Evolutionary Database Design

Over the last few years we've developed a number of techniques that allow a database design to evolve as an application develops. This is a very important capability for agile methodologies. The techniques rely on applying continuous integration and automated refactoring to database development, together with a close collaboration between DBAs and application developers. The techniques work in both pre-production and released systems.

January 2003

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In the last few years, we've seen the rise of a new breed of software methodologies, the agile methodologies. These make some new and significant demands on database design. One of the most central of these demands is the idea of evolutionary design. On an agile project you assume that you cannot fix the requirements of the system up-front. As a result having a detailed design phase at the beginning of a project becomes impractical. The design of the system has to evolve through the various iterations of the software. Agile methods, in particular extreme programming (XP), have a number of practices that make this evolutionary design practical.

Many people have questioned whether evolutionary design can be applied to a system with a large database component. Indeed many people told us that it was impossible - a troubling thought as ThoughtWorks embarked on a large database-oriented project using many agile and XP techniques.

This article describes the practices that we've used to allow us to do this impossible thing. We won't say that we've completely solved the database evolution problem, but we do think we've demonstrated a set of techniques that many people will find useful.

Dealing with Change

One of the primary features of agile methods is their attitude towards change. Most of the thinking about software process is about understanding requirements early, signing off on these requirements, using the requirements as a basis for design, signing off on that, and then proceeding with construction. This is a plan-driven cycle, often referred to (usually with derision) as the waterfall approach

Such approaches look to minimize changes by doing extensive up-front work. Once the early work is done, changes cause significant problems. As a result such approaches run into trouble if requirements are changing, and requirements churn is a big problem for such processes.

Agile processes approach change differently. They seek to embrace change, allowing changes to occur even late in a development project. Changes are controlled, but the attitude of the process is to enable change as much as possible. Partly this is in response to the inherent instability of requirements in many projects, partly it is to better support dynamic business environments by helping them change with the competitive pressures.

In order to make this work, you need a different attitude to design. Instead of thinking of design as a phase, which is mostly completed before you begin construction, you look at design as an on-going process that is interleaved with construction, testing, and even delivery. This is the contrast between planned and evolutionary design. One of the vital contributions of agile methods is that they have come up with practices that allow evolutionary design to work in a controlled manner. So instead of the common chaos that often happens when design isn't planned up-front, these methods provide techniques to control evolutionary design and make them practical.

An important part of this approach is iterative development, where you run the entire software life-cycle many times during the life of a project. Agile processes run complete life cycles in each iteration, completing the iteration with working, tested, integrated code for a small subset of the requirements of the final product. These iterations are short, usually running between a week and a couple of months, with a preference towards shorter iterations.

While these techniques have grown in use and interest, one of the biggest questions is how to make evolutionary design work for databases. Most people consider that database design is something that absolutely needs up-front planning. Changing the database schema late in the development tends to cause wide-spread breakages in application software. Furthermore changing a schema after deployment result in painful data migration problems.

Over the course of the last three years we've been involved in a large project (called Atlas) that has used evolutionary database design and made it work. The project involved almost 100 people in multiple sites world-wide (US, Australia, and India). It is around half a million lines of code and has over 200 tables. The database evolved during a year and a half of initial development and continues to evolve even though it's in production for multiple customers. During this project we started with iterations of a month, but after a few months changed to two week iterations which worked better. The techniques we describe here are the ones that we (or more accurately Pramod) used to make this work.

Since that project got going we've spread these techniques over more of our projects, gaining more experience from more cases. We've also found inspiration, ideas, and experience from other agile projects.


Before we dive into the techniques, it's important to state that we haven't solved all the problems of evolutionary database design. In particular:

  • We developed an application database for a single application rather than an integration database that tries to integrate multiple databases.
  • We don't have to keep the production databases up 24/7

We don't consider these problems to be inherently unsolvable, after all many people believed we couldn't solve this one. But until we do, we won't claim we can solve them either.

The Practices

Our approach to evolutionary database design depends on a handful of important practices.

DBAs collaborate closely with developers

One of the tenets of agile methods is that people with different skills and backgrounds need to collaborate very closely together. They can't communicate mainly through formal meetings and documents. Instead they need to be out talking with each other and working with each other all the time.Everybody is affected by this: analysts, PMs, domain experts, developers... and DBAs.

