Monday, December 05, 2016

UKOUG Tech 2016 - Super Sunday

UKOUG 2016 is underway. This year I'm staying at the Jury's Inn hotel, one of a clutch of hotels within a stone's throw of the ICC and all the action of Brindley Place. Proximity is the greatest luxury. My room is on the thirteenth floor, so I have a great view across Birmingham; a view, which in the words of Telly Savalas "almost takes your breath away".

Although the conference proper - with keynotes, exhibition hall and so on - opens today, Monday, the pre-conference Super Sunday has already delivered some cracking talks. For the second year on the trot we have had a stream devoted to database development, which is great for Old Skool developers like me.

Fighting Bad PL/SQL, Phillip Salvisberg

The first talk in the stream discussed various metrics for assessing the the quality of PL/SQL code: McCabe Cyclic Complexity, Halstead Volume, Maintainability Index. Cyclic Complexity evaluates the number of paths through a piece of code; the more paths the harder it is to understand what the code does under any given circumstance. The volume approach assesses information density (the number of distinct words/total number of words); a higher number means more concepts, and so more to understand. The Maintainability Index takes both measures and throws it some extra calculations based on LoC and comments.

All these measures are interesting, and often insights but none are wholly satisfactory. Phillip showed how easier it is to game the MI by putting all the code of a function on a single line: the idea that such a layout makes our code more maintainable is laughable. More worryingly, none of these measures evaluate what the code actually does. The presented example of better PL/SQL (according to the MI measure) replaced several lines of PL/SQL into a single REGEXP_LIKE call. Regular expressions are notorious for getting complicated and hard to maintain. Also there are performance considerations. Metrics won't replace wise human judgement just yet. In the end I agree with Phillip that the most useful metric remains WTFs per minute.

REST enabling Oracle tables with Oracle REST Data Services, Jeff Smith

It was standing room only for That Jeff Smith, who coped well with jetlag and sleep deprivation. ORDS is the new name for the APEX listener, a misleading name because it is used for more than just APEX calls, and APEX doesn't need it. ORDS is a Java application which brokers JSON calls between a web client and the database: going one way it converts JSON payload into SQL statements, going the other way it converts result sets into JSON messages. Apparently Oracle is going to REST enable the entire database - Jeff showed us the set of REST commands for managing DataGuard. ORDS is the backbone of Oracle Cloud.

Most of the talk centred on Oracle's capabilities for auto-enabling REST access to tables (and PL/SQL with the next release of ORDS). This is quite impressive and certainly I can see the appeal of standing up a REST web service to the database without all the tedious pfaffing in Hibernate or whatever Java framework is in place. However I think auto-enabling is the wrong approach. REST calls are stateless and cannot be assembled to form transactions; basically each one auto-commits. It's Table APIs all over again. TAPI 2.0, if you will. It's a recipe for bad applications.

But I definitely like this vision of the future: an MVC implementation with JavaScript clients (V) passing JSON payloads to ORDS (C) with PL/SQL APIs doing all the business logic (M). The nineties revival starts here.

Meet your match: advanced row pattern matching, Stew Ashton

Stew's talk was one of those ones which are hard to pull off: Oracle 12c's MATCH RECOGNIZE clause is a topic more suited to an article with a database on hand so we can work through the examples. Stew succeeded in making it work as a talk because he's a good speaker with a nice style and a knack for lucid explanation. He made a very good case for the importance of understanding this arcane new syntax.

MATCH RECOGNIZE is lifted from event processing. It allows us to define arbitrary sets of data which we can iterate over in a SELECT statement. This allows us to solve several classes of problems relating to bin filtering, positive and negative sequencing, and hierarchical summaries. The most impressive example showed how to code an inequality (i.e. range) join that performs as well as an equality join. I will certainly be downloading this presentation and learning the syntax when I get back home.

If only Stew had done a talk on the MODEL clause several years ago.

SQL for change history with Temporal Validity and Flash Back Data Archive, Chris Saxon

Chris Saxon tackled the tricky concept of time travel in the database, as a mechanism for handling change. The first type of change is change in transactional data. For instance, when a customer moves house we need to retain a record of their former address as well as their new one. We've all implemented history like this, with START_DATE and END_DATE columns. The snag has always been how to formulate the query to establish which record applies at a given point in time. Oracle 12C solves this with Temporal Validity, a syntax for defining a PERIOD using those start and end dates. Then we can query the history using a simple AS OF PERIOD clause. It doesn't solve all the problems in this area (primary keys remain tricky) but at least the queries are solved.

The other type of change is change in metadata: when was a particular change applied? what are all the states of a record over the last year? etc. These are familiar auditing requirements, which are usually addressed through triggers and journalling tables. That approach carries an ongoing burden of maintenance and is too easy to get wrong. Oracle has had a built-in solution for several years now, Flashback Data Archive. Not enough people use it, probably because in 11g it was called Total Recall and a chargeable extra. In 12C Flashback Data Archive is free; shorn of the data optimization (which requires the Advanced Compression package) it is available in Standard Edition not just Enterprise. And it's been back-ported to The syntax is simple: to get a historical version of the data we simply use AS OF TIMESTAMP. No separate query for a journalling table, no more nasty triggers to maintain... I honestly don't know why everybody isn't using it.

