Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Object Oriented Database Management Systems

In today's world, Client-Server applications that rely on a database on the server as a data store while servicing requests from multiple clients are quite commonplace. Most of these applications use a Relational Database Management System (RDBMS) as their data store while using an object oriented programming language for development. This causes a certain inefficency as objects must be mapped to tuples in the database and vice versa instead of the data being stored in a way that is consistent with the programming model. The "impedance mismatch" caused by having to map objects to tables and vice versa has long been accepted as a necessary performance penalty. The following article is aimed at seeking out an alternative that avoids this penalty.This information was gleaned from the article “An Exploration Of Object Oriented Database Management Systems“ by Dare Obasanjo.

Overview of OODBMS

An OODBMS is the result of combining object oriented programming principles with database management principles. Object oriented programming concepts such as encapsulation, polymorphism and inheritance are enforced as well as database management concepts such as the ACID properties (Atomicity, Consistency, Isolation and Durability) which lead to system integrity, support for an ad hoc query language and secondary storage management systems which allow for managing very large amounts of data.

The Object Oriented Database Manifesto specifically lists the following features as mandatory for a system to support before it can be called an OODBMS; Complex objects, Object identity, Encapsulation, Types and Classes, Class or Type Hierarchies, Overriding, overloading and late binding, Computational completeness, Extensibility, Persistence, Secondary storage management, Concurrency, Recovery and an Ad Hoc Query Facility. An OODBMS is thus a full scale object oriented development environment as well as a database management system. Features that are common in the RDBMS world such as transactions, the ability to handle large amounts of data, indexes, deadlock detection, backup and restoration features and data recovery mechanisms also exist in the OODBMS world.

A primary feature of an OODBMS is that accessing objects in the database is done in a transparent manner such that interaction with persistent objects is no different from interacting with in-memory objects. This is very different from using an RDBMSs in that there is no need to interact via a query sub-language like SQL nor is there a reason to use a Call Level Interface such as ODBC, ADO or JDBC. Database operations typically involve obtaining a database root from the the OODBMS which is usually a data structure like a graph, vector, hash table, or set and traversing it to obtain objects to create, update or delete from the database.

Comparisons of OODBMSs to RDBMSs

There are concepts in the relational database model that are similar to those in the object database model. A relation or table in a relational database can be considered to be analogous to a class in an object database. A tuple is similar to an instance of a class but is different in that it has attributes but no behaviors. A column in a tuple is similar to a class attribute except that a column can hold only primitive data types while a class attribute can hold data of any type. Finally classes have methods which are computationally complete (meaning that general purpose control and computational structures are provided) while relational databases typically do not have computationally complete programming capabilities although some stored procedure languages come close.

Below is a list of advantages and disadvantages of using an OODBMS over an RDBMS with an object oriented programming language.


Composite Objects and Relationships: Objects in an OODBMS can store an arbitrary number of atomic types as well as other objects. It is thus possible to have a large class which holds many medium sized classes which themselves hold many smaller classes, ad infinitum. In a relational database this has to be done either by having one huge table with lots of null fields or via a number of smaller, normalized tables which are linked via foreign keys. Having lots of smaller tables is still a problem since a join has to be performed every time one wants to query data based on the "Has-a" relationship between the entities. Also an object is a better model of the real world entity than the relational tuples with regards to complex objects. The fact that an OODBMS is better suited to handling complex,interrelated data than an RDBMS means that an OODBMS can outperform an RDBMS by ten to a thousand times depending on the complexity of the data being handled.

Class Hierarchy: Data in the real world is usually has hierarchical characteristics. The ever popular Employee example used in most RDBMS texts is easier to describe in an OODBMS than in an RDBMS. An Employee can be a Manager or not, this is usually done in an RDBMS by having a type identifier field or creating another table which uses foreign keys to indicate the relationship between Managers and Employees. In an OODBMS, the Employee class is simply a parent class of the Manager class.

Circumventing the Need for a Query Language: A query language is not necessary for accessing data from an OODBMS unlike an RDBMS since interaction with the database is done by transparently accessing objects. It is still possible to use queries in an OODBMS however.

No Impedence Mismatch: In a typical application that uses an object oriented programming language and an RDBMS, a signifcant amount of time is usually spent mapping tables to objects and back. There are also various problems that can occur when the atomic types in the database do not map cleanly to the atomic types in the programming language and vice versa. This "impedance mismatch" is completely avoided when using an OODBMS.

No Primary Keys: The user of an RDBMS has to worry about uniquely identifying tuples by their values and making sure that no two tuples have the same primary key values to avoid error conditions. In an OODBMS, the unique identification of objects is done behind the scenes via OIDs and is completely invisible to the user. Thus there is no limitation on the values that can be stored in an object.

One Data Model: A data model typically should model entities and their relationships, constraints and operations that change the states of the data in the system. With an RDBMS it is not possible to model the dynamic operations or rules that change the state of the data in the system because this is beyond the scope of the database. Thus applications that use RDBMS systems usually have an Entity Relationship diagram to model the static parts of the system and a seperate model for the operations and behaviors of entities in the application. With an OODBMS there is no disconnect between the database model and the application model because the entities are just other objects in the system. An entire application can thus be comprehensively modelled in one UML diagram.


Schema Changes: In an RDBMS modifying the database schema either by creating, updating or deleting tables is typically independent of the actual application. In an OODBMS based application modifying the schema by creating, updating or modifying a persistent class typically means that changes have to be made to the other classes in the application that interact with instances of that class. This typically means that all schema changes in an OODBMS will involve a system wide recompile. Also updating all the instance objects within the database can take an extended period of time depending on the size of the database.

Language Dependence: An OODBMS is typically tied to a specific language via a specific API. This means that data in an OODBMS is typically only accessible from a specific language using a specific API, which is typically not the case with an RDBMS.

Lack of Ad-Hoc Queries: In an RDBMS, the relational nature of the data allows one to construct ad-hoc queries where new tables are created from joining existing tables then querying them. Since it is currently not possible to duplicate the semantics of joining two tables by "joining" two classes then there is a loss of flexibility with an OODBMS. Thus the queries that can be performed on the data in an OODBMS is highly dependent on the design of the system.

List of Object Oriented Database Management Systems

Object Store
DB/Explorer ODBMS

Open Source


The gains from using an OODBMS while developing an application using an OO programming language are many. The savings in development time by not having to worry about seperate data models as well as the fact that there is less code to write due to the lack of impedance mismatch is very attractive. There is little reason to pick an RDBMS over an OODBMS system for new application development unless there are legacy issues that have to be dealt with.

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