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Fear of SQL: Will We Ever Learn to Cope?

Posted by editor on March 30, 2010 at 5:46 AM PDT

Dustin Marx fears that he may suffer from some mild phobias (fear of crowds and sermons -- and perhaps the fear of being phobic?) -- but, to Dustin, the relatively common fear of SQL that he observes in the software development community seems quite irrational. So he says, in his latest software development cogitation, Sqlphobia: The Irrational Fear of SQL:

The Phobia List provides an exhaustive list of phobias. Although it is difficult for many of us to understand or relate with many of these phobias, some are all too easy [for] me to understand. For example, I fear that I suffer at least mild cases of demophobia (fear of crowds) and homilophobia (fear of sermons). However, one fear that I see with a relatively high degree of occurrence in the software development community is the seemingly irrational (to me) fear of SQL.

Dustin hits the nail on the head, when he notes:

There have been numerous attempts at abstracting away or hiding SQL from the developer. The object-relational mapping (ORM) approach is probably the largest of these efforts in terms of person hours invested. This approach attempts to allow developers to focus on objects and their mappings to relational database structures (such as tables and columns) with the hope that the developer will never (or at least much less often) have to read, write, or maintain SQL.

The question, though, is: why? Or, perhaps, why so vehement an effort? If you're developing a database application, isn't it important to understand the nature of database tables and queries?

It's one thing to look back to user interface programming from decades ago, and say -- OK, you no longer have to draw each pixel to create your window, because now you can just send this snazzy function a set of parameters and it will do all the low-level work for you. There, you're just providing an interface to a function that performs a task that must be repeatedly performed in the exact same way (drawing pixels to create a UI window) in any modern interactive application.

With SQL, I think you're dealing with a different beast. Each query is unique. Furthermore, there are multiple paths to accomplishing the same objective. And how you do it makes a difference. Even if your query satisfies the needs of a client application, with SQL you're actually always working on the back-end, the server side, where performance matters. Where performance matters, abstraction is always a potential problem. One size does not fit all where performance is concerned. So, an abstraction that lets you set switch-like parameters on an object that "controls" your database querying poses significant performance risks in a scaled system.

But that's all my view, and, like Dustin, I don't have Sqlphobia. To me, it's just another language that's highly useful for me to know somewhat (since the bulk of my software development work in the past 15 years has been in a Data Center environment where SQL -- first Postgres, now Oracle -- has been a backbone of the processing). Furthermore, it's highly useful for me to understand at least the basics of tables, how JOIN works, etc., if I want to be able to legitimately consider myself worthy of the title of highly-experienced software engineer / architect.

SQL is just another programming language! Though it's a very specialized one.

Getting back to the ORM SQL obfuscation tactic, Dustin points out:

Early Enterprise JavaBeans (EJB) container-managed persistence [CMP] (and especially container-managed relationships [CMR]) was a disaster by nearly all accounts. Not only was it more difficult (for most of us) to use than using SQL directly, but its (EJB 2's) EJB Query Language looked and felt suspiciously like SQL made worse by embedding it in XML.

But what about today? What about Java EE 6 and JPA? Dustin says:

Overall, I'm a fan of JPA as I hope I made clear in my article Basic JPA Best Practices. I like the ability to relatively easily tie my normal Java objects into the transaction support of the supporting application server. Also, I think its advantageous to have a standardized approach to ORM rather than using a proprietary solution such as pre-JPA Hibernate.

However:

With all the positives of JPA, I still find there are times when it either is more than I need or when the impact it has on my object design is too great to justify. Furthermore, I have found the ability to be able to read SQL invaluable in debugging problems with my code that uses JPA implementations. In other words, I still need to know and be comfortable with SQL, even when using JPA implementations.

As always, when Dustin Marx tackles a topic, he tackles it from all sides, including the four cardinal directions, and from the top (high-level overview) -- then he burrows into software engineering history and mounts an attack from underneath as well. Reading Dustin's Software Development Cogitations and Speculations is always a worthwhile venture. He does a lot of interesting, and sometimes quirky, experimentation with Java, JVMs, etc.

If your current work involves SQL, or if you have a history of phobia related to SQL, or if you just want to read some really interesting "cogitations and speculations" about "Sqlphobia" -- take a few minutes to read or at least browse Dustin Marx's Sqlphobia: The Irrational Fear of SQL. It's not that scary. I promise! (your non-SQL-phobic editor says with a evil grin!)


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