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Database Modeling With Ecto Part 2 - has many and belongs to Relationships

Peter de Croos
Originally published at irrationalpixels.com ・7 min read

Previously, we created the initial phoenix app and created a Teacher struct and table.
We went over how to perform the basic CRUD operations as well as how to do some basic tests to verify the functionality.
In part 2, we're going to be adding more structs and defining relationships between them.
We'll also go over how to fetch records with their associations.

If you haven't been following along, you can checkout the code from github and fetch the branch.

git clone git@github.com:cultofmetatron/database-modeling-with-ecto-example.git
git checkout part1
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has many and belongs to

We now have a Teacher ecto schema as an interface to out teachers table.
Lets implement a class.
A Class at most belongs to one Teacher.
The standard way to setup a relationship is through foreign keys.
That is a column that matches the a column on another table which msut be unique on the other table.
The type of the foreign key column must match the type of the key on the foreign table that its referencing.

We will create a column teacher_id on the classes table will have a foreign key constraint on the id columnn of the teachers table.
Since the id column of teachers is a uuid, the column here will also be a uuid.
Being the primary key of the table, it alrady satisfies the aformentioned uniqueness contraint.
In ecto, we call it a :binary_id.

$ mix phx.gen.schema Class classes name:string teacher_id:references:teachers subject:string active:boolean
* creating lib/grade_tracker/class.ex
* creating priv/repo/migrations/20210515195753_create_classes.exs

Remember to update your repository by running migrations:

    $ mix ecto.migrate

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Now that we've created the associated class and migrations, we need to make some small adjustments.

First lets look at the migration

defmodule GradeTracker.Repo.Migrations.CreateClasses do
  use Ecto.Migration

  def change do
    create table(:classes, primary_key: false) do
      add :id, :binary_id, primary_key: true
      add :name, :string
      add :subject, :string
      add :active, :boolean, default: false, null: false
      add :teacher_id, references(:teachers, on_delete: :nothing, type: :binary_id)

      timestamps()
    end

    create index(:classes, [:teacher_id])
  end
end

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Same as teacher, we have an id set with :binary_id which coresponds to the UUID type in postgres.
note, that part for teacher id, we have an on_delete: :nothing.
Change that to


add :teacher_id, references(:teachers, on_delete: :nilify_all, type: :binary_id)

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The call to references/2 creates the foreign key constraint.
What this means is any non null values for the teacher_id column of this table MUST corespond to a a record in the teachers table in the referenced column.
This leads to some edge cases that must be accounted for.
What happens if the referenced teacher record is deleted?
All classes referring to that eacher would have value for teacher_id that violates the contraint.
If you have a a few classes that belong to this teacher and you try to remove the teacher, you will get an error from the database.
This is rarely what I want.

The on_delete specifies the action to take place if the referenced record is deleted.
If we leave the value as :nothing, we will get the error I mentioned.
In this case, I am switching it to :nilify_all.
This makes the class without a teacher.
In a real world scneario, I could make a dashbaord showing the orphned classes prompting them to assign a teacher.
Alternativly, I could set delete_all which would remove the classes that reference the teacher.
What you pick for your relationships depend entirely on your use case.

By default, the key is set to id. you can overide that by passing in :column.
We can also add it to make the associated column more explicit.

If We wanted to make it so that all classes MUST have a teacher id passed in, you could pass null: false to the column creation.
If you do that, nilify_all will not work as it will violate the null column contraint.
You will have to either delete_all or have your app force the user to reasign the class before removing a teacher.