So that was Super Sunday. Roll on Not-So-Mundane Monday.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

UKOUG Conference 2016 coming up fast

The weather has turned cold, the lights are twinkling in windows and Starbucks is selling pumpkin lattes. Yes, it's starting to look a lot like Christmas. But first there's the wonder-filled advent calendar that is the UKOUG Annual Conference in Birmingham, UK. So many doors to choose from!

The Conference is the premier event for Oracle users in the UK (and beyond). This year has another cracker of an agenda: check it out.

The session I'm anticipating most is Monday's double header with Bryn Llewellyn and Toon Koopelaar's A Real-World Comparison of the NoPLSQL & Thick Database Paradigms. Will they come down on the side of implementing business logic in stored procedures or won't they? It'll be tense :) But it will definitely be insightful and elegantly argued.

Oracle's bailiwick has expanded vastly over the years, and it's become increasingly hard to cover everything. Even so, it's fair to say in recent years older technologies such as Forms have been neglected in favour in favour of shinier baubles. Not this year. There's a good representation of Forms sessions this year, including a talk from Michael Ferrante, the Forms Product Manager. These sessions are all scheduled for the Wednesday, in a day targeted at database developers. If you're an Old Skool developer, especially if you're a Forms developer, and your boss will allow you only one day at the conference, then Wednesday is the day to pick.

Hope to see you there

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The importance of cohesion

"Come on, come on, let's stick together" - Bryan Ferry

There's more to PL/SQL programs than packages, but most of our code will live in packages. The PL/SQL Reference offers the following benefits of organising our code into packages:

Modularity - we encapsulate logically related components into an easy to understand structure.

Easier Application Design - we can start with the interface in the package specification and code the implementation later.

Hidden Implementation Details - the package body is private so we can prevent application users having direct access to certain functionality.

Added Functionality - we can share the state of Package public variables and cursors for the life of a session.

Better Performance - Oracle Database loads the whole package into memory the first time you invoke a package subprogram, which makes subsequent invocations of any other subprogram quicker. Also packages prevent cascading dependencies and unnecessary recompilation.

Grants - we can grant permission on a single package instead of a whole bunch of objects.

However, we can only realise these benefits if the packaged components belong together: in other words, if our package is cohesive.  

The ever reliable Wikipedia defines cohesion like this: "the degree to which the elements of a module belong together"; in other words how it's a measure of the strength of the relationship between components. It's common to think of cohesion as a binary state - either a package is cohesive or it isn't - but actually it's a spectrum. (Perhaps computer science should use  "cohesiveness" which is more expressi but cohesion it is.)


Cohesion owes its origin as a Comp Sci term to Stevens, Myers, and Constantine.  Back in the Seventies they used the terms "module" and "processing elements", but we're discussing PL/SQL so let's use Package and Procedure instead. They defined seven levels of cohesion, with each level being better - more usefully cohesive - than its predecessor.


The package comprises an arbitrary selection of procedures and functions which are not related in any way. This obviously seems like a daft thing to do, but most packages with "Utility" in their name fall into this category.


The package contains procedures which all belong to the same logical class of functions. For instance, we might have a package to collect all the procedures which act as endpoints for REST Data Services.


The package consists of procedures which are executed at the same system event. So we might have a package of procedures executed when a user logs on - authentication, auditing, session initialisation - and similar package for tidying up when the user logs off. Other than the triggering event the packaged functions are unrelated to each other.


The package consists of procedures which are executed as part of the same business event. For instance, in an auction application there are a set of actions to follow whenever a bid is made: compare to asking price, evaluate against existing maximum bid, update lot's status, update bidder's history, send an email to the bidder, send an email to the user who's been outbid, etc.


The package contains procedures which share common inputs or outputs. For example a payroll package may have procedures to calculate base salary, overtime, sick pay, commission, bonuses and produce the overall remuneration for an employee.


The package comprises procedures which are executed as a chain, so that the output of one procedure becomes the input for another procedure. A classic example of this is an ETL package with procedures for loading data into a staging area, validating and transforming the data, and then loading records into the target table(s).


The package comprises procedures which are focused on a single task. Not only are all the procedures strongly related to each other but they are fitted to user roles too. So procedures for power users are in a separate package from procedures for normal users. The Oracle built-in packages for Advanced Queuing are a good model of Functional cohesion.

How cohesive is cohesive enough?

The grades of cohesion, with Coincidental as the worst and Functional as the best, are guidelines. Not every package needs to have Functional cohesion. In a software architecture we will have modules at different levels. The higher modules will tend to be composed of calls to lower level modules. The low level modules are the concrete implementations and they should aspire to Sequential or Functional cohesion.

The higher level modules can be organised to other levels. For instance we might want to build packages around user roles - Sales, Production, HR, IT - because Procedural cohesion makes it easier for the UI teams to develop screens, especially if they need to skin them for various different technologies (desktop, web, mobile). Likewise we wouldn't want to have Temporally cohesive packages with concrete code for managing user logon or logoff. But there is a value in organising a package which bundles up all the low level calls into a single abstract call for use in schema level AFTER LOGON triggers.    

