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Spring Data MongoDB - Relation Modelling

MongoDB’s flexible schema allows for multiple patterns when it comes to modeling relationships between entities. Also, for many use cases, a denormalized data model (storing related data right within a single document) might be the best choice, because all information is kept in one place, so that the application requires fewer queries to fetch all data. However, this approach also has its downsides, such as potential data duplication, larger documents, and the maximum document size.

In general, MongoDB recommends using normalized data models when the advantages of embedding are neglected by the implications of duplication. In this blog post, we take a look at the different possibilities of linking documents with manual references and DBRefs when the need occurs to work with relations.

DBRef is MongoDB’s native element to express references to other documents with an explicit format { $db : …, $ref : …, $id : … } that holds information about the target database, collection, and id value of the references element, best suited to link to documents distributed across different collections.

Manual references, on the other hand, are simpler in structure (by storing only the id of the referenced document), but are, therefore, not as flexible when it comes to mixed collection references.

Having set the terminology, let’s introduce well known domain types, such as Book and Publisher, and their obvious relation to one another:

class Book {
    private String isbn13;
    private String title;
    private int pages;
}

class Publisher {
    private String name;
    private String arconym;
    private int foundationYear;
}

Embedding the Publisher within each and every Book is not an appealing option, as it would lead to data duplication and put an unnecessary burden on storage and maintainability:

class Book {
    // ...
    private Publisher publisher;
}

Though this storage format allows for atomic updates and offers the most flexibility when it comes to querying for specific attributes, the repetition of the Publisher information, as shown in the snippet below, might not be worth this cost:

{
    "_id" : "617cfb",
    "isbn13" : "978-0345503800",
    "title" : "The Warded Man",
    "pages" : 432,
    "publisher" : {
        "name" : "Del Rey Books",
        "arconym" : "DRB",
        "foundationYear" : 1977
    }
}

The same goes for embedding a collection of Books within the Publisher, which causes unnecessarily large documents. Normalizing the model and working with linked documents can mitigate the issue.

A first step is to determine the direction of the relation, to figure out which part of the relation needs to hold the reference, if not both. This decision will influence our lookup, storage, and query options available later on.

Linking with DBRefs

In this case, the Publisher holds references to the associated Books. The idea is to store those references as an array within the Publisher document:

class Publisher {
    // ...
    @DBRef
    List<Book> books;
}

In the above snippet, the books property is annotated with @DBRef. This advises the Spring Data mapping layer to store elements of the property as MongoDB native $dbref elements, which looks like the following:

{
    "_id" : "833f7d",
    "name" : "Del Rey Books",
    "arconym" : "DRB",
    "foundationYear" : 1977,
    "books" : [
        {
            "$ref" : "book",
            "$id" : "617cfb"
        },
        {
            "$ref" : "book",
            "$id" : "23e78f"
        }
    ]
}

Using the @DBRef annotation lets us reduce storage size by not repeating all Publisher information within the Book, which is good. Still, this approach has its downsides. The Book no longer holds information about the publisher, which may impact queries that look up Books by attributes of the Publisher. The lack of back reference from the Book to the publisher will also affect performance when looking up the Publisher for a given Book, since we now have to issue a query against the Publisher collection that matches a Book.id against the books field of a publisher, instead of heading directly for its id. Additionally the books array in Publisher uses a complex object that stores more information than necessary, whereas a manual reference that uses the id alone would have been sufficient, since all references objects are held in the same target collection.

Fortunately, there are ways to improve, starting with adding a back reference to the Publisher, (for example, by its id):

class Book {
    // …
    private String publisherId;
}

Linking with Manual References

Next, let’s switch from DBRef to manual references for storing the collection of Book references. The obvious step would be to remove the @DBRef annotation and replace the List<Book> with a List<String>, as in the snippet below:

class Publisher {
    // …
    List<String> bookIds;
}
{
    …
    "bookIds" : ["617cfb", "23e78f", … ]
}

To add a new Book to the bookIds field of Publisher, we could use the following statement.

template.update(Publisher.class)
    .matching(where("id").is(publisher.id))
    .apply(new Update().push("bookIds", book.id))
    .first();

Following this approach optimizes for storage format and makes a very explicit statement about the data type used in both the domain model as well as the database. Nevertheless, just bookIds does not give you the context of the collection in which to look up the values contained in the bookIds field.

Linking using Declarative Manual References

Starting with Spring Data MongoDB 3.3.0, manual references can be expressed in a declarative way by using the @DocumentReference annotation:

class Publisher {
    // …
    @DocumentReference
    List<Book> books;
}

By default, this tells the mapping layer to extract the id value of the referenced entity for storage, loading the referenced document itself on read.

{
    …
    "books" : ["617cfb", … ]
}

Because the mapping layer is aware of the link between the documents, update statements, such as the one shown earlier, detect the association and extract the id for storage:

template.update(Publisher.class)
    .matching(where("id").is(publisher.id))
    .apply(new Update().push("books", book))
    .first();

Also, the back reference from Book to Publisher could be modeled this way. In this case, it might make sense to delay the retrieval of the publisher until first access of the property to avoid eager loading delays:

class Book {
    // …
    @DocumentReference(lazy=true)
    private Publisher publisher;
}

By using declarative links, we can now preserve mapping functionality while optimizing for storage. Still, we need to be careful when adding new Book instances, as those also need to be added to the books field of the Publisher, to establish the link:

template.save(newBook);

template.update(Publisher.class)
    .matching(where("id").is(newBook.publisher.id))
    .apply(new Update().push("books", newBook))
    .first();

The above snippet outlines very well the non-atomic nature of working with links between documents, which may require to run operations within a Transaction.

One-To-Many Style References

Depending on your application’s needs, it can be feasible to invert the relation between Book and Publisher so that the linking element is solely stored within the Book documents. This lets you store Books without having to think about updating the Publisher document, as we saw in the last snippet. To do so, we need to do two things. First, we need to tell the mapping layer to omit storing links from Publisher to Book and second, update the lookup query when retrieving linked Books.

The initial part is rather easy, applying an additional @ReadOnlyPorperty annotation to the books property. The other part requires us to update the lookup attribute of the @DocumentReference annotation with a custom query:

class Publisher {
    // …
    @ReadOnlyProperty
    @DocumentReference(lookup="{'publisher':?#{#self._id} }")
    List<Book> books;
}

In the snippet above, we make use of the expression support within the query parser of Spring Data. In doing so, we can access the raw Publisher document by using the #self attribute and can extract its identifier to then use it when querying the Book collection for matching elements.

Final Remarks

Having a single aggregate root with embedded data has many advantages. Still, it is important to understand how to model relations once those advantages are superseded by other concerns, such as storage size or operability. We have seen that, by moving from an embedded approach to DBRefs and on to manual references, we can reduce storage size. However, we have to deal with other problems, such as changes that affect multiple documents and limited query options. @DocumentReference can be a powerful tool that lets you express and customize links between documents. You can learn more about it in our Reference Documentation.

Nevertheless, before you leave, please always keep in mind that links between documents require additional server roundtrips. Therefore, make sure to have indexes available that support your lookup. A collection of linked documents is bulk loaded, restoring ordering on a best effort basis within the memory of your application.

Also, always ask yourself which is best for your application? Is the default embedding approach the better solution? Do you really need the cyclic back reference? Should a link be lazy? How will non-atomic updates affect your application? And finally, which queries do you need to run?

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