You Need More Constraints

If you use a relational database, you are almost certainly underusing constraints. This post is a checklist of useful database constraints you should consider when designing a schema.


  1. Invariants
  2. Defense in Depth
  3. Checklist: Scalar Constraints
    1. Non-Null
    2. Uniqueness
    3. Non-Empty Strings
    4. String Normalization
    5. Numeric Ranges
    6. Allowed Values
  4. Checklist: Multi-Column Constraints
    1. Unique Together
    2. Conditional Nulls
    3. Implication
    4. Multiple Boolean Columns
    5. Timestamp Relationships
  5. Checklist: Before/After Constraints
    1. Immutable Columns
    2. State Transitions
    3. Numeric Changes
  6. Conclusion


Every data model has invariants: statements about the data which must always be true. Most invariants are implicit: things that people reasonably expect but wouldn’t list off the top of their head. Good design is about making invariants explicit rather than explicit.

For example: usernames as stored as strings. But what is a string? Anything from the empty string to the complete works of William Shakespeare and beyond1. But when you focus on it, usernames are an infinitesimal subset of all strings. Usernames usually have the following properties:

  1. First and foremost they are non-empty.
  2. They are globally unique, often with the added constraint of being unique in a case-insensitive way.
  3. They are a single line of text: newlines are not permitted.
  4. They are limited to some alphabet (e.g. alphanumeric characters and underscores, usually in ASCII).
  5. No spaces are are allowed.
  6. Obscure characters like non-printable characters, non-breaking spaces, and weird Unicode characters (see homoglyph attack) should not be allowed (display names are a different matter than usernames. It would be impermissible to prevent users from writing their name in their own script.)

But most of these invariants are never enforced. The ones that are enforced are usually enforced in ad-hoc places.

Invariants can be ranked by how hard they are to enforce:

  1. Scalar invariants involve a single value, and are easy to enforce both in a database and in a programming language.
  2. Multi-column invariants, involving a relationship between values in a single row are also easy to enforce.
  3. Before/after invariants between the pre-update and post-update values of a row are harder to enforce, but are still enforceable in SQL using triggers.
  4. Relational invariants spanning multiple database tables are very hard to enforce in SQL. They have to be enforced at the app level, usually when converting the results of an SQL query involving joins into an object in the programming language of the API server.

In general you should enforce every invariant you can tractably enforce. Most of these you can come up with while designing the database, and following a checklist (such as this post) can help. Some of them you will only come up with after the fact, looking at the data, and often wonder why you didn’t think of them.

In either case, adding a constraint is not too time consuming, it’s just a matter of creating a migration and writing the DDL. The only tedious part is the verbosity of SQL, but GitHub Copilot is really good at this. You can write a comment explaining what you want and it usually gets the constraint right.

You should start with the strictest possible data model, because it’s trivial to go from strict to lax: you just drop the constraints. But it is very, very hard to go from lax to strict, often it involves days or weeks or months of planning and schema migrations and data migrations.

Defense in Depth

Where should invariants be enforced?

  1. In the frontend?
  2. In the API?
  3. In the backend models?
  4. In the database?

The answer is: at least in the API and the database. Ideally everywhere. Because in practice you will miss some.

So practice defense in depth: if you forget enforcement in one layer, you get enforcement in the next layer. A 500 error is better than bad data: one is transient, the other is a thorn on the side of your data model that eventually leads to the death by a thousand cuts.

The database is special: it’s the last line of defense. Ideally, all of your invariants are enforced at higher layers, and database constraints are never violated. A database constraint violation is a sign of a bug in the code.

Checklist: Scalar Constraints

This section lists useful scalar constraints: these are constraints applying to a single column in a database row.


This goes without saying. Most things should be non-null. The best reason to avoid null values is that in SQL, null is two things:

  1. The None case of an Option type.
  2. A three valued logic that propagates across the entire language.

SQL becomes harder to reason about where nulls are involved.

If you have columns that are initially null, but become non-null after some transformation, you should consider having another table for those values and a foreign key. Then the nulls move from the column to the join, where they are more expected. Alternatively, you should enforce constraints, see below.


When making a column, always ask yourself: should this be unique? Especially with foreign keys. This too should go without saying.

Non-Empty Strings

Almost everywhere you use a string, you almost certainly want a non-empty string. This is hardly ever enforced, but it’s easy to add a constraint:

alter table foo add constraint username_non_empty check (length(username) > 0);

If a string is nullable, consider making it non-null and using the empty string as the null value. That way you avoid both the pitfalls of nulls and the problem of having two distinct values to represent the empty case.

You should also have server-side types to represent non-empty strings, e.g.:

class NonEmptyString:
    value: str

    def __post_init__(self):
        if not self.value:
            raise ValueError("String must be non-empty.")

String Normalization

Consider email addresses. What are the constraints?

  1. Non-empty.
  2. Lowercase (you don’t want to deal with the bugs when you have and as distinct rows in the database.
  3. Satisfying some reasonable regex2.

In Postgres, we can enforce all of these constraints:

-- Emails are non-empty.
check (length(email) > 0)

-- Emails are lowercase.
check (email = lowercase(email))

-- Emails must satisfy a regex.
check (email ~ '^[\w\.\-\+]+@[\w\.\-\+]+$')

You can interactively test that your regex accepts a tractable set of email addresses:

> select '' ~ '^[\w\.\-\+]+@[\w\.\-\+]+$'

true    |

Numeric Ranges

Most numeric columns should usually be constrained to some range:

-- Login count is at least zero.
constraint login_count_is_natural check (login_count >= 0);

-- Weight must be greater than zero.
constraint weight_is_positive check (weight > 0);

-- Percentages are between 0.0 and 1.0.
constraint percentage_in_range check ((percentage >= 0.0) and (percentage <= 1.0));

Allowed Values

Columns that represent enumerations should have constraints on their allowed values. Postgres has native support for enum types and you should default to that, but if you’re using a string column, you should add a check constraint.

constraint allowed_states is check (state in ('not_started', 'started', 'finished'));

Checklist: Multi-Column Constraints

This section describes constraints involving multiple values within the same row.