# does the same thing as above
add :teacher_id, references(:teachers, on_delete: :nilify_all, type: :binary_id, column: :id)

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One more thing, we should make that default for the active column to be true.

your migration should look like this:


defmodule GradeTracker.Repo.Migrations.CreateClasses do
  use Ecto.Migration

  def change do
    create table(:classes, primary_key: false) do
      add :id, :binary_id, primary_key: true
      add :name, :string
      add :subject, :string
      add :active, :boolean, default: true, null: false
      add :teacher_id, references(:teachers, on_delete: :delete_all, type: :binary_id)

      timestamps()
    end

    create index(:classes, [:teacher_id])
  end
end


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Now lets take a look at the schema.


defmodule GradeTracker.Class do
  use Ecto.Schema
  import Ecto.Changeset

  @primary_key {:id, :binary_id, autogenerate: true}
  @foreign_key_type :binary_id
  schema "classes" do
    field :active, :boolean, default: false
    field :name, :string
    field :subject, :string
    field :teacher_id, :binary_id

    timestamps()
  end

  @doc false
  def changeset(class, attrs) do
    class
    |> cast(attrs, [:name, :subject, :active])
    |> validate_required([:name, :subject, :active])
  end
end

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By default, the schema specifies no relationship to Teacher.
We need to modify this schema by replaceing the teacher_id field with belongs_to/3.
it'll probably be a good idea to add a foreing constraint to the validation code in teh changeset as well.
Additionally, we'll remove active as a required field since we have a default and add the :teacher_id as a castable attribute.


defmodule GradeTracker.Class do
  use Ecto.Schema
  import Ecto.Changeset

  @primary_key {:id, :binary_id, autogenerate: true}
  @foreign_key_type :binary_id
  schema "classes" do
    field :active, :boolean, default: true
    field :name, :string
    field :subject, :string


    belongs_to :teacher, GradeTracker.Teacher

    timestamps()
  end

  @doc false
  def changeset(class, attrs) do
    class
    |> cast(attrs, [:name, :subject, :active, :teacher_id])
    |> validate_required([:name, :subject])
    |> foreign_key_constraint(:teacher_id)
  end
end


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I will note that adding :teacher_id is optional and may not be appropriate for your use case.
the Belongs to adds other operations we will use to link classes to their associated teachers.
By adding the column directly, you allow the column to be set directly.
This means you should do due diligence when directly passing along user input;
For instance, you take params input from a web request and pass it directly in when creating a changeset.

Now we we add a has_many/3 to the Teacher.


defmodule GradeTracker.Teacher do
  use Ecto.Schema
  import Ecto.Changeset

  @primary_key {:id, :binary_id, autogenerate: true}
  @foreign_key_type :binary_id
  schema "teachers" do
    field :name, :string

    has_many :classes,  GradeTracker.Class

    timestamps()
  end

  @doc false
  def changeset(teacher, attrs) do
    teacher
    |> cast(attrs, [:name])
    |> validate_required([:name])
  end
end

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Now that we have everythign setup in code, lets run the migrations.
Make sure you have the proper configuration setup in config/dev.exs.

$ mix ecto.migrate                                                                               [2.7.1]

20:34:53.870 [info]  == Running 20210422234100 GradeTracker.Repo.Migrations.CreateTeachers.change/0 forward
20:34:53.872 [info]  create table teachers
20:34:53.876 [info]  == Migrated 20210422234100 in 0.0s
20:34:53.893 [info]  == Running 20210515195753 GradeTracker.Repo.Migrations.CreateClasses.change/0 forward
20:34:53.893 [info]  create table classes
20:34:53.898 [info]  create index classes_teacher_id_index
20:34:53.899 [info]  == Migrated 20210515195753 in 0.0s

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Building Relations

Now that we have a has_many relationship setup between `Teacher, we can start thinking about inserting classes.

