Sketch of a Post-ORM

I’ve been writing a lot of database access code as of late. It’s frustrating that in 2023, my choices are still to either write all of the boilerplate by hand, or hand all database access over to some inscrutable “agile” ORM that will become a crippling liability in the 2-3y timescale.

This post is about how I want to use databases, from the perspective of an application server developer—not a DBA or a BI guy or whatever. In a past life I wrote a Django-inspired ORM for Common Lisp, which taught me a few things about the failure modes of ORMs specifically and software engineering generally, but mostly this is a reflection on my experience in industry.


  1. Preamble: What is an ORM?
  2. The State of the Art
    1. Case: Use Raw SQL
    2. Case: Use an ORM
    3. Comparison
  3. The Sketch
    1. Migrations First
    2. Declarative Migrations
    3. Database-Specific
    4. Portable Across Languages
    5. Relational
    6. Post-SQL
    7. Sum Types
    8. Stored Procedures
  4. The Workflow
  5. Prior Art

Preamble: What is an ORM?

By ORM I mean a tool that lets you write code that looks like this:

class User(Model):
    class Meta:
        tablename = "users"
        pk = "id"

    id: BigSerial
    name: str
    email: Unique(str)
    age: Nullable(int)
    freemium: bool

user: User = User(name="Fernando", age=28).insert()

for user in User.filter(freemium=False).select(["email"]):

That is: a tool where you can write your database access code “language-first” rather than SQL first, where you define a record type and sprinkle some annotations and you can start writing queries using ordinary code. The tool then handles creating and altering the schema and converting your method calls to SQL dynamically. Typically the goal of an ORM is to have the most succint (or agile, if you want) possible way to use the database.

It doesn’t actually require that you map classes to tables, or even that your language support OOP at all.

The State of the Art

How do programmers use databases? The state of things is bimodal: you either write raw SQL, or you use an ORM.

Case: Use Raw SQL

“Everyone” knows ORMs are bad, because of the “object-relational impedance mismatch” or that they’re “the Vietnam of computer science” or whatever. “Everyone” knows you should write raw SQL instead.

But in most languages going from an ORM to raw SQL is like going from OCaml to Java: a three-line type definition in OCaml becomes four Java files, each of which is tens of lines of code written in quadruplicate, with IntelliJ-generated boilerplate.

So why do people use raw SQL?

  1. Queries written in SQL can be optimized endlessly, you’re not upper-bounded by the ORM’s query generator.
  2. You can use the power-user features specific to your RDBMS, while many ORMs provide a lowest-common-denominator interface.
  3. It’s easy to know where queries are happening, so you can centralize database access to specific modules (data access objects). This, in turn, has many benefits: there’s a clear separation between the interface to a query and its implementation, which allows it to be optimized separately. You have a central place to add features like pre or post-save checks, or database access logging.

And why wouldn’t people write raw SQL? The main problem is it looks like this:

def get_users_in_group(
    db: Db,
    group_id: GroupId,
    is_active: bool = True,
    limit: int = 100
) -> list[User]:
    query: str = """
            group_id = $1
            AND is_active = $2
        LIMIT $3;
    q: Query = db.prepare(query).bind([group_id.to_uuid(), is_active])
    rs: ResultSet = q.fetch_all()
    users: list[User] = []
    for row in rs:
        user: User = User(
    return users

The next problem is type-checking disappears at the query boundary. When you pull from a database, you get a dynamically-typed result set. Parsing that into your domain objects is boilerplate. If you change the query, but not the code around it, you get errors the compiler won’t catch.

Writing raw SQL is like writing bindings to a foreign C library, except the types are slightly richer and you’re defining said library inline, inside untyped string literals.

And SQL itself has problems(more on which later).

Case: Use an ORM

Raw SQL is tedious. So people use ORMs because they’re faster and more expedient: they let you hit the ground running and keep running for a very long time.

In fact, for building a throwaway prototype, ORMs are a great choice. The problem is that modern software engineering has no discipline around throwing away throwaway prototypes, instead insisting on gradually-evolving them into production-quality codebases (which never happens).

The problem with ORMs are:

  1. Performance: the generated SQL is often badly optimized.

  2. Fundamental Performance: sometimes it’s not even badly optimized, it’s just that the best queries you can write are intrinsically slow and involve eighteen joins because of the way the ORM has set up the schema. And because you don’t see the generated SQL, you don’t notice this until it starts showing up in timeouts and production error logs.

