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RDBMS schema definition language & operations

local schema = require'schema'

So how do you keep your database schema definition that you need to apply to the database server on a fresh install of your application? In SQL files containing CREATE TABLE statements? I have a better idea.

This module implements a Lua-based Data Definition Language (DDL) for RDBMS schemas. Lua-based means that instead of a textual format like SQL DDL, we use Lua syntax to write table definitions in, and generate an Abstract Syntax Three (AST) from that. Using setfenv and metamethod magic we create a language that is very readable and at the same time more expressive than any textual format could be, giving us full programming power in an otherwise declarative language. Basically a metaprogrammed DDL.

So why would you want to keep your database schema in the application anyway? Here’s some reasons:

  • you want to generate SQL DDL scripts for different SQL dialects from a common structured format.
  • you want to diff between a live database and your “on paper” schema to find out if the database was migrated properly.
  • you want to generate schema migrations (semi-)automatically without having to create and maintain schema versions and migration scripts.
  • you want to annotate table fields with extra information for use in data-bound widget toolkits like x-widgets, and you don’t want to do that off-band in a separate file.
  • your app has modules or extensions and you want each module to define its own part of the app schema, including adding columns to common tables or even adding foreign keys that reference tables from other modules.
  • you want to use a boolean type in MySQL.
  • you want a “shell” API for bulk DML ops like copying tables between databases with different engines.
  • use it as a base for a scriptable ETL tool.


See schema_std.lua for type definitions and webb_lang.lua and webb_auth.lua from the webb package for examples of table definitions.

How this works / caveats


Field names in my_schema that clash with flag names need to be quoted. Field names, type names and flag names that clash with globals from sc.env or locals from the outer scope also need to be quoted.

Long version

Using Lua for syntax instead of our own means that Lua’s lexical rules apply, including lexical scoping which cannot be turned off, so there are some quirks to this that you have to know.

When calling sc:def(my_schema), the function my_schema is run in an environment (available at sc.env) that resolves every unknown keyword to itself, so foo_id simply turns into 'foo_id'. This is so that you don’t have to quote the names of fields, types or flags, unless you have to.

Because of this, you need to define my_schema in a clean lexical scope, ideally at the top of your script before you declare any locals, otherwise those locals will be captured by my_schema and your names will resolve to the locals instead of to themselves. Globals declared in sc.env are also captured so they can also clash with any unquoted names. Flag names can also clash but only with unquoted field names.

If you don’t want to put the schema definition at the top of the script for some reason, one simple way to fix an unwanted capture of an outer local is with an override: local unsigned = 'unsigned'.

Also because of this, you cannot use globals inside my_schema directly, you’ll have to bring them into scope via locals, or access them through _G, which is available. A DDL is mostly static however so you’d rarely need to do this.

In the future, I might write a proper DSL based on lx that would avoid these issues completely, but the cost-benefit of that might be too low compared to this relatively simple and hackable implementation.

Q: Flags and types look like the do the same thing, why the distinction?

A: Because column definitions have the form name, type, flag1, ... instead of name, flag1|type1, ... which would have allowed a field to inherit from multiple types but would’ve also made type names clash with field names. With the first variant only flag names clash with field names which is more acceptable.

API -> sc create a new schema object
schema.diff(sc1, sc2) -> diff find out what changed between sc1 and sc2
diff:pp() pretty print a schema diff

Background & rationale

This library came about when I needed to migrate an ecommerce database from MySQL to Tarantool, and I figured I would kill multiple birds with one stone, namely:

  • the need to migrate both schema and data automatically between engines. Keeping the schema in an engine-neutral format allows me to generate both DDL code for schema formatting in Tarantol, and also a table copy function that can copy data between engines.

  • the desire to keep extra field metadata in-band in the schema definition. Keeping that metadata separate would burden me to keep it in sync with the schema after schema refactorings (renaming columns, etc).

  • the desire to check if the schema on the databases in production is up-to-date with the on-paper schema, and generating schema migration commands (semi-)automatically. The “semi” part is because I’m not sure there’s an algorithm to reliably tell the difference between a column rename and a column delete & add and other things like that.

  • minor things like not having to worry about dependency order when defining the schema (eg. defining foreign keys pointing to tables that are not yet defined).

Last updated: 41 days ago | Edit on GitHub

Pkg type:Lua+ffi
Version: 4e7ae01
Last commit:
Author: Cosmin Apreutesei
License: Public Domain

Requires: glue  luajit 

Required by: webb  x-widgets