Database Migrations Best Practices

Only once have I worked on a project that did not interact directly with a relational database. (Awww, those were the days) In every other case, I used database migrations to apply small changes to a database over time. Using migrations provides an incremental path towards building the current state of a database. In my opinion it’s the only way to do it.

Database migrations are nothing new, and over the years I have come to follow a few best practices:

1 Migration - 1 Change - 1 Commit

Each migration should execute a single unit of work on the database. This comes from the Agile software development principle of introducing small, incremental changes. Small migrations are easier to read and understand.

For example, if I need to create a customers table and accounts table, I would create one migration to create the customers table and a second migration to create the accounts table. Two migrations. Two commits.

By keeping each migration contained in its own commit, it is easy for automated build systems to apply them 1-by-1 in later environments. And if a migration turns out to be malformed, you make it easy to revert just that change if necessary.

I always try to commit a migration with no code changes attached. This isolation ensures that the migration is fully compatible with the application code both before and after it. Your Database Administrators will also thank you for making it easier to notice the migration when its all by itself.

Never modify a previously committed migration

(This is the one that seems to be unintuitive for less experienced developers.)

Once a commit has left my local machine, it is effectively locked! If I notice afterwards that there is a typo in a column name or some other mistake, I create another migration that fixes it rather than modifying the bad one.

Why? Imagine this interaction between 2 developers, Patrick and Molly:

Patrick Molly
1. Patrick commits migration #8, which creates a table with a column "product_typ" (misspelled it, oops)
2. Molly pulls new code and applies migrations, which gives her the new table with the misspelled column name
3. Patrick realizes his mistake, so he rolls back migration #8 locally, dropping the table. He then modifies the migration to fix the typo, then applies migration #8 again.
4. Patrick pushes his changes.
5. Molly pulls new code and applies migrations again. But this time no change is made to her database because she already applied migration #8 and no new migrations were added. She is stuck with the typo. :(
6. Patrick's and Molly's database schemas are now out of sync.

The only way Molly can fix her database now is to drop it and start over. Depending on the migration and what was changed, she may not be able to rollback for a quick fix. Want a scarier scenario? What if Molly was actually the production database…. Oops indeed.

Save yourself the pain. Just don’t do it.

Avoid using your application code (such as models) in migrations

Some migration tools allow you to use application code in your migration files, especially if you are using the ActiveRecord pattern (I’m looking at you Rails). The use case for this could be an easy way to do some data manipulation, or inserting seed data.

I avoid doing this because you cannot guarantee that your code will keep the same API forever. Even the first migration could be run at any point in the future (say a new dev joins and runs them all for the first time), you can’t assume those same methods could be called. (And I don’t change previously run migrations)

P.S. Rails 4 no longer even mentions this as an option. The link above from Rails Guides actually warns against this practice too. :)

Keep migrations abstract

Try not to use database-specific operations. This couples you to that database technology. Most migration tools/frameworks attempt to abstract the database away for you, so by using database-specific concepts or operations, you break that abstraction layer.

However, this rule is often broken since each database speaks its own version of SQL.

Think about the data

I often see developers overlooking the data stored in their databases. Migrations don’t just effect the schema, they also effect the stored data - a thats the important part! This happens a lot because our local development databases may not have very production-like data.

Example: Consider a migration that applies a not null constraint to a column.

Local DB Production DB
id | name       | phone_number
1 | foo         | 5555555555
2 | l33t haxor  | 1234567890
id | name   | phone_number
1 | Patrick | 5554567890
2 | Molly   | null
ALTER TABLE employees MODIFY phone_number VARCHAR(255) NOT NULL;

This migration would be fine in development, but that migration would fail in prod. A better migration would actually be 3 steps:

  1. Insert a value into every row where phone_number is currently null
  2. Add a default value for future inserts (if applicable)
  3. Introduce the not null constraint.

Consider changing a column’s data type from a floating point precision to an integer. Maybe you are converting your money column to be stored as cents so you can avoid floating point mathematical errors. What would happen to the precision when the migration is applied? Would the database truncate it? Round it? Something else?

A more pragmatic approach may actually require many steps: introduce another column amount_in_cents; move all the current data to the new column and perform the format change; drop the amount column; finally, rename the amount_in_cents column to amount.

These are only two scenarios I’ve seen lately, but there are many more.


Check out Database Refactoring for a lot of good database refactoring patterns.