Every task that a developer works on potentially needs a DBA's help. Both the developers and the DBA need to consider whether a development task is going to make a significant change to the database schema. If so the developer needs to consult with the DBA to decide how to make the change. The developer knows what new functionality is needed, and the DBA has a global view of the data in the application.

To make this happen the DBA has to make himself approachable and available. Make it easy for a developer to just pop over for a few minutes and ask some questions. Make sure the DBAs and developers sit close to each other so they can easily get together. Ensure that application design sessions are known about so the DBA can pop in easily. In many environments we see people erecting barriers between the DBA and application development functions. These barriers must come down for an evolutionary database design process to work.

Everybody gets their own database instance

Evolutionary design recognizes that people learn by trying things out. In programming terms developers experiment with how to implement a certain feature and may make a few attempts before settling down to a preferred alternative. Database design can be like that too. As a result it's important for each developer to have their own sandbox where they can experiment, and not have their changes affect anyone else.

Many DBA experts see multiple databases as anathema, too difficult to work in practice, but we've found that you can easily manage a hundred or so database instances. The vital thing is to have to tools to allow you to manipulate databases much as you would manipulate files.

Developers frequently integrate into a shared master

Although developers can experiment frequently in their own area, it's important to bring the different approaches back together again frequently. An application needs a shared master database that all work flows from. When a developer begins a task they copy the master into their own workspace, manipulate, and then integrate their changes back into the master. As a rule of thumb each developer should integrate once a day.

Let's take an example where Mike starts a development task at 10am (assuming he actually comes in that early). As part of this task he needs to change the database schema. If the change is easy, like adding a column, he just decides how to make the change himself, Mike also makes sure the column he wants to add does not already exist in the database, with the help of the data dictionary (discussed later). If it's more complicated then he grabs the DBA and talks over the likely changes with him.

Once he's ready to begin he takes a copy of the database master and can modify both the database schema and code freely. As he's in a sandbox any changes he makes don't impact anyone else's. At some point, say around 3pm, he's pretty comfortable that he knows what the database change needs to be, even though he's not completely done with his programming task. At that point he grabs the DBA, and tells him about the change. At this point the DBA can raise any issues that Mike hasn't considered. Most of the time all is well and the DBA goes off and makes the change (by applying one or more database refactorings, which we'll come to below). The DBA makes the changes right away (unless they are destructive changes - again more on that below). Mike can continue to work on his task and commit his code any time he likes once the DBA has applied these changes to the master.

You may well recognize this principle as similar to the practice of Continuous Integration, which is applied to source code management. Indeed this is really about treating the database as another piece of source code. As such the master database is kept under configuration management in much the same way as the source code. Whenever we have a successful build, the database is checked into the configuration management system together with the code, so that we have a complete and synchronized version history of both.

With source code, much of the pain of integration is handled by source code control systems. For databases there's a bit more effort involved. Any changes to the database need to done properly, as automated database refactorings, which we'll discuss shortly. In addition the DBA needs to look at any database changes and ensure that it fits within the overall scheme of the database schema. For this to work smoothly, big changes shouldn't come as surprises at integration time - hence the need for the DBA to collaborate closely with the developers.

We emphasize integrating frequently because we've found that it's much easier to do frequent small integrations rather than infrequent large integrations. It seems that the pain of integration increases exponentially with the size of the integration. As such doing many small changes is much easier in practice, even though it often seems counter-intuitive to many. This same effect's been noticed by people in the Software Configuration Management community for source code.

A database consists of schema and test data

When we talk about a database here, we mean not just the schema of the database, but also a fair amount of data. This data consists of common standing data for the application, such as the inevitable list of all the states in the US, and also sample test data such as a few sample customers.

The data is there for a number of reasons. The main reason is to enable testing. We are great believers in using a large body of automated tests to help stabilize the development of an application. Such a body of tests is a common approach in agile methods. For these tests to work efficiently, it makes sense to work on a database that is seeded with some sample test data, which all tests can assume is in place before they run.

As well as helping test the code, this sample test data also allows to test our migrations as we alter the schema of the database. By having sample data, we are forced to ensure that any schema changes also handle sample data.

In most projects we've seen this sample data be fictional. However in a few projects we've seen people use real data for the samples. In these cases this data's been extracted from prior legacy systems with automated data migration scripts. Obviously you can't migrate all the data right away, as in early iterations only a small part of the database is actually built. But the idea is to iteratively develop the migration scripts just as the application and the database are developed iteratively. Not just does this help flush out migration problems early, it makes it much easier for domain experts to work with the growing system as they are familiar with the data they are looking at and can often help to identify problem cases that may cause problems for the database and application design. As a result we are now of the view that you should try to introduce real data from the very first iteration of your project.

