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Database schema changes with Hibernate and Spring Boot

michaelisvy profile image Michael Isvy Updated on ・6 min read

Target audience

This article has been written for readers who have experience with Java, Hibernate and Spring Boot. All examples use MySql but you could also use other relational databases that you are comfortable with.


The Java ecosystem gives you a lot of tools to magically update your database schemas, but are all of these tools reliable enough to be used with a production database?

In this article - the first in a series - we will focus on industry best practices and Hibernate's auto-schema generation feature. We will explain what we've learned from it and where it is suitable to be used.

In a subsequent article, we will discuss how database schema changes can be made with a database migration tool such as Liquibase.
All code samples are available in our dedicated GitHub repository.


Let's first create a new database schema called addressBook using the MySql command-line client:

>mysql -u santa -p
Enter password: ******
mysql> CREATE DATABASE addressBook;
Query OK, 1 row affected (0.12 sec)

Let's now open our Java application, which uses Spring Boot and MySql. The configurations for MySql can be found inside application.yml:

    database: mysql
      ddl-auto: update
    url: jdbc:mysql://localhost:3306/addressBook
    username: santa
    password: secret

The first 3 lines explain how to connect to MySql. Our password is hardcoded for simplicity's sake, but in real life we would store it in a secret.

ddl-auto: update shows that our MySql schema should be updated at application startup (to be discussed in the next paragraph).

Generating a database schema from scratch

At this stage, our database schema has just been created. Our application only has a single entity class called User.

@Entity @Data
public class User {
    @GeneratedValue(strategy = GenerationType.IDENTITY)
    private Integer id;
    private String firstName;
    private String lastName;
    private LocalDate dateOfBirth;

Note: the @Data annotation comes from Lombok and auto-generates our getter/setter methods.

As seen in the previous section, we have configured database schema auto-update as follows:

spring.jpa.hibernate.ddl-auto: update

Let us run our JUnit test suite:

mvn clean test

In the logs, we can see that the following database query has been run:

create table user (
id integer not null auto_increment, 
date_of_birth date, 
first_name varchar(255), 
last_name varchar(255), 
primary key (id)) engine=InnoDB

How are tests run with Hibernate?

At startup, Hibernate parses all classes that have been decorated with the @Entity annotation. It then scans the User class and generates an SQL table creation query.
The table name, column names, types, and etc. are based on the information found in the User class (class name, attribute names and types, annotations, etc.).

Starting the application one more time

The addressBook database schema has been generated and it contains the User table.

What behaviour should we expect when we start the application one more time?

When Hibernate runs the tests again, it compares the class User against the table user. It then sees that class and table are in sync and it does not make any further changes.

Which SQL?

While SQL looks similar when working with various database providers, there is no such thing as completely interoperable SQL.
There are subtle differences in how each SQL handles dates, string concatenation, etc.
Hibernate elegantly abstracts these differences as "dialects".

Inside our pom.xml we have configured the mysql jdbc driver as a dependency for MySql 8. Spring Boot then assumes that we use the default MySql 8 dialect and configures Hibernate accordingly as shown in the startup logs:

HHH000400: Using dialect: org.hibernate.dialect.MySQL8Dialect

Adding a change to an existing database

Let us now add the Address entity to our model.

@Data @Entity
public class Address {
    @GeneratedValue(strategy = GenerationType.IDENTITY)
    private Integer id;

    private String streetAddress;
    private String zipCode;
    private String city;

We are also adding a relationship from User to Address as follows:

@Entity @Data
public class User {
    @GeneratedValue(strategy = GenerationType.IDENTITY)
    private Integer id;
    private String firstName;
    private String lastName;
    private LocalDate dateOfBirth;

    @OneToMany(cascade = CascadeType.ALL)
    @JoinColumn(name = "user_id", foreignKey = @ForeignKey(name="FK_USER_ID"))
    private List<Address> addressList = new ArrayList<>();

When the application starts (still in auto-update mode), Hibernate creates the address table as follows:

create table address (
       id integer not null auto_increment,
        city varchar(255),
        street_address varchar(255),
        zip_code varchar(255),
        user_id integer,
        primary key (id)
    ) engine=InnoDB

 alter table address 
       add constraint FK_USER_ID 
       foreign key (user_id) 
       references user (id)

The address table and its relationship to user have been added as expected.
While Hibernate's auto-update works fine most of the time, it is quite magical and error-prone. From our experience, it is easy to rename a class or a field and to then forget about the fact that a new table or column will be generated the next time the application is deployed.

In the next section we will discuss about best practices and safeguards when making a change in your production database schema.

Schema auto-update in production?

In their official documentation, the Hibernate team recommends the below:

Although the automatic schema generation is very useful for testing and prototyping purposes, in a production environment, it’s much more flexible to manage the schema using incremental migration scripts.

Here is the approach that we commonly use:

JUnit tests Local webapp Staging webapp Production webapp
Database H2 MySql MySql MySql
Hibernate auto-update setting create-drop update validate validate
DB backup none none mysqldump mysqldump
  • For Unit tests, we use H2. The whole database is created in memory at startup time and deleted after all tests have been run (create-drop).
  • When running a local web application (on localhost), we run update and copy from the logs all the update scripts that have been generated (such as for the Address table in our example). We will reuse those scripts for our staging and production environments.
  • In staging and production environments, we use the following setup:

At startup time, Hibernate validates that the database schema is compatible with our JPA/Hibernate mapping. If any class or attribute is not mapped properly, Hibernate throws an exception and the application does not start.
We try to replicate the behaviour that we will have in production, therefore we update our schema manually using the scripts collected in our local dev environment.

In staging and production, we always backup our database and plan for a restore procedure. In MySql, that can be done with the mysqldump command.

Note: You can see that the suggested processes are the same for staging and production environments. Breaking our application's staging environment should not be a big deal. However it is an opportunity to do a dry run before updating our database schema in production.

Adding a conflicting change

A conflicting change is a change that involves renaming a table or column.
Let’s imagine, for example, that an address, which is being used in our existing schema, is not specific enough, and that we would like to rename the address table to postal_address. Let's change the name of the Address class as follows:

@Data @Entity
public class PostalAddress {

Hibernate’s auto-update feature does not work well with conflicting changes. If we restart our application in update mode, it creates a new table called postal_address and still keeps the existing address table.

Let's disable auto-schema update and use validate instead as explained in the previous paragraph:

spring.jpa.hibernate.ddl-auto: validate

When starting the application, Hibernate would detect that our classes are not in sync with the database schema and would throw the following exception:

Caused by: org.hibernate.tool.schema.spi.SchemaManagementException: 
Schema-validation: missing table [postal_address]
    at org.hibernate.tool.schema.internal.AbstractSchemaValidator

In order to avoid this issue we need to stop the application and launch the below script before the new version of the application is deployed:

mysqldump --defaults-file="/var/.../extraparams.cnf"  ... 
>mysql -u santa -p
Enter password: ******
mysql> use addressBook; -- choose the database schema to be used
mysql> RENAME TABLE address to postal_address;

We have now made our table name change and deployed the updated version of the application.

The above assumes that we are able to take our application offline for a few minutes. It is extremely hard to make a conflicting change to a database while it's running in production.


We have seen that Hibernate's auto-update is a great development tool and should not be used in staging and production.
In staging and production, we have seen that you can run your sql queries manually.
In our follow-up blog (to be published by March 1st 2020), we will discuss how to use Liquibase as a database schema migration tool for your staging and production environments.

Thanks for reading our blog!

Michael Isvy.
(thanks to my colleagues Nicolas Guignard, Liew Min Shan and many others on reviewing this article!).

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