First lets create a new test file /test/grade_tracker_web/schemas/class_test.exs

Since we are testing out connected associations, I've added a setup case that creates a Teacher struct that we can use for all our demonstrations

In our schema, a Class can be produced without a teacher so we can insert one in exactly the same as we could with Teacher.
`elixir
defmodule GradeTracker.ClassSchemaTest do
use GradeTracker.DataCase
alias GradeTracker.Repo
alias GradeTracker.Teacher
alias GradeTracker.Class

def create_teacher(context) do
teacher = %Teacher{}
|> Teacher.changeset(%{
name: "Jose Valim"
})
|> Repo.insert!()

{:ok, %{ teacher: teacher }}
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end

setup :create_teacher

test "we can insert a class", %{ teacher: _teacher } do
assert {:ok, _} = %Class{}
|> Class.changeset(%{
name: "botony 101",
subject: "biology",
})
|> Repo.insert()

end
end

`

Since we added :teacher_id to the list of castable attributes, we can pass it in directly.
Once its set, we can load the associated item into the structure using Repo.preload/3

`elixir
defmodule GradeTracker.ClassSchemaTest do
#...

test "we can insert a teacher with a class by setting the column directly", %{ teacher: teacher } do
assert {:ok, class} = %Class{}
|> Class.changeset(%{
name: "botony 101",
subject: "biology",
teacher_id: teacher.id
})
|> Repo.insert()

assert class.teacher_id == teacher.id
class = class |> Repo.preload([:teacher])

assert %Teacher{ name: "Jose Valim", id: teacher_id } = class.teacher
assert teacher_id == teacher.id
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end

end

`

Ecto.build_assoc

Setting up a has_many in the schema provides a lot of information to Ecto for how to link up associated database structs.
The example above only works if you are directly casting a teacher_id.
In practice, you are more likely to use Ecto's Ecto.build_assoc/3 to create a new struct based on has_many relationships. You can pass this into your changeset function to create changesets with the association set.

`elixir
defmodule GradeTracker.ClassSchemaTest do
#...

test "we can insert a teacher with a class with build_assoc", %{ teacher: teacher } do
assert {:ok, class} = teacher
|> Ecto.build_assoc(:classes) # we get it from the key you set in the schmema after has_many
|> Class.changeset(%{
name: "botony 101",
subject: "biology"
})
|> Repo.insert()

assert class.teacher_id == teacher.id
class = class |> Repo.preload([:teacher])

assert %Teacher{ name: "Jose Valim", id: teacher_id } = class.teacher
assert teacher_id == teacher.id
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end

end

`

Ecto.Changeset.put_assoc

We can also build a Teacher from a Class but they wont be connnected with an association.

This is because we aren't writing anything to the class which is where the column that sets the association is set.
We would have to set that explicitly using Ecto.Changeset.put_assoc/4.

Note: you will need to preload the association before you attempt to upadate the association.

`elixir

defmodule GradeTracker.ClassSchemaTest do
#...

test "we build a teacher from a class using build assoc as well", %{ teacher: _teacher } do
assert {:ok, class} = %Class{}
|> Class.changeset(%{
name: "botony 101",
subject: "biology",
})
|> Repo.insert()

assert {:ok, teacher } = class
|> Ecto.build_assoc(:teacher)
|> Teacher.changeset(%{
  name: "Richard Feynman"
})
|> Repo.insert()

# the association has to be loaded before we can alter it, leave this oput and you'll get an error
class = class |> Repo.preload([:teacher])

assert {:ok, class} = class
  |> Class.changeset(%{})
  |> Ecto.Changeset.put_assoc(:teacher, teacher)
  |> Repo.update()

class = class |> Repo.preload([:teacher], force: true) #we force a refresh to get the new data

assert class.teacher_id == teacher.id


assert %Teacher{ name: "Richard Feynman", id: teacher_id } = class.teacher
assert teacher_id == teacher.id
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end

end

`

And With that, you have the tools to construct relations based on has_many and belongs_to.
to wrap things up.

Key ideas

  • A refernces id is used to set a record as belonging to another record.
  • You can use build_assoc to create an associated record for insertion
  • put_assoc is used to set an association after the fact.

Next I'll go over how to create many to many relationships.

Discussion (1)

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ambareesha7 profile image
Ambareesha AV

Hey Peter good article and there are of spelling mistakes and code formatting mistakes in the article but your way of explaining through story is really nice one can easily relate the data points

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