Table inheritance

Overview

Table inheritance is a software design pattern that allows the modeling of hierarchical relationships between entities. Using table inheritance on the database level can also enable the use of union types in your JavaScript/TypeScript application or share a set of common properties across multiple models.

This page introduces two approaches to table inheritance and explains how to use them with Prisma ORM.

A common use case for table inheritance may be when an application needs to display a feed of some kind of content activities. A content activity in this case, could be a video or an article. As an example, let's assume that:

  • a content activity always has an id and a url
  • in addition to id and a url, a video also has a duration (modeled as an Int)
  • in addition to id and a url, an article also a body (modeled as a String)

Use cases

Union types

Union types are a convenient feature in TypeScript that allows developers to work more flexibly with the types in their data model.

In TypeScript, union types look as follows:

type Activity = Video | Article

While , you can use them with Prisma ORM by using table inheritance and some additional type definitions.

Sharing properties across multiple models

If you have a use case where multiple models should share a particular set of properties, you can model this using table inheritance as well.

For example, if both the Video and Article models from above should have a shared title property, you can achieve this with table inheritance as well.

Example

In a simple Prisma schema, this would look as follows. Note that we're adding a User model as well to illustrate how this can work with relations:

schema.prisma
1model Video {
2 id Int @id
3 url String @unique
4 duration Int
5
6 user User @relation(fields: [userId], references: [id])
7 userId Int
8}
9
10model Article {
11 id Int @id
12 url String @unique
13 body String
14
15 user User @relation(fields: [userId], references: [id])
16 userId Int
17}
18
19model User {
20 id Int @id
21 name String
22 videos Video[]
23 articles Article[]
24}

Let's investigate how we can model this using table inheritance.

Single-table vs multi-table inheritance

Here is a quick comparison of the two main approaches for table inheritance:

  • Single-table inheritance (STI): Uses a single table to store data of all the different entities in one location. In our example, there'd be a single Activity table with the id, url as well as te duration and body column. It also uses a type column that indicates whether an activity is a video or an article.
  • Multi-table inheritance (MTI): Uses multiple tables to store the data of the different entities separately and links them via foreign keys. In our example, there'd be an Activity table with the id, url column, a Video table with the duration and a foreign key to Activity as well as an Article table with the body and a foreign key. There is also a type column that acts as a discriminator and indicates whether an activity is a video or an article. Note that multi-table inheritance is also sometimes called delegated types.

You can learn about the tradeoffs of both approaches below.

Single-table inheritance (STI)

Data model

Using STI, the above scenario can be modeled as follows:

model Activity {
id Int @id // shared
url String @unique // shared
duration Int? // video-only
body String? // article-only
type ActivityType // discriminator
owner User @relation(fields: [ownerId], references: [id])
ownerId Int
}
enum ActivityType {
Video
Article
}
model User {
id Int @id @default(autoincrement())
name String?
activities Activity[]
}

A few things to note:

  • The model-specific properties duration and body must be marked as optional (i.e., with ?). That's because a record in the Activity table that represents a video must not have a value for body. Conversely, an Activity record representing an article can never have a duration set.
  • The type discriminator column indicates whether each record represents a video or an article item.

Prisma Client API

Due to how Prisma ORM generates types and an API for the data model, there will only to be an Activity type and the CRUD queries that belong to it (create, update, delete, ...) available to you.

Querying for videos and articles

You can now query for only videos or articles by filtering on the type column. For example:

// Query all videos
const videos = await prisma.activity.findMany({
where: { type: 'Video' },
})
// Query all articles
const articles = await prisma.activity.findMany({
where: { type: 'Article' },
})

Defining dedicated types

When querying for videos and articles like that, TypeScript will still only recognize an Activity type. That can be annoying because even the objects in videos will have (optional) body and the objects in articles will have (optional) duration fields.

If you want to have type safety for these objects, you need to define dedicated types for them. You can do this, for example, by using the generated Activity type and the TypeScript Omit utility type to remove properties from it:

import { Activity } from '@prisma/client'
type Video = Omit<Activity, 'body' | 'type'>
type Article = Omit<Activity, 'duration' | 'type'>

In addition, it will be helpful to convert mapping functions that convert an object of type Activity to the Video and Article types:

function activityToVideo(activity: Activity): Video {
return {
url: activity.url,
duration: activity.duration ? activity.duration : -1,
ownerId: activity.ownerId,
} as Video
}
function activityToArticle(activity: Activity): Article {
return {
url: activity.url,
body: activity.body ? activity.body : '',
ownerId: activity.ownerId,
} as Article
}

Now you can turn an Activity into a more specific type (i.e., Article or Video) after querying:

const videoActivities = await prisma.activity.findMany({
where: { type: 'Video' },
})
const videos: Video[] = videoActivities.map(activityToVideo)

Using Prisma Client extension for a more convenient API

You can use Prisma Client extensions to create a more convenient API for the table structures in your database.

