ORM database migration tools

6 min read

This is a rant mainly about ORM-based migration tools for SQL.

Why SQL exactly? I haven't touched MongoDB world for almost a decade now (what a relief). Cassandra never really crossed my way. Any sane team has its own Elasticsearch migration tool that's called "create all indices from scratch", nothing interesting to say here. The only other database I've ever touched is Datomic, and they have pretty interesting things to say about migrations that I won't comment on.

Anyway, to the topic. Why do ORM-based migration tools exist? Lets look at a couple of projects own descriptions for a clue:

Django: Migrations are Djangoโ€™s way of propagating changes you make to your models (adding a field, deleting a model, etc.) into your database schema. Theyโ€™re designed to be mostly automatic, but youโ€™ll need to know when to make migrations, when to run them, and the common problems you might run into.

Ruby on Rails: Migrations are a convenient way to alter your database schema over time in a consistent and easy way. They use a Ruby DSL so that you don't have to write SQL by hand, allowing your schema and changes to be database independent.

Looks like there are two purposes for these tools:

  • Database independent migrations
  • Automatic and easy migrations when possible

I've personally used Django migrations and skimmed docs for some other tools: Alembic, RoR migrations, Sequelize, TypeORM.

Database independent migrations๐Ÿ”—

Database independence is certainly useful for some Django-style "apps". They're essentially libraries that define their own models and can update them in new versions. User management libraries come to mind, like django-allauth or python-social-auth. Without built-in migrations we'd have to read their changelogs and apply schema changes by hand like cavemen.

I am now of opinion that any Django-style "app" is only useful for short projects that are put together in a couple of months. In the long-running projects they usually get in the way much more than they help.

The vast majority of web applications and products are run with one database ever and don't switch from Oracle to MySQL to PostgreSQL and back.

Automatic and easy migrations๐Ÿ”—

These tools strive to generate migrations automatically. The process goes like this: read the documentation, add a field to a model declaration, run some command and boom! We've got our migration and didn't have to write ALTER TABLE table CREATE COLUMN now, so I traded a minute of writing a line for a solid hour or two of reading docs and poking this new tool. Fascinating experience, I hope it will at least save us more time in the future.

One week later I rename some field or table, and now the tool wants to delete the field and create another. Guess I have to go back and read more documentation to remember how to instruct a tool to actually rename a field instead of dropping it and creating a new one. Do I really want to avoid writing ALTER TABLE that much?

Weeks pass, I get more experienced with a tool, remember the command and what flags to pass, I learned how to rename this and that, spent some time debugging my migrations. Hours and hours on top of a simple ALTER TABLE.

Non-trivial migrations๐Ÿ”—

Now I need to do some non-trivial migration on a big database. For example, it's a combination of creating a couple of fields, filling them with information, creating additional indexes, dropping old fields and indexes. In such cases I usually open postgres shell to a local DB, open a transaction and then I develop a migration like a code in a REPL. BEGIN, then create some columns, fill them with info, SELECT to check that it's all right. Nope, messed up some CASE in UPDATE and dropped like a third of relevant information. Not a problem, ROLLBACK, paste the working part and try again.

In the case of these automatic tools, after I did all that, I have to go read their quite massive documentation again, because I forgot some things, and port SQL to their syntax. Or should I just drop into raw SQL now? What was the point of using the tool from the start?

Onboarding new developers๐Ÿ”—

Then we added junior members to the team who didn't yet know SQL well. Easier tasks are "automated" by the tool, they only had to read documentation for a couple of hours instead of learning how to write an actual ALTER TABLE in SQL, that it can be rolled back inside a transaction, etc.

And now, when juniors are tasked with a bit more complex problem, they completely lack skills developing a migration and have a much steeper wall to climb. So they sit in front of their computers, staring into documentation for hours for what should have been an approachable task now.

Downgrade migrations๐Ÿ”—

Another thing is that many tools have downgrade migrations. Downgrade migrations are a lie! I dropped a column with NOT NULL and now what? The migration is irreversible now. In case I really need to revert a reversible migration on production I will write another forward migration. Which I did exactly zero times in more than ten years.

During development, I can switch branches that have different schemas, and they can be incompatible. Of course, then I have to go and do a backward migration manually and even delete a line from the tracking table. I did that a couple of times in the last five years. Could pervasive downgrade migrations save me these ten minutes? Doubt it, often such incompatibility stems from irreversible changes like dropping NOT NULL column and migration tools will just spew an IrreversibleError.

So, writing downgrade migrations is another waste of time.


Another minor point is that sometimes migrations run for a loooooong time. Not a second or two - it can be many hours on production. I don't want this migration to start automatically during my deploy process (my CI will think it died, among other things), but it should be a regular part of all migrations, so on local developers' installations these migrations just take a usual make migrate route. It's easier to take a part of a SQL script and run it separately, than to take a part of a migration script written in Python and run it separately.


When I inherited a Django project with working migrations several years ago, I've used this madness for a couple of months and then switched back to a simple SQL-based system.

While these tools "automate" simplest cases, they make more complex cases much harder. Sadly, it's a very common pitfall in Django-land, and I heard that RoR is pretty much the same.

I personally use a simple tool called Nomad. I think any tool that supports plain SQL migrations, has dependencies between migrations and doesn't require to write downgrades would be acceptable.

Less is so much more in this case.