Dammit, MySQL

Dammit, MySQL

Update May 2018: This is more rant-ish than I would write now, but it’s my only post to hit the front page of HackerNews (it got to the number 2 spot back in 2010; I saved screenshots), so has a soft-place in my heart.

After being a happy PostgreSQL user for years, I’ve finally had to use MySQL for the last 6+ months.

I have to admit, I was starting to think it wasn’t all that bad: that maybe the “MySQL is a toy” rhetoric was outdated.

It’s not.

Here is my current laundry list of “dammit, MySQL” complaints:

  • DDL Doesn’t Respect Transactions
  • No Deferred Foreign Key Constraints
  • No Deferred Unique Key Constraints
  • ANSI Mode Defaults Off
  • Not Really Not Nulls
  • Auto-Changing Timestamps
  • Crappy Error Messages

DDL Doesn’t Respect Transactions

My biggest complaint is that MySQL’s DDL operations (CREATE TABLE, ADD COLUMN, etc.) do not occur within transactions.

Well, probably–in typical MySQL fashion, you can execute CREATE TABLE/etc. within a transaction (e.g. after a BEGIN) and, instead of failing, MySQL will blithely commit all existing work in your transaction, create the table, and then let you continue on your merry way.

This makes deployments a crap shoot–whether you’re using migrations or a hand-coded SQL upgrade script, you better hope the whole thing applies cleanly, because if your script blows up halfway through, you’re stuck with a schema that is somewhere between versions.

Getting back to a deployable state, or even one where you can rerun the fixed upgrade script, means either manually teasing the schema back to the old version, or reverting to a snapshot and starting all over.

And this isn’t just MyISAM–this is the InnoDB engine as well.

PostgreSQL, on the other hand, executes all DDL within a real transaction, and if one CREATE TABLE/ADD COLUMN fails, from experience, I know the entire schema rolls back to the prior state.

No Deferred Foreign Key Constraints

Deferred foreign key constraints mean you can do:

INSERT INTO child (id, parent_id, name) VALUES (2, 1, 'child');
INSERT INTO parent (id, name) VALUES (1, 'parent');

Note that technically we’ve inserted child.parent_id=1, but parent.id=1 is not in the database yet.

Having deferred foreign key constraints means this is okay as long as the parent.id=1 row shows up before the transaction commits.

Not having deferred foreign key constraints means INSERT INTO child blows up right away. You instead have to ensure INSERT INTO parent comes first.

While this doesn’t seem to be a big deal, the ability to defer foreign keys and freely order INSERTs within a transaction makes technologies like ORMs much simpler.

It also becomes crucial if you have a two-way relationship between rows, e.g.:

INSERT INTO child (id, parent_id, name) VALUES (2, 1, 'child');
INSERT INTO parent (id, name, current_child_id) VALUES (1, 'parent', 1);

Both statements depend on the other–there is no way to execute these two statements if you lack deferred foreign key constraints.

You are reduced to making one of them nullable, e.g. parent.current_child_id, and then creating a partially-valid Parent and fully-valid Child, forcing your ORM to flush to SQL, then going back and updating Parent to point to the new Child, and doing a final flush+commit.

MySQL still doesn’t have deferred foreign key constraints, PostgreSQL has had them for as long as I’ve used it. Even SQLite has deferred foreign keys constraints.

No Deferred Unique Key Constraints

Deferred unique constraints are similar, but mean you can temporarily violate a unique constraint, as long as you clean things up before the transaction commits. E.g.:

INSERT INTO user (id, username) VALUES (1, 'bob');
INSERT INTO user (id, username) VALUES (2, 'fred');

-- want to change bob->fred, fred->bob
UPDATE user SET username = 'fred' WHERE id = 1;
UPDATE user SET username = 'bob' WHERE id = 2;

Without deferred unique constraints, changing bob -> fred would blow up immediately. Instead you have to dance around the issue by using a temporary value, e.g.:

UPDATE user SET username = 'temp' WHERE id = 1;
UPDATE user SET username = 'bob' WHERE id = 2;
UPDATE user SET username = 'fred' WHERE id = 1;

Like foreign key constraints, this extra hoop means two explicit unit of work flushes as you change User1 to a temp value, flush, change User2 to the right value, flush, and finally change User1 to the right value, flush and commit.

With deferred unique constraints, it is very simple to set User1 to the new value, set User2 to the new value, and have your ORM auto-flush. It will just work.

MySQL doesn’t have deferred unique constraints, PostgreSQL just got them in (the nearly released) 9.0.

ANSI Mode Defaults Off

I was dumbfounded to learn about MySQL’s sql-mode option.

What kind of product:

  1. Lets users disable standards compliance as a feature?
  2. Sets the default mode to not standards complaint?

With MySQL, you can use ANSI mode, which affects such non-trivial things as it actually uses the same escape character as the SQL standard. Amazing!

PostgreSQL doesn’t screw around like this, it just always implements the standard.

Not Really Not Nulls

Also hidden in the sql-mode docs was an option to make NOT NULL actually mean NOT NULL.

For example, adding the TRADITIONAL SQL mode restores the sanity:

mysql> create table user (username varchar(50) not null);
Query OK, 0 rows affected (0.00 sec)

-- this works when it really should not
mysql> insert into user () values ();
Query OK, 1 row affected, 1 warning (0.00 sec)

mysql> set sql_mode='ANSI';
Query OK, 0 rows affected (0.00 sec)

mysql> insert into user () values ();
Query OK, 1 row affected, 1 warning (0.00 sec)

mysql> set sql_mode='ANSI,TRADITIONAL';
Query OK, 0 rows affected (0.00 sec)

-- finally, it blows up
mysql> insert into user () values ();
ERROR 1364 (HY000): Field 'username' doesn't have a default value

So, does your MySQL database have some NOT NULL columns? Are you really sure they don’t have null values in them? Have you checked your SQL mode?

If you use PostgreSQL, you can be sure that your NOT NULL columns do not have null values in them.

(Update: I was wrong–MySQL will not insert null, but instead insert a default value, e.g. 0 for int or empty-string for strings. Personally, since I did not include a DEFAULT clause in my DDL, I did not expect the database to add a DEFAULT value for me.)

Auto-Changing Timestamps

What would most developers assume happens if today you run:

CREATE TABLE employee (
  id int,
  name varchar(50),
  created timestamp
INSERT INTO employee (id, name, timestamp) (1, 'bob', NOW());

Then tomorrow you do:

UPDATE employee SET name = 'fred';

Quick, what’s created? Yesterday, right? Ah ha! No. It’s today:


See that ON UPDATE CURRENT_TIMESTAMP? That means MySQL changes the column value each time you update the row.

What MySQL developer ever thought that this was a good default behavior? I’m trying to think if this is the worst offender of “least surprise” or the if NOT REALLY NOT NULL is worse. It’s close.

Crappy Error Messages

To top it all off, MySQL error messages are a joke. This beauty:

Can't create table 'foo.#sql-338_90' (errno: 150)

Simply means “you tried to reference a non-existent table”.

For as long as MySQL has been around, and how many countless users have run into this issue, you’d think they’d consider displaying a better error message.

Even git is better at fixing its ease-of-use issues than MySQL.

More often than not, PostgreSQL errors say plainly what really went wrong.

Dammit, AWS

Unfortunately, RDS is awesome, and RDS uses MySQL.

I, and many others, are pulling for Amazon to add PostgreSQL support. Maybe with the first-class replication in the 9.0 release, it will happen sooner rather than later. I can hope.

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