All changes are database refactorings

The technique of refactoring is all about applying disciplined and controlled techniques to changing an existing code base. Similarly we've identified several database refactorings that provide similar control and discipline to changing a database.

One of the big differences about database refactorings is that they involve three different changes that have to be done together

  • Changing the database schema
  • Migrating the data in the database
  • Changing the database access code

Thus whenever we describe a database refactoring, we have to describe all three aspects of the change and ensure that all three are applied before we apply any other refactorings.

We are still in the process of documenting the various database refactorings, so we aren't able to go into detail on them yet. However there are a few things we can point out. Like code refactorings, database refactorings are very small. The concept of chaining together a sequence of very small changes is much the same for databases as it is for code. The triple nature of the change makes it all the more important to keep to small changes.

Many database refactorings, such as adding a column, can be done without having to update all the code that accesses the system. If code uses the new schema without being aware of it, the column will just go unused. Many changes, however don't have this property. We call these destructive changes, an example of which is making an existing nullable column not null.

Destructive changes need a bit more care, the degree of which depends on the degree of destruction involved. An example of a minor destructive change is that of changing a column from nullable to not null. In this case you can probably just go ahead and do it. The refactoring will take care of any data in the database that's null. Usually the only developer who cares about this property is the one who requested the change, and that developer will update the database mapping code. As a result the update won't break anyone else's code and if by some strange chance it does, they find out as soon as they run a build and use their tests. (On our large project we gave ourselves some extra breathing space by waiting a week before making the database change.)

Splitting a heavily used table into two however is a rather more complicated case. In this case it's important to let everyone know that the change is coming up so they can prepare themselves for it. In addition it's worth waiting for a safer moment to make the change. (These kinds of changes we would defer until the start of a new iteration - we like to use iterations of two weeks or less).

The important thing here is to choose a procedure that's appropriate for the kind of change that you're making. If in doubt try to err on the side of making changes easier. Our experience is that we got burned much less frequently than many people would think, and with a strong configuration control of the entire system it's not difficult to revert should the worst happen.

Automate the refactorings

In the world of code we are seeing tools for some languages to automate many of the identified refactorings. Such automation is essential for databases; at least in the areas of schema changes and data migration.

As a result every database refactoring is automated by writing it in the form of SQL DDL (for the schema change) and DML (for the data migration). These changes are never applied manually, instead they are applied to the master by running a small SQL script to perform the changes.

Once done, we keep hold of these script files to produce a complete change log of all the alterations done to the database as a result of database refactorings. We can then update any database instance to the latest master by running the change log of all the changes since we copied the master to produce the older database instance.

This ability to sequence automated changes is an essential tool both for the continuous integration process in development, and for migrating production databases to a new release.

For production databases we don't make changes during the usual iteration cycles. Once we do a release, which may occur at the end of any iteration, we apply the full change log of database refactorings since the previous release. This is a big change, and one that so far we've only done by taking the application offline. (We have some ideas for doing this in a 24/7 environment, but we haven't actually had to do it yet.) It's also wise to test this migration schema before applying it to the live database. So far, we've found that this technique has worked remarkably well. By breaking down all the database changes into a sequence of small, simple changes; we've been able to make quite large changes to production data without getting ourselves in trouble.

As well as automating the forward changes, you can consider automating reverse changes for each refactoring. If you do this you'll be able to back out changes to a database in the same automated way. We haven't done this yet, as we've not had a much demand for it, but it's the same basic principle.

(A similar thing that we have done is to support an old version of an application with an updated version of the database. This involved writing a compatibility layer that allowed the application to think it was talking to the older version of the database even though it was actually talking to the newer one.)

Automatically Update all Database Developers

It's all very well for people to make changes and update the master, but how do they find out the master has changed? In a traditional continuous integration environment with source code, developers update to the master before doing a commit. That way they can resolve any build issues on their own machine before committing their changes to the shared master. There's no reason you can't do that with the database, but we found a better way.

We automatically update everyone on the project whenever a change is made to the database master. The same refactoring script that updates the master automatically updates everyone's databases. When we've described this, people are usually concerned that automatically updating developers databases underneath them will cause a problem, but we found it worked just fine.