Cohesion is not an easily evaluated condition. We need cohesion with a purpose, a reason to stick those procedures together. It's not enough to say "this package is cohesive". We must take into consideration how cohesive the package needs to be: how will it be used? what is its relationships with the other packages?

Applying design principles such as Single Responsibility, Common Reuse, Common Closure and Interface Segregation can help us to build cohesive packages. Getting the balance right requires an understanding of the purpose of the package and its place within the overall software architecture.  

Part of the Designing PL/SQL Programs series

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Working with the Interface Segregation Principle

Obviously Interface Segregation is crucial for implementing restricted access. For any given set of data there are three broad categories of access:

  • reporting 
  • manipulation 
  • administration and governance 

So we need to define at least one interface - packages - for each category in order that we can grant the appropriate access to different groups of users: read-only users, regular users, power users.

But there's more to Interface Segregation. This example is based on a procedure posted on a programming forum. Its purpose is to maintain medical records relating to a patient's drug treatments. The procedure has some business logic (which I've redacted) but its overall structure is defined by the split between the Verification task and the De-verification task, and flow is controlled by the value of the p_verify_mode parameter.
procedure rx_verification
     (p_drh_id in number,
       p_patient_name in varchar2,
       p_verify_mode in varchar2)
    new_rxh_id number;
    rxh_count number;
    rxl_count number;
    drh_rec drug_admin_history%rowtype;
    select * into drh_rec ....;
    select count(*) into rxh_count ....;

    if p_verify_mode = 'VERIFY' then

        update drug_admin_history ....;
        if drh_rec.pp_id <> 0 then
            update patient_prescription ....;
        end if;
        if rxh_count = 0 then
            insert into prescription_header ....;
            select rxh_id into new_rxh_id ....;
        end if;
        insert into prescription_line ....;
        if drh_rec.threshhold > 0
            insert into prescription_line ....;
        end if;

    elsif p_verify_mode = 'DEVERIFY' then

        update drug_admin_history ....;
        if drh_rec.pp_id <> 0 then
            update patient_prescription ....;
        end if;
        select rxl_rxh_id into new_rxh_id ....;
        delete prescription_line ....;
        delete prescription_header ....;

    end if;

Does this procedure have a Single Responsibility?  Hmmm. It conforms to Common Reuse - users who can verify can also de-verify. It doesn't break Common Closure, because both tasks work with the same tables. But there is a nagging doubt. It appears to be doing two things: Verification and De-verification.

So, how does this does this procedure work as an interface? There is a definite problem when it comes to calling the procedure: how do I as a developer know what value to pass to p_verify_mode?

     (p_drh_id => 1234,
       p_patient_name => 'John Yaya',
       p_verify_mode => ???);

The only way to know is to inspect the source code of the procedure. That breaks the Information Hiding principle, and it might not be viable (if the procedure is owned by a different schema). Clearly the interface could benefit from a redesign. One approach would be to declare constants for the acceptable values; while we're at it, why not define a PL/SQL subtype for verification mode and tweak the procedure's signature to make it clear that's what's expected:        

create or replace package rx_management is
  subtype verification_mode_subt is varchar2(10);
  c_verify constant verification_mode_subt := 'VERIFY'; 
  c_deverify constant verification_mode_subt := 'DEVERIFY'; 
  procedure rx_verification
     (p_drh_id in number,
       p_patient_name in varchar2,
       p_verify_mode in verification_mode_subt);

end rx_management;

Nevertheless it is still possible for a caller program to pass a wrong value:

     (p_drh_id => 1234,
       p_patient_name => 'John Yaya',
       p_verify_mode => 'Verify');

What happens then? Literally nothing. The value drops through the control structure without satisfying any condition. It's an unsatisfactory outcome. We could change the implementation of rx_verification() to validate the parameter value and raise and exception. Or we could add an ELSE branch and raise an exception. But those are runtime exceptions. It would be better to mistake-proof the interface so that it is not possible to pass an invalid value in the first place.

Which leads us to to a Segregated Interface :

create or replace package rx_management is
  procedure rx_verification
     (p_drh_id in number,
       p_patient_name in varchar2);
  procedure rx_deverification
     (p_drh_id in number);
end rx_management;

Suddenly it becomes clear that the original procedure was poorly named (I call rx_verification() to issue an RX de-verification?!)  We have two procedures but their usage is now straightforward and the signatures are cleaner (the p_patient_name is only used in the Verification branch so there's no need to pass it when issuing a De-verification).


Interface Segregation creates simpler and safer controls but more of them. This is a general effect of the Information Hiding principle. It is a trade-off. We need to be sensible. Also, this is not a proscription against flags. There will always be times when we need to pass instructions to called procedures to modify their behaviour. In those cases it is important that the interface includes a definition of acceptable values.

Part of the Designing PL/SQL Programs series

Three more principles

Here are some more principles which can help us design better programs. These principles aren't part of an organized theory, and they're aren't particularly related to any programming paradigm. But each is part of the canon, and each is about the relationship between a program's interface and its implementation.