Multi-table inheritance (MTI)

Data model

Using MTI, the above scenario can be modeled as follows:

model Activity {
id Int @id @default(autoincrement())
url String // shared
type ActivityType // discriminator
video Video? // model-specific 1-1 relation
article Article? // model-specific 1-1 relation
owner User @relation(fields: [ownerId], references: [id])
ownerId Int
}
model Video {
id Int @id @default(autoincrement())
duration Int // video-only
activityId Int @unique
activity Activity @relation(fields: [activityId], references: [id])
}
model Article {
id Int @id @default(autoincrement())
body String // article-only
activityId Int @unique
activity Activity @relation(fields: [activityId], references: [id])
}
enum ActivityType {
Video
Article
}
model User {
id Int @id @default(autoincrement())
name String?
activities Activity[]
}

A few things to note:

  • A 1-1 relation is needed between Activity and Video as well as Activity and Article. This relationship is used to fetch the specific information about a record when needed.
  • The model-specific properties duration and body can be made required with this approach.
  • The type discriminator column indicates whether each record represents a video or an article item.

Prisma Client API

This time, you can query for videos and articles directly via the video and article properties on your `PrismaClient`` instance.

Querying for videos and articles

If you want to access the shared properties, you need to use include to fetch the relation to Activity.

// Query all videos
const videos = await prisma.video.findMany({
include: { activity: true },
})
// Query all articles
const articles = await prisma.article.findMany({
include: { activity: true },
})

Depending on your needs, you may also query the other way around by filtering on the type discriminator column:

// Query all articles
const videoActivities = await prisma.activity.findMany({
where: { type: 'Video' }
include: { video: true }
})

Defining dedicated types

While a bit more convenient in terms of types compare STI, the generated typings likely still won't fit all your needs.

Here's how you can define Video and Article types by combining Prisma ORM's generated Video and Article types with the Activity type. These combinations create a new type with the desired properties. Note that we're also omitting the type discriminator column because that's not needed anymore on the specific types:

import {
Video as VideoDB,
Article as ArticleDB,
Activity,
} from '@prisma/client'
type Video = Omit<VideoDB & Activity, 'type'>
type Article = Omit<ArticleDB & Activity, 'type'>

Once these types are defined, you can define mapping functions to convert the types you receive from the queries above into the desired Video and Article types. Here's the example for the Video type:

import { Prisma, Video as VideoDB, Activity } from '@prisma/client'
type Video = Omit<VideoDB & Activity, 'type'>
// Create `VideoWithActivity` typings for the objects returned above
const videoWithActivity = Prisma.validator<Prisma.VideoDefaultArgs>()({
include: { activity: true },
})
type VideoWithActivity = Prisma.VideoGetPayload<typeof videoWithActivity>
// Map to `Video` type
function toVideo(a: VideoWithActivity): Video {
return {
id: a.id,
url: a.activity.url,
ownerId: a.activity.ownerId,
duration: a.duration,
activityId: a.activity.id,
}
}

Now you can take the objects returned by the queries above and transform them using toVideo:

const videoWithActivities = await prisma.video.findMany({
include: { activity: true },
})
const videos: Video[] = videoWithActivities.map(toVideo)

Using Prisma Client extension for a more convenient API

You can use Prisma Client extensions to create a more convenient API for the table structures in your database.

Tradeoffs between STI and MTI

  • Data model: The data model may feel more clean with MTI. With STI, you may end up with very wide rows and lots of columns that have NULL values in them.
  • Performance: MTI may come with a performance cost because you need to join the parent and child tables to access all properties relevant for a model.
  • Typings: With Prisma ORM, MTI gives you proper typings for the specific models (i.e., Article and Video in the examples above) already, while you need to create these from scratch with STI.
  • IDs / Primary keys: With MTI, records have two IDs (one on the parent and another on the child table) that may not match. You need to consider this in the business logic of your application.

Third-party solutions

While Prisma ORM doesn't natively support union types or polymorphism at the moment, you can check out which is adding an extra layer of features to the Prisma schema. Read their to learn more.