This only worked when people were connected to the network. If they worked offline, such as on an airplane, then they had to resync with the master manually once they got back to the office.

Clearly separate all database access code

To understand the consequences of database refactorings, it's important to be able to see how the database is used by the application. If SQL is scattered willy-nilly around the code base, this is very hard to do. As a result it's important to have a clear database access layer to show where the database is being used and how. To do this we suggest following one of the data source architectural patterns from P of EAA.

Having a clear database layer has a number of valuable side benefits. It minimizes the areas of the system where developers need SQL knowledge to manipulate the database, which makes life easier to developers who often are not particularly skilled with SQL. For the DBA it provides a clear section of the code that he can look at to see how the database is being used. This helps in preparing indexes, database optimization, and also looking at the SQL to see how it could be reformulated to perform better. This allows the DBA to get a better understanding of how the database is used.


Like any set of practices, these should be varied depending on your specific circumstances. These practices are still pretty new, so we haven't come across that many variations, but here are some we have.

Keeping multiple database lineages

A simple project can survive with just a single database master in the repository. With more complex projects there's a need to support multiple varieties of the project database, which we refer to as database linages. We may create a new lineage if we have to branch an application that's put into production. In essence creating a new database lineage is much the same as branching the source code on the application, with the added twist that you also make a lineage when you need a different set of sample data, such as if you need a lot of data for performance testing.

When a developer takes a copy of a master they need to register which lineage they are modifying. As the DBA applies updates to a master for a particular lineage the updates propagate to all the developers who are registered for that lineage.

You don't need a DBA

All of this sounds like it would be a lot of work, but in fact it doesn't require a huge amount of manpower. On the Atlas project we had thirty-odd developers and a team size (including, QA, analysts and management) of close to a hundred. On any given day we would have a hundred or so copies of various lineages out on people's workstations. Yet all this activity needed only one full time DBA (Pramod) with a couple of developers doing some part-time assistance and cover.

On smaller projects even that isn't needed. We've been using these techniques on a number of smaller projects (about a dozen people) and we find these projects don't need a full time DBA. Instead we rely on a couple of developers with an interest in DB issues who handle the DBA tasks part-time.

The reason for this is automation. If you are determined to automate every task, you can handle a lot work with much less people.

Tools to Help

Doing this kind of thing requires a lot of repetitive tasks. The good news is that whenever you run into repetitive tasks in software development you are ideally placed to automate them. As a result we've developed a fair amount of often simple tools to help us.

One of the most valuable pieces of automation is a simple set of scripts for common database tasks.

  • Bring a user up to date with the current master.
  • Create a new user
  • Copy a database schema, for example Sue finds a bug with her database, now Mike can copy Sue's database and try to debug the application
  • Move a database, for example from a workstation to a different workstation, this is essentially Copy database and Delete database combined as one
  • Drop a user
  • Export a user so team members can make offine backups of the database that they are working with.
  • Import a user, so if the team members have a backup copy of the database, they can import the backup and create a new schema.
  • Export a baseline - make a backup copy of the master database. This is a specialized case of Export a User
  • Create a difference report of any number of schemas, so that Mike can find out what is different structurally between his database and Sue's.
  • Diff a schema against the master, so that developers can compare their local copy against the master.
  • List all the users

Analysts and QA folks often need to look at the test data in the database and to be able to easily change it. For that we created an Excel application with VBA scripts to pull data down from the database into an excel file, allow people to edit the file, and send the data back up to the database. Although other tools exist for viewing and editing the contents of a database, excel works well because so many people are familiar with it.

Everybody on the project needs to be able to explore the database design easily, that way they can find out what tables are available and how they are used. We built an HTML based tool to do this that used servlets to query database metadata. So Mike before adding the column to a table, could go lookup if the column he is adding already exists, by searching the metadata of the tables and columns. We did the data modeling using ERwin and pulled data from ERwin into our own metadata tables.

Further Steps and Further Information

This is by no means the last word on the subject of evolutionary database design. We certainly want to see if and how we can extend these techniques to integration databases, 24/7 operation, and other problem areas that we haven't run into yet.

If you'd like to find out more about this, or talk about your own experiences, Pramod has started a yahoo egroup for agile databases. Pramod is also starting to talk about these techniques at various conferences, so you may get a chance to talk to him directly. Naturally we also do consulting on this stuff too.

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Significant Revisions

January 2003: First publication