    And people will tell you to just optimize the hot loops. But let’s be realistic: how many of us are measuring query performance uniformly? Thorough instrumentation is a “nice to have” that doesn’t fit neatly into a user stories, so your incompetent PM will kick that down to the bottom of the backlog. The path of least resistance here is to just use the ORM exclusively, and that is what gets done in practice.

  3. Pointless Portability: ORMs often emphasize portability (across RDBMSs) at the cost of performance and specificity, giving you a portable lowest-common-denominator interface when what you usually want is database access that leverages the RDBMS’ feature set.

  4. Knowledge Doesn’t Transfer: knowing how to write good queries in the Django ORM doesn’t tell you how to write good SQL by hand.

  5. Sunk Costs: While ORMs make it easier to swap e.g. Postgres for MySQL, which you will never do, they make it hard to swap the ORM itself for something else.

  6. Query Smearing: ORMs make it easy to access the database. The problem is they make it easy to access the database: queries are smeared across the application. It’s very hard to statically determine where, in your codebase, the database access is actually happening, and there is no pressure to centralize database access in a DAO for easy instrumenting and encapsulation.

    Sometimes you want features along the lines of “when saving a model, do X”, this is hard to implement with many ORMs since updates could potentially happen anywhere. “Just use database triggers lol” doesn’t fix this, because the whole problem with ORMs is they either don’t play well with native RDBMS features, or they make it painful to use them.

So we get agility, at the cost of many other things.


When do you choose one over the other? You can think of it as being about fixed vs. marginal costs.

With raw SQL, the fixed cost is high: you have to write a lot! But the actual time spent writing boilerplate is not much. It just feels like a lot because it’s tedious. And it’s the kind of tedium that LLMs can handle wonderfully. Migrations can also be a problem if you don’t have something like Liquibase.

The marginal cost is low. Each new query is an infinitesimal fraction of the total database access code. Every query is a function, so it can be tested independently. You can easily find where that function is being called, and where the tests for it are, by saerching for usages or even simply searching the function name. Database access is easy to centralize and instrument.

The performance ceiling can be as high as you want: within the query function you can refactor and optimize the query endlessly.

With ORMs the fixed cost is low: you hit the ground running fast. But the marginal cost is high.

A few years into the project, in the maintenance phase, the schema changes rarely, so the schema management and auto-magic-migration tools are less useful. You have omnipresent performance problems. There are n+1 queries everywhere, but where specifically? You don’t know. It’s impossible to statically determine where a specific query is happening. You have to instrument at runtime, which is rarely done rigorously or uniformly, tracing every call and staring at logs until you find your performance problems.

There is a missing middle: something with a bit more convenience and less boilerplate than writing all the query boilerplate by hand, but without the problems of ORMs that try to reinvent the whole universe and do so poorly.

The Sketch

This section describes how I want to use databases. In brief:

  1. I don’t want to write anything uninteresting, i.e. mapping result sets to native language types.
  2. Migrations first, not schema first.
  3. Migrations are specified in a declarative format, not in SQL.
  4. The tool is specific to the database, not portable, and exposes features specific to that database.
  5. The tool can generate database access bindings for multiple programming languages.
  6. I want a query language that’s better than SQL. Specifically, it has to be 1) composable, 2) statically typed and with 3) a sane syntax.
  7. I want sum types.

Migrations First

ORMs are typically schema-first: you write your schema (as Python classes), and the ORM automatically generates a schema. When you modify your classes, the ORM diffs the resulting schema against the previous one and makes a migration.

This is convenient: it does what you mean and is declarative.

The problem is it underemphasizes migrations and makes them into an implementation detail.

I don’t think I can argue this very effectively or rigorously, but I think migrations should come first. You should write migrations as separate files, then the database access tool should run those migrations virtually against an empty schema, to recover the current state of the schema. Then it can print this schema out as an SQL file or as HTML documentation for the current state of the database.

This is similar to code-first GraphQL libraries where you define your GraphQL schema in code, and then the library dumps a schema.gql file for the frontend to pick up.

Declarative Migrations

Migrations should not be written in SQL but in some parseable, declarative format like JSON or YAML.

Why? Because to typecheck queries, you need to know what the schema looks like. To know what the schema looks like, you can either query the live database (it’s arguable whether this is good), or build a virtual model of that schema. I prefer static solutions.

If your migrations are a bunch of YAML files like:

comment: Add a `deleted_at` column for the user table.
  - type: add_column
    table: users
    column: deleted_at
    type: "Timestamp"
  - type: add_constraint
    table: users
    name: deleted_at_is_greater_than_joined_at
    check: "(deleted_at is null) or (deleted_at > joined_at)"

Then you can parse those migrations into objects, and run those migration objects against a virtual schema, starting from the empty schema, to see what the resulting schema looks like.