The Principle Of Least Astonishment

Also known as the Principle of Least Surprise, the rule is simple: programs should do what we expect them to do. This is more than simply honouring the contract of the interface. It means complying with accepted conventions of our programming. In PL/SQL programming there is a convention that functions are read-only, or at least do not change database state. Another such convention is that low-level routines do not execute COMMIT statements; transaction management is the prerogative of the program at the top of the call stack, which may be interacting directly with a user or may be an autonomous batch process.

Perhaps the most common flouting of the Principle Of Least Astonishment is this:

      when others then

It is reasonable to expect that a program will hurl an exception if something as gone awry. Unfortunately, we are not as astonished as we should be when we find a procedure with an exception handle which swallows any and every exception.

Information Hiding Principle 

Another venerable principle, this one was expounded by David Parnas in 1972. It requires that a calling program should not need to know anything about the implementation of a called program. The definition of the interface should be sufficient. It is the cornerstone of black-box programming. The virtue of Information Hiding is that knowledge of internal details inevitably leads to coupling between the called and calling routines: when we change the called program we need to change the caller too. We honour this principle any time we call a procedure in a package owned by another schema, because the EXECUTE privilege grants visibility of the package specification (the interface) but not the body (the implementation).

The Law Of Leaky Abstractions

Joel Spolsky coined this one: "All non-trivial abstractions, to some degree, are leaky." No matter how hard we try, some details of the implementation of a called program will be exposed to the calling programming, and will need to be acknowledged. Let's consider this interface again:

    function get_employee_recs
        ( p_deptno in number ) 
        return emp_refcursor;

We know it returns a result set of employee records. But in what order? Sorting by EMPNO would be pretty useless, given that it is a surrogate key (and hence without meaning). Other candidates - HIREDATE, SAL - will be helpful for some cases and irrelevant for others. One approach is to always return an unsorted set and leave it to the caller to sort the results; but it is usually more efficient to sort records in a query rather than a collection. Another approach would be to write several functions - get_employee_recs_sorted_hiredate(), get_employee_recs_sorted_sal() - but that leads to a bloated interface which is hard to understand. Tricky.


Principles are guidelines. There are tensions between them. Good design is a matter of trade-offs. We cannot blindly follow Information Hiding and ignore the Leaky Abstractions. We need to exercise our professional judgement (which is a good thing).

Part of the Designing PL/SQL Programs series

It's all about the interface

When we talk about program design we're mainly talking about interface design. The interface is the part of our program that the users interact with. Normally discussion of UI focuses on GUI or UX, that is, the interface with the end user of our application.

But developers are users too.

Another developer writing a program which calls a routine in my program is a user of my code (and, I must remember, six months after I last touched the program, I am that other developer). A well-designed interface is frictionless: it can be slotted into a calling program without too much effort. A poor interface breaks the flow: it takes time and thought to figure it out. In the worst case we have to scramble around in the documentation or the source code.

Formally, an interface is the mechanism which allows the environment (the user or agent) to interact with the system (the program). What the system actually does is the implementation: the interface provides access to the implementation without the environment needing to understand the details. In PL/SQL programs the implementation will usually contain a hefty chunk of SQL. The interface mediates access to data.

An interface is a contract. It specifies what the caller must do and what the called program will do in return. Take this example:

function get_employee_recs
     ( p_deptno in number )
     return emp_refcursor;

The contract says, if the calling program passes a valid DEPTNO the function will return records for all the employees in that department, as a strongly-typed ref cursor. Unfortunately the contract doesn't say what will happen if the calling program passes an invalid DEPTNO. Does the function return an empty set or throw an exception? The short answer is we can't tell. We must rely on convention or the document, which is an unfortunate gap in the PL/SQL language; the Java keyword throws is quite neat in this respect.

The interface is here to help

The interface presents an implementation of business logic. The interface is a curated interpretation, and doesn't enable unfettered access. Rather, a well-designed interface helps a developer use the business logic in a sensible fashion. Dan Lockton calls this Design With Intent: Good design expresses how a product should be used. It doesn't have to be complicated. We can use simple control mechanisms which to help other developers use our code properly.

Restriction of access

Simply, the interface restricts access to certain functions or denies it altogether. Only certain users are allowed to view salaries, and even fewer to modify them. The interface to Employee records should separate salary functions from more widely-available functions. Access restriction can be implemented in a hard fashion, using architectural constructs (views, packages, schemas) or in a soft fashion (using VPD or Data Vault). The hard approach benefits from clarity, the soft approach offers flexibility.

Forcing functions

If certain things must be done in a specific order then the interface should only offer a method which enforces the correct order. For instance, if we need to insert records into a parent table and a child table in the same transaction (perhaps a super-type/sub-type implementation of a foreign key arc) a helpful interface will only expose a procedure which inserts both records in the correct order.


A well-design interface prevents its users from making obvious mistakes. The signature of a procedure should be clear and unambiguous. Naming is important. If a parameter presents a table attribute the parameter name should echo the column name: p_empno is better than p_id. Default values for parameters should lead developers to sensible and safe choices. If several parameters have default values they must play nicely together: accepting all the defaults should not generate an error condition.