Unique Together

When designing a table, always ask yourself: is there some pair of columns that should be unique together? This is often a pair of foreign keys, or a pair of a foreign key and some other value, like for example position in a list.

In this schema:

create table book (
  book_id uuid primary key

create table chapter (
  chapter_id uuid primary key,
  book_id uuid not null references book(book_id),
  position integer not null

The (book_id, position) pair should be unique together:

constraint unique_book_and_position unique (book_id, position);

And naturally the position should have a range check:

constraint position_is_natural check (position >= 0);

Conditional Nulls

Consider this schema:

create table user (
    user_id uuid primary key,
    is_verified boolean not null,
    verified_at timestamp

There is an implicit relationship between is_verified and verified_at here:

  1. If is_verified is true, verified_at must be non-null.
  2. If is_verified is false, verified_at must be null.

And dually:

  1. If verified_at is non-null, is_verified must be true.
  2. If verified_at is null, is_verified must be false.

Constraints like these are hardly ever explicitly enforced, but should be. And they can be enforced very simply:

check (
    (is_verified = true and verified_at is not null) or
    (is_verified = false and verified_at is null)

This is a bad example because the is_verified field is wholly redundant, but a more common example is when you have multiple foreign keys are some are conditionally null. For example:

-- Users are either students or teachers.
create table user (
  user_id uuid primary key,
  user_type string not null,
  student_id uuid references student(student_id),
  teacher_id uuid references teacher(teacher_id),

  constraint user_type_allowed_values check (user_type in ('student', 'teacher'));

The constraints here are:

  1. User type is student iff student_id is non-null and teacher_id is null.
  2. User type is teacher iff student_id is null and teacher_id is non-null.

We can enforce them like this:

check (
    (user_type = 'student' and student_id is not null and teacher_id is null)
    (user_type = 'teacher' and student_id is null and teacher_id is not null)


Many constraints have the form “if condition then something”. SQL doesn’t have native support for writing if-then constraints, but you can exploit logic to do this: an implication $P \implies Q$ is equivalent to $\neg P \lor Q$, and this you can write in SQL.

For example:

-- state = finished implies finished_at is non-null
check ((state <> finished) or (finished_at is not null))

Note that, when you write down all the constraints, you usually find that most implication relationships are usually bi-directional, and enforcing them as if-then constraints creates a combinatorial explosion of constraints. Therefore, for things that are logically related, you should try to write one constraint with one big logical expression. That way, when evolving your data model, you only have to change one constraint rather than an implicitly-connected group of constraints.

Multiple Boolean Columns

A common anti-pattern is to have multiple boolean toggles in the same row, with some implicit exclusion relationship between them. Ideally you should replace these with an enum field of some kind, as an interim solution, you can add constraints about which values are allowed at the same time.

For example:

create table user (
    user_id uuid primary key,
    is_admin boolean not null,
    is_teacher boolean not null,
    is_student boolean not null

We can enforce that all of these are mutually exclusive:

check (
    (is_admin and (not is_teacher) and (not is_student))
    ((not is_admin) and is_teacher and (not is_student))
    ((not is_admin) and (not is_teacher) and is_student)

Timestamp Relationships

These are usually missed, but if you have columns like started_at, ended_at and such, you should enforce their temporal relationship:

check (started_at < ended_at);

Checklist: Before/After Constraints

This section describes how to enforce constraints on row update using triggers.

Immutable Columns

Most columns arguably should be immutable, but SQL makes this hard to enforce.

However, you can do it with triggers. For example:

create table user (
    user_id uuid primary key

To ensure user IDs are immutable:

create or replace function user_immutable_columns() returns trigger as $$
    if new.user_id <> old.user_id then
        raise exception 'user.user_id update is not allowed';
    end if;

    return new;
$$ language plpgsql;

create trigger user_immutable_columns_trigger
    before update
    on users
    for each row execute function prevent_email_update();

State Transitions

If you have a state column, you can enforce that state transitions happen in the correct direction through a trigger. For example:

create table job (
    job_id uuid primary key,
    state string not null,

    constraint allowed_states (state in ('not_started', 'started', 'finished')

Implicitly, updates to this table can only go from not_started to started and from started to finished. We can enforce this with a trigger:

create or replace function user_immutable_columns() returns trigger as $$
    if new.state = 'started' and old.state <> 'not_started' then
        raise exception 'Invalid state transition.';
    end if;

    if new.state = 'finished' and old.state <> 'started' then
        raise exception 'Invalid state transition.';
    end if;

    return new;
$$ language plpgsql;

Numeric Changes

Analogously to the above, you can enforce that numeric columns change in certain ways: that integers increase monotonically, for example, or that some values only go up or down.


Every data model has invariants: the only difference is whether you enforce them or not. Postgres has powerful tools for enforcing invariants. You should use them. For a tiny cost in development effort, you buy a solid baseline of reliablity.


  1. This is related to Primitive Obsession: you should use domain-specific types like Email, Username, rather than generic types like String

  2. Ultimately the only way to properly “validate” an email address is to send an email to it. But it is perfectly reasonable to reject insane email addresses using a regex, in the interest of keeping things tractable.