Thursday, July 2, 2009

To ORM Or Not To ORM

Here are my thoughts on whether to use an ORM or not.

On the Ruby on Rails side, ActiveRecord -- essentially an ORM -- is the basis of 95% of Rails applications (made-up statistic, but it's around there). Actually, to get to that 95% we would probably need to include other ORMs for Rails, like DataMapper.

The abstraction is leaky, and a developer can always dip down to SQL as necessary. Even when you're not using SQL directly, you have to think about number of database hits, etc. For instance, in ActiveRecord, "eager loading" is used to avoid multiple database hits, so you see stuff like this (includes the related "author" field of each Post in the initial query... it does a join under the hood, I think)

for post in Post.find(:all, :include => :author)

The point is that the abstraction leaks as do all abstractions, but that's not really the point. To decide whether to use the abstraction or not, you have to consider whether it will add to or reduce your general workload. In other words, will you spend more time retrofitting your concepts to make the abstraction work, or is it ready to do what you need without much hacking (saving you time)?

I think that the abstractions that work are those that are mature: ActiveRecord has been around the block a ton (as has Hibernate), so it provides an abstract way to patch most of the leaks you would normally be worried about, without explicitly rolling your own lower-level solution (i.e., without writing SQL).

Beyond the learning curve, I think that ORMs are an amazing time-saver for most of your database access, and that most apps actually do make quite "normal" use of the DB. While it may not be your case whatsoever, eschewing an ORM for direct DB access is often a case of early, and unnecessary, optimization.

Edit: I hadn't seen this, but the Jeff quote is

Does this abstraction make our code at least a little easier to write? To understand? To troubleshoot? Are we better off with this abstraction than we were without it?

saying essentially the same thing.

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