Abstraction is just another word for interface. It allows us to focus on the details of our own code without need to understand the concrete details of the other code we depend upon. That's why good interfaces are the key to managing large codebases.

Part of the Designing PL/SQL Programs series

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Designing PL/SQL Programs: Series home page

Designing PL/SQL Programs is a succession of articles published the articles in a nonlinear fashion. Eventually it will evolve into a coherent series. In the meantime this page serves as a map and navigation aid. I will add articles to it as and when I publish them.


Designing PL/SQL Programs
It's all about the interface

Principles and Patterns

Introducing the SOLID principles
Introducing the RCCASS principles
Three more principles
The Single Responsibility principles
The Dependency Inversion Principle: a practical example
Working with the Interface Segregation Principle

Software Architecture

The importance of cohesion
Utilities - the Coincidental Cohesion anti-pattern
Avoiding Coincidental Cohesion

Interface design

Data Access Layer versus Table APIs The use and misuse of %TYPE and %ROWTYPE attributes in PL/SQL APIs

Tools and Techniques

The Dependency Inversion Principle: a practical example

These design principles may seem rather academic, so let's look at a real life demonstration of how applying Dependency Inversion Principle lead to an improved software design.

Here is a simplified version of an ETL framework which uses SQL Types in a similar fashion to the approach described in my blog post here. The loading process is defined using an abstract non-instantiable Type like this:
create or replace type load_t force as object
    ( txn_date date
      , tgt_name varchar2(30)
      , member function load return number
      , final member function get_tgt return varchar2
not final not instantiable;

create or replace type body load_t as
    member function load return number
        return 0;
    end load;
    final member function get_tgt return varchar2
        return self.tgt_name;
    end get_tgt;

The concrete behaviour for each target table in the ABC feed is defined by sub-types like this:
create or replace type load_tgt1_t under load_t
    ( overriding member function load return number
        , constructor function load_tgt1_t
            (self in out nocopy load_tgt1_t
             , txn_date date)
           return self as result
create or replace type body load_tgt1_t as
    overriding member function load return number
        insert into tgt1 (col1, col2)
        select to_number(col_a), col_b
        from stg_abc stg
        where stg.txn_date = self.txn_date;
        return sql%rowcount;
    end load;
    constructor function load_tgt1_t
            (self in out nocopy load_tgt1_t
             , txn_date date)
           return self as result
        self.txn_date := txn_date;
        self.tgt_name := 'TGT1';
    end load_tgt1_t;
This approach is neat because ETL is a fairly generic process: the mappings and behaviour for a particular target table are specific but the shape of the loading process is the same for any and all target tables. So we can build a generic PL/SQL procedure to handle them. This simplistic example does some logging, loops through a set of generic objects and, through the magic of polymorphism, calls a generic method which executes specific code for each target table:
    procedure load  
     (p_txn_date in date
        , p_load_set in sys_refcursor)
        type loadset_r is record (
            tgtset load_t
        lrecs loadset_r;
        load_count number;
        logger.logm('LOAD START::txn_date='||to_char(p_txn_date,'YYYY-MM-DD'));
            fetch p_load_set into lrecs;
            exit when p_load_set%notfound;
            logger.logm(lrecs.tgtset.get_tgt()||' start');
            load_count := lrecs.tgtset.load();
            logger.logm(lrecs.tgtset.get_tgt()||' loaded='||to_char(load_count));
        end loop;
        logger.logm('LOAD FINISH');
    end load;

So far, so abstract. The catch is the procedure which instantiates the objects:
    procedure load_abc_from_stg  
         (p_txn_date in date)
        rc sys_refcursor;
        open rc for
            select load_tgt1_t(p_txn_date) from dual union all
            select load_tgt2_t(p_txn_date) from dual;
       load(p_txn_date, rc);
    end load_abc_from_stg;

On casual inspection it doesn't seem problematic but the call to the load() procedure gives the game away. Both procedures are in the same package:
create or replace package loader as
    procedure load 
     (p_txn_date in date
        , p_load_set in sys_refcursor);
    procedure load_abc_from_stg
         (p_txn_date in date);
end loader;

So the package mixes generic and concrete functionality. What makes this a problem? After all, it's all ETL so doesn't the package follow the Single Responsibility Principle? Well, up to a point. But if we want to add a new table to the ABC feed we need to update the LOADER package. Likewise if we want to add a new feed, DEF, we need to update the LOADER package. So it breaks the Stable Abstractions principle. It also creates dependency problems, because the abstract load() process has dependencies on higher level modules. We can't deploy the LOADER package without deploying objects for all the feeds.

Applying the Dependency Inversion Principle.

The solution is to extract the load_abc() procedure into a concrete package of its own. To make this work we need to improve the interface between the load() procedure and programs which call it. Both sides of the interface should depend on a shared abstraction.

The LOADER package is now properly generic:
create or replace package loader as
    type loadset_r is record (
            tgtset load_t
    type loadset_rc is ref cursor return loadset_r;
    procedure load 
        (p_txn_date in date
          , p_load_set in loadset_rc)
         authid current_user
end loader;
The loadset_r type has moved into the package specification, and defines a strongly-typed ref cursor. The load() procedure uses the strongly-typed ref cursor.