The problem with raw SQL is that it’s impossible to parse SQL into objects that can be manipulated programmatically. SQL is, in a sense, a write-only language.

You can write a parser for ISO SQL, but that’s not the language you’re using. You’re using your RDBMS’ dialect of SQL. You can write a parser for e.g. Postgres’ dialect, but that’s a moving target. Really the only way to parse a Postgres ALTER TABLE statement is:

  1. Query the schema from the live database.
  2. Run the statement.
  3. Query the schema again.
  4. Diff the old and new versions.

Which is not ideal.

So there’s an assymetry, where it’s trivial to go from first-class objects to SQL, but it’s basically impossible to go from textual SQL to a first-class object.

Therefore, rather than write migrations as SQL and make a Herculean effort to parse them, we should simply write some in some declarative format that’s easy to parse.


Many ORMs and database access tools advertise portability as a feature. For certain tools (e.g. DBeaver or Java’s java.sql) this makes sense. For more involved tools, portability is an anti-feature.

The problem is that SQL, in practice, is never portable.

For example, SQLite vs. everything else is a completely different universe. Until a recent version, SQLite’s INSERT statement didn’t support a RETURNING clause.

But even putting SQLite aside, even within the big iron databases (Postgres, MySQL and the various proprietary ones) the differences are immense. The set of data types is different. The performance characteristics are different. Even the SQL itself has a different syntax.

The choice of database is unlike, say, the choice of filesystem. If your computer uses ext4 or zfs, there exists a functional level above which the differences disappear. ls works the same regardless. fopen works the same. As long as you’re not using the more advanced features, you can swap one filesystem for another without caring at all which one it is.

The choice of Postgres vs. MySQL is more like the choice of C and C++: two programming languages that are syntactically and semantically kind of similar, such that people often write “C/C++”, but which are in completely different universes.

And the problem with portability is it comes at the cost of specificity. I don’t want a database access tool, I want a Postgres access tool. I want it to expose Postgres’ power user features as first-class features, not remote extensions enabled at my own peril.

Portable Across Languages

This isn’t really a hard requirement, but an example of what is possible.

With OpenAPI you define your schema in some declarative language, and a code generator spits out client code and server stubs in many languages. Why not the same for databases? If the database schema/migrations are defined in a declarative format, and the query language is some type-checked compile-to-SQL language, the database access tool can easily typecheck the queries separately from your codebase, and generate code to:

  1. Apply the migrations.
  2. Run the generated SQL queries.
  3. Map the query result set to a type defined from the schema.


Ten years ago or so NoSQL took off. The movement promised two things:

  1. Schemaless databases for agility. See, for example, this article in the MongoDB blog from 2009: Databases Should be Dynamically Typed.

  2. Schemaless databases for performance.

Lots of people whose data would fit in SQLite and whose workloads could run off an Apple Watch switched to MongoDB and similar.

Gradually reality sets in.

There is no such thing as a schemaless database, only a database with an implicit schema, a schema defined piecemeal at a thousand different points in the codebase. Types are good. Dynamic typing is bad. Slow is fast. You are not Google. Most everyone isn’t the LHC and doesn’t need a non-relational key-value or blob store for their core database.

ACID guarantees are extremely valuable. Explicit schemas are great. I don’t want less schemas, I want more. I want stricter schemas than Postgres provides. I want strong and static types. I want queries I can typecheck statically, before executing them.


SQL is bad, for two reasons:

  1. The syntax is bad.
  2. Type checking is absent.

On the first point, here’s the grammar for the SELECT statement in Postgres:

[ WITH [ RECURSIVE ] with_query [, ...] ]
SELECT [ ALL | DISTINCT [ ON ( expression [, ...] ) ] ]
    [ * | expression [ [ AS ] output_name ] [, ...] ]
    [ FROM from_item [, ...] ]
    [ WHERE condition ]
    [ GROUP BY [ ALL | DISTINCT ] grouping_element [, ...] ]
    [ HAVING condition ]
    [ WINDOW window_name AS ( window_definition ) [, ...] ]
    [ { UNION | INTERSECT | EXCEPT } [ ALL | DISTINCT ] select ]
    [ ORDER BY expression [ ASC | DESC | USING operator ] [ NULLS { FIRST | LAST } ] [, ...] ]
    [ LIMIT { count | ALL } ]
    [ OFFSET start [ ROW | ROWS ] ]
    [ FETCH { FIRST | NEXT } [ count ] { ROW | ROWS } { ONLY | WITH TIES } ]
    [ FOR { UPDATE | NO KEY UPDATE | SHARE | KEY SHARE } [ OF table_name [, ...] ] [ NOWAIT | SKIP LOCKED ] [...] ]

where from_item can be one of:

    [ ONLY ] table_name [ * ] [ [ AS ] alias [ ( column_alias [, ...] ) ] ]
                [ TABLESAMPLE sampling_method ( argument [, ...] ) [ REPEATABLE ( seed ) ] ]
    [ LATERAL ] ( select ) [ AS ] alias [ ( column_alias [, ...] ) ]
    with_query_name [ [ AS ] alias [ ( column_alias [, ...] ) ] ]
    [ LATERAL ] function_name ( [ argument [, ...] ] )
                [ WITH ORDINALITY ] [ [ AS ] alias [ ( column_alias [, ...] ) ] ]
    [ LATERAL ] function_name ( [ argument [, ...] ] ) [ AS ] alias ( column_definition [, ...] )
    [ LATERAL ] function_name ( [ argument [, ...] ] ) AS ( column_definition [, ...] )
    [ LATERAL ] ROWS FROM( function_name ( [ argument [, ...] ] ) [ AS ( column_definition [, ...] ) ] [, ...] )
                [ WITH ORDINALITY ] [ [ AS ] alias [ ( column_alias [, ...] ) ] ]
    from_item join_type from_item { ON join_condition | USING ( join_column [, ...] ) [ AS join_using_alias ] }
    from_item NATURAL join_type from_item
    from_item CROSS JOIN from_item

and grouping_element can be one of:

    ( )
    ( expression [, ...] )
    ROLLUP ( { expression | ( expression [, ...] ) } [, ...] )
    CUBE ( { expression | ( expression [, ...] ) } [, ...] )
    GROUPING SETS ( grouping_element [, ...] )

and with_query is:

    with_query_name [ ( column_name [, ...] ) ] AS [ [ NOT ] MATERIALIZED ] ( select | values | insert | update | delete )
        [ SEARCH { BREADTH | DEPTH } FIRST BY column_name [, ...] SET search_seq_col_name ]
        [ CYCLE column_name [, ...] SET cycle_mark_col_name [ TO cycle_mark_value DEFAULT cycle_mark_default ] USING cycle_path_col_name ]

TABLE [ ONLY ] table_name [ * ]

It’s bad that something so basic has like twenty eight structural variants and fifty subexpression holes.

You can imagine syntax on a spectrum of uniformity (I’d normally say regularity but this gets confused with regular languages), with Lisp and XML at one end representing extreme syntactic uniformity, and SQL at the other end representing extreme syntactic specificity. Generally you want a happy medium: where the syntax is regular enough to be composable and easily remembered, but specific enough you can read code effectively.

SQL being so non-uniform makes it hard to parse, hard to learn, and hard to remember.

You may argue this is “good for beginners and non-programmers”, and I would dispute that. But I am not beginner and I am not a non-programmer. They can have SQL, if they want. I want something better.

On the second point about type checking, this matters less if you’re using the database interactively, like a DBA or a business analyst, and it matters greatly if you’re using the database from an application server, where queries are fixed and only parameters are different.

I want a better SQL. A better SQL is a language with:

  1. Sane, composable syntax.
  2. Static type checking.
  3. That compiles to efficient Postgres SQL.

This is easier said than done. The challenge has three stages:

  1. Design a sane query language.
  2. Make it feature-complete to Postgres’ SQL.
  3. Compile it to efficient SQL.

Sum Types

We need sum types. Java has sum types now. Humanity cannot survive this century without sum types in relational databases.

Typically this is implemented in userspace (in SQL), in one of two ways:

  1. Having a whole slew of nullable columns, with complicated constraints.
  2. Using multiple tables with foreign keys.

Both of these are a problem. But with a typed query language the latter can be implemented very simply. A schema like:

enum PersonKind {

table Person {
  key id: BigSerial;
  name: String;
  case kind: PersonKind {
    when Student {
      grade: String;
    when Teacher {
      subject: String;

Can be compiled to:

CREATE TYPE person_kind AS ENUM ('Student', 'Teacher');

  id bigserial primary key,
  name text not null,
  kind person_kind not null,
  student__grade text,
  teacher__subject text,

  -- Student implies grade is non-null, subject is null.
  CHECK ((kind <> 'student') or ((student__grade <> null) and (teacher__subject = null)));
  -- Teacher implies grade is null, subject is non-null.
  CHECK ((kind <> 'teacher') or ((student__grade = null) and (teacher__subject <> null)));

Which is a hell to do by hand. Also a reason why SQL should have an implication logical statement.

