much on your specific environment.

On the whole I don't like relying on garbage collection. Other schemes—even explicit closing—are better. Still, garbage collection makes a good backup in case the regular scheme fails. After all, it's better to have the connections close eventually than to have them hanging around forever.

Since connections are so tied to transactions, a good way to manage them is to tie them to a transaction. Open a connection when you begin a transaction, and close it when you commit or roll back. Have the transaction know what connection it's using so you can ignore the connection completely and just deal with the transaction. Since the transaction's completion has a visible effect, it's easier to remember to commit it and to spot if you forget. A Unit of Work (184) makes a natural fit to manage both the transaction and the connection.

If you do things outside of a transaction, such as reading immutable data, you use a fresh connection for each command. Pooling can deal with any issues in creating short-lived connections.

If you're using a disconnected Record Set (508), you can open a connection to put the data in the record set and close it while you manipulate the Record Set (508) data. Then, when you're done with the data, you can open a new connection, and transaction, to write the data out. If you do this, you'll need to worry about the data being changed while the Record Set (508) was being manipulated. This is a topic I'll talk about with concurrency control.

The specifics of connection management are very much a feature of your database interaction software, so the strategy you use is often dictated by your environment.

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