Similarly the LOAD_ABC package is wholly concrete:
create or replace package loader_abc as
    procedure load_from_stg
            (p_txn_date in date);
end loader_abc;

create or replace package body loader_abc as
    procedure load_from_stg
            (p_txn_date in date)
        rc loader.loadset_rc;
        open rc for
            select load_tgt1_t(p_txn_date) from dual union all
            select load_tgt2_t(p_txn_date) from dual;
       loader.load(p_txn_date, rc);
    end load_from_stg;
end loader_abc;
Both package bodies now depend on abstractions: the strongly-typed ref cursor in the LOADER specification and the LOADER_T SQL Type. These should change much less frequently than the tables in the feed or even the loading process itself. This is the Dependency Inversion Principle in action.

Separating generic and concrete functionality into separate packages produces a more stable application. Users of a feed package are shielded from changes in other feeds. The LOADER package relies on strongly-typed abstractions. Consequently we can code a new feed package which can call loader.load() without peeking into that procedure's implementation to see what it's expecting.

Part of the Designing PL/SQL Programs series

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A new law of office life

I posted my Three Laws of Office Life a long while back. Subsequent experience has revealed another one: Every office kitchen which has a sign reminding people to do their washing-up has a concomitant large pile of unwashed crockery and dirty cutlery.

People wash their own mug and cereal bowl, but are less rigorous with the crockery from the kitchen cupboard. This phenomenon will be familiar to anybody who has shared a house during their student days or later.

Don't think that installing a dishwasher will change anything: it merely transfers the problem. Someone who won't wash up a mug is even less likely to unload a dishwasher. There is only one workable solution, and that is to have no office kitchen at all. (Although this creates a new problem, as vending machine coffee is universally vile and the tea unspeakable.)

So the Pile of Washing Up constitutes an ineluctable law, but it is the fourth law and we all know that the canon only admits sets of three laws. One must go. Since I first formulated these laws cost-cutting in the enterprise has more-or-less abolished the practice of providing biscuits at meetings. Hence the old Second Law no longer holds, and creates a neat vacancy.

Here are the revised Laws of Office Life:

First law: For every situation there is an equal and apposite Dilbert cartoon.

Second Law: Every office kitchen which has a sign reminding people to do their washing-up has a concomitant large pile of unwashed crockery and dirty cutlery.

Third Law: The bloke with the most annoying laugh is the one who finds everything funny.

Introducing the RCCASS design principles

Rob C Martin actually defined eleven principles for OOP. The first five, the SOLID principles, relate to individual classes. The other six, the RCCASS principles, deal with the design of packages (in the C++ or Java sense, i.e. libraries). They are far less known than the first five. There are two reasons for this:

  • Unlike "SOLID", "RCCASS" is awkward to say and doesn't form a neat mnemonic. 
  • Programmers are far less interested in software architecture. 

Software architecture tends to be an alien concept in PL/SQL. Usually a codebase of packages simply accretes over the years, like a coral reef. Perhaps the RCCASS principles can help change that.

The RCCASS Principles

Reuse Release Equivalency Principle 

The Reuse Release Equivalency Principle states that the unit of release matches the unit of reuse, which is the parts of the program unit which are consumed by other programs. Basically the unit of release defines the scope of regression testing for consuming applications. It's an ill-mannered release which forces projects to undertake unnecessary regression testing. Cohesive program units allow consumers to do regression testing only for functionality they actually use. It's less of a problem for PL/SQL because (unlike C++ libraries of Java jars) the unit of release can have a very low level of granularity: individual packages or stored procedures.

Common Reuse Principle 

The Common Reuse principle supports the definition of cohesive program units. Functions which share a dependency belong together, because they are likely to be used together belong together. For instance, procedures which maintain the Employees table should be co-located in one package (or a group of related packages). They will share sub-routines, constants and exceptions. Packaging related procedures together makes the package easier to write and easier for calling programs to use.

Common Closure Principle

The Common Closure principle supports also the definition of cohesive program units. Functions which share a dependency belong together, because they have a common axis of change. Common Closure helps to minimise the number of program units affected by a change. For instance, programs which use the Employees table may need to change if the structure of the table changes. All the changes must be released together: table, PL/SQL, types, etc.

Acyclic Dependencies Principle 

Avoid cyclic dependencies between program units: if package A depends on package B then B must not have a dependency on B. Cyclic dependencies make application hard to use and harder to deploy. The dependency graph shows the order in which objects must be built. Designing a dependency graph upfront is futile, but we can keep to rough guidelines. Higher level packages implementing business rules tend to depend on generic routines which in turn tend to depend on low-level utilities. There should be no application logic in those lower-level routines. If SALES requires a special logging implementation then that should be handled in the SALES subsystem not in the standard logging package.

Stable Dependencies Principle 

Any change to the implementation of a program unit which is widely used will generate regression tests for all the programs which call it. At the most extreme, a change to a logging routine could affect all the other programs in our application. As with the Open/Closed Principle we need to fix bugs. But new features should be introduced by extension not modification. And refactoring of low-level dependencies must not done on a whim.