Stored Procedures

Maybe someone can work out a way to do stored procedures that isn’t a huge liability with regards to migration and deployment.

The Workflow

Here’s what using a post-ORM would look like. I’ve started a new project that needs database access, so I cd to its directory and run:

$ postorm init

And this creates some directories:


Then I create my first migration:

$ postorm migrations new

This brings up my editor on a temporary YAML file, and I write:

comment: Initial migration.
  - type: create_table
    name: users
      - name: id
        type: bigserial
        pk: true
      - name: email
        type: string
        unique: true
      # etc.

I save the file and quit and this is saved to.


Migrations (sans comments) are hashed to prevent editing them after the fact. Then:

$ postorm queries new getUsersByGroup

This creates a file postorm/queries/getUsersByGroup.fql (where fql stands for “future query language”), and I open it and write:

query findUsersInCohort(cohort_id: Cohort, limit: Nat = 100): Stream[User] =
  | filter(active = true)
  | filter(%.cohort_id = cohort_id)
  | project id, email, display_name
  | sort joined_at
  | reverse
  | take limit

Which compiles to something along the lines of:

    id, email, display_name
    users AS u
WHERE = true
    AND u.cohort_id = $1
    joined_at DESC

Then postorm generate python generates Python bindings to the above, along the lines of:

class UserIdEmailDisplayName:
    id: UserId
    email: Email
    display_name: DisplayName

def get_users_in_cohort(
    db: Db,
    cohort_id: CohortId,
    limit: int = 100
) -> Stream[UserIdEmailDisplayName]:
    query: str = """
            id, email, display_name
            users AS u
   = true
            AND u.cohort_id = $1
        ORDER BY
            joined_at DESC
    q: Query = db.prepare(query).bind([cohort_id.to_int(), limit])
    rs: ResultSet = q.fetch_all()

    def _map_row(row: Row) -> User:
        return UserIdEmailDisplayName(


Alongside code to run the migrations, and maybe linting code and such.

Prior Art

PRQL is the closest thing that exists today to the query language I want to use.

SQLx an asynchronous database access library for Rust. It supports typechecking queries. The FAQ explains how they implemented this:

The macros work by talking to the database at compile time. When a(n) SQL client asks to create a prepared statement from a query string, the response from the server typically includes information about the following:

  • the number of bind parameters, and their expected types if the database is capable of inferring that
  • the number, names and types of result columns, as well as the original table and columns names before aliasing

In MySQL/MariaDB, we also get boolean flag signaling if a column is NOT NULL, however in Postgres and SQLite, we need to do a bit more work to determine whether a column can be NULL or not.

After preparing, the Postgres driver will first look up the result columns in their source table and check if they have a NOT NULL constraint. Then, it will execute EXPLAIN (VERBOSE, FORMAT JSON) <your query> to determine which columns come from half-open joins (LEFT and RIGHT joins), which makes a normally NOT NULL column nullable. Since the EXPLAIN VERBOSE format is not stable or completely documented, this inference isn’t perfect. However, it does err on the side of producing false-positives (marking a column nullable when it’s NOT NULL) to avoid errors at runtime.

If you do encounter false-positives please feel free to open an issue; make sure to include your query, any relevant schema as well as the output of EXPLAIN (VERBOSE, FORMAT JSON) <your query> which will make this easier to debug.

The SQLite driver will pull the bytecode of the prepared statement and step through it to find any instructions that produce a null value for any column in the output.

So it works, but it is supremely complicated. The FAQ also has this to say about the difficulty of doing any kind of semantic analysis on SQL:

Why can’t SQLx just look at my database schema/migrations and parse the SQL itself?

Take a moment and think of the effort that would be required to do that.

To implement this for a single database driver, SQLx would need to:

  • know how to parse SQL, and not just standard SQL but the specific dialect of that particular database
  • know how to analyze and typecheck SQL queries in the context of the original schema
  • if inferring schema from migrations it would need to simulate all the schema-changing effects of those migrations

This is effectively reimplementing a good chunk of the database server’s frontend,

and maintaining and ensuring correctness of that reimplementation,

including bugs and idiosyncrasies,

for the foreseeable future,

for every database we intend to support.

Even Sisyphus would pity us.