Stable Abstractions Principle

Abstractions are dependencies, especially when we're talking about PL/SQL. So this Principle is quite similar to Stable Dependencies Principle. The key difference is that this relates to the definition of interfaces rather than implementation. A change to the signature of a logging routine could require code changes to all the other programs in the application. Obviously this is even more inconvenient than enforced regression testing. Avoid changing the signature of a public procedure or the projection of a public view. Again, extension rather than modification is the preferred approach.

Applicability of RCCASS principles in PL/SQL 

The focus of these principles is the stability of a shared codebase, and minimising the impact of change on the consumers of our code. This is vital in large projects, where communication between teams is often convoluted. It is even more important for open source or proprietary libraries.

We we can apply Common Reuse Principle and Common Closure Principle to define the scope of the Reuse Release Equivalency Principle, and hence define the boundaries of a sub-system (whisper it, schema). Likewise we can apply the Stable Dependencies Principle and Stable Abstractions Principle to enforce the Acyclic Dependencies Principle to build stables PL/SQL libraries. So the RCCASS principles offer some most useful pointers towards a stable PL/SQL software architecture.

Part of the Designing PL/SQL Programs series

Monday, March 14, 2016

Introducing the SOLID design principles

PL/SQL programming standards tend to focus on layout (case of keywords, indentation, etc), naming conventions, and implementation details (such as use of cursors).  These are all important things, but they don't address questions of design. How easy is it to use the written code?  How easy is it to test? How easy will it be to maintain? Is it robust? Is it secure?

Simply put, there are no agreed design principles for PL/SQL. So it's hard to define what makes a well-designed PL/SQL program.

The SOLID principles

It's different for object-oriented programming. OOP has more design principles and paradigms and patterns than you can shake a stick at. Perhaps the most well-known are the SOLID principles, which were first mooted by Robert C. Martin, AKA Uncle Bob, back in 1995 (although it was Michael Feathers who coined the acronym).

Although Martin put these principles together for Object-Oriented code, they draw on a broader spectrum of programming practice. So they are transferable, or at least translatable, to the other forms of modular programming. For instance, PL/SQL.

Single Responsibility Principle

This is the foundation stone of modular programming: a program unit should do only one thing. Modules which do only one thing are easier to understand, easier to test and generally more versatile. Higher level procedures can be composed of lower level ones. Sometimes it can be hard to define what "one thing" means in a given context, but some of the other principles provide clarity. Martin's formulation is that there should be just one axis of change: there's just one set of requirements which, if modified or added to, would lead to a change in the package.

Open/closed Principle

The slightly obscure name conceals a straightforward proposal. It means program units are closed to modification but open to extension. If we need to add new functionality to a package, we create a new procedure rather than modifying an existing one. (Betrand Meyer, the father of Design By Contract programming, originally proposed it; in OO programming this principle is implemented through inheritance or polymorphism.) Clearly we must fix bugs in existing code. Also it doesn't rule out refactoring: we can tune the implementation providing we don't change the behaviour. This principle mainly applies to published program units, ones referenced by other programs in Production. Also the principle can be looser when the code is being used within the same project, because we can negotiate changes with our colleagues.

Liskov Substitution Principle

This is a real Computer Science-y one, good for dropping in code reviews. Named for Barbara Liskov it defines rules for behavioural sub-typing. If a procedure has a parameter defined as a base type it must be able to take an instance of any sub-type without changing the behaviour of the program. So a procedure which uses
to test the type of a passed parameter and do something different is violating Liskov Substitution. Obviously we don't make much use of Inheritance in PL/SQL programming, so this Principle is less relevant than in other programming paradigms.

Interface Segregation Principle

This principle is about designing fine-grained interfaces. It is a extension of the Single Responsibility Principle. Instead of build one huge package which contains all the functions relating to a domain build several smaller, more cohesive packages. For example Oracle's Advanced Queuing subsystem comprises five packages, to manage different aspects of AQ. Users who write to or read from queues have
; users who manage queues and subscribers have

Dependency Inversion Principle

Interactions between programs should be through abstract interfaces rather than concrete ones. Abstraction means the implementation of one side of the interface can change without changing the other side. PL/SQL doesn't support Abstract objects in the way that say Java does. To a certain extent Package Specifications provide a layer of abstraction but there can only be one concrete implementation. Using Types to pass data between Procedures is an interesting idea, which we can use to decouple data providers and data consumers in a useful fashion.

Applicability of SOLID principles in PL/SQL

So it seems like we can apply SOLID practices to PL/SQL.  True, some Principles fit better than others. But we have something which we might use to distinguish good design from bad when it comes to PL/SQL interfaces.

The SOLID principles apply mainly to individual modules. Is there something similar we can use for designing module groups? Why, yes there is. I'm glad you asked.

Part of the Designing PL/SQL Programs series

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Designing PL/SQL Programs

When I started out, in COBOL, structured programming was king. COBOL programs tended to be lengthy and convoluted. Plus GOTO statements. We needed program desire to keep things under control.

So I noticed the absence of design methodologies when I moved into Oracle. At first it didn't seem to be a problem. SQL was declarative and self-describing, and apparently didn't need designing. Forms was a 4GL and provided its own structure. And PL/SQL? Well that was just a glue, and the programs were so simple.

Then one day I was debugging several hundred lines of PL/SQL somebody had written, and struggling to figure out what was going on. So I drew a flow chart of the IF branches and WHILE loops. Obvious really, but if the original author had done that they would have realised that the program had an ELSE branch which could never be chosen; more than one hundred lines of code which would never execute.

Let me sleep()

Good design is hard to define: in fact, good design is often unobtrusive. It's bad design we notice, because it generates friction and hinders our progress. By way of illustration, here is a poor design choice in Oracle's PL/SQL library: DBMS_LOCK.SLEEP() .

SLEEP() is a simple program, which suspends processing for a parameterized number of seconds. This is not something we want to do often, but it is useful in testing. The problem is its home in the DBMS_LOCK package, because that package is not granted to public by default.

DBMS_LOCK is a utility package for building our own locking mechanisms. There's not much need for this any more. Oracle's default locking model is pretty good. There is SELECT .. FOR UPDATE for pessimistic locking, which is even more powerful since the SKIP LOCKED syntax was permitted in 11g. We have Advanced Queuing, Job Scheduling, oh my. It's hard to find a use case for user-defined locks which isn't re-inventing the wheel, and easy to see how we might end up implementing something less robust than the built-in locks. So DBAs tend not to grant execute on DBMS_LOCK without being asked, and then often not without a fight.

But as developers we need access to a sleep routine. So DBAs have to grant execute on DBMS_LOCK, and then that gives away too much access. It would be better if SLEEP() was easily accessible in some less controversial place.

Why is this an example of bad design? Because user-defined locks need a sleep routine but  SLEEP()has other uses besides lock implementations. Putting  SLEEP() in DBMS_LOCK means it's harder to use it.

Riding the Hobby Horse

Occasionally in a recruitment interview I have asked the candidate how they go would design a PL/SQL program. Mostly the question is met with bemusement. PL/SQL design is not A Thing. Yet many of us work on huge PL/SQL code-bases. How do they turn out without a design methodology? Badly:
  • Do you have one schema crammed with hundreds of PL/SQL program units, perhaps named with a prefix to identify sub-systems?
  • Do you have a package called UTILS?
  • Do you query USER_PROCEDURES or USER_DEPENDENCIES (or even USER_SOURCE) to find a piece of code which implements some piece of functionality?
  • Do you have the same functionality implemented in several places?
  • Does a "simple change" cascade into changes across multiple program units and a regression testing nightmare?
All these are symptoms of poor design. But there are ways to avoid this situation.

Designing PL/SQL Programs series

Monday, January 11, 2016

Goodbye Spaceboy

"Sometimes I feel
The need to move on
So I pack a bag
And move on"

Can't believe Bowie has taken that final train.

David Bowie's music has been part of my life pretty much since I started listening to pop music seriously. Lodger was the first Bowie album I listened to all the way through. It's probably his most under-appreciated album. It's funny to think that back then in 1979 Bowie was dismissed as past it, a boring old fart who should be swept aside by the vital surge of post-punk bands. Because those bands were raised on Ziggy, they were taught to dance by the Thin White Duke and they learnt that moodiness from listening to Low in darkened bedrooms too many times.

Even if you don't listen to Bowie, probably your favourite bands did. If they style their hair or wear make up, they listened to Bowie. If they play synths they listened to Bowie. If they make dance music for awkward white boys at indie discos they listened to Bowie. If they lurk in shadows smoking cigarettes in their videos they listened to Bowie. That's a large part of his legacy.

The other thing about Bowie is that his back catalogue has something for pretty much everybody. People who loved Ziggy Stardust might loath the plastic soul phase. Hardly anybody gets Hunky Dory; but for some fans it's their favourite album. My favourite is the first side of "Heroes" and the second side of Low, but that whole stretch from Young Americans to Lodger is a seam of sustained musical invention unparallelled by any other pop act. (Judicious picking of collaborators is an art in itself.)

Of course, there was a long fallow period. Tin Machine weren't as bad as we thought at the time, but the drum'n'bass was too 'Dad dancing at a wedding reception' for comfort. So it was a relief when he finally started producing decent albums again. Heathen has some lovely moments. The Next Day was something of a return to form (although a bit too long to be a classic). Then there's Blackstar.

It's almost as though Bowie hung on just long enough that Blackstar would be reviewed as his latest album, rather than his last one. The four and five star reviews earned through merit rather than the mawkishness which would have accompanied a posthumous release. And it really is pretty good. When I first heard the title track it sounded like Bowie was taking a cue from Scott Walker's latter period: edgy, experimental and deliberately designed not to be fan pleaser. But, unlike Walker, Bowie can't do wilfully unlistenable. Even in the midst of all that drone and skronk there are tunes. He can't help himself, his pop sensibility is too strong. Which is why I've already listened to Blackstar more times than I've listened to Bish Bosch.

So, farewell David Bowie. We're all going to miss you terribly. "May God's love be with you."