Rules of Database App Aging

I mentioned I’ve learned some rules of how database apps change over time, now that I’ve done a few dozen. They are:

  1. All Fields Become Optional

    As your dataset grows, exceptions creep in. There’s not enough research time to fill in all your company profiles, there’s one guy in Guam when you expected everyone to be in a U.S. state, there’s data missing from the page you’re scraping, you have to pull updates from a new source.

    Every field eventually loses that beautiful NOT NULL sheen, your code gets filled up with guard clauses of one kind or another and every <div> in your template is wrapped by an if statement. And this happens to foreign keys, too, so OR IS (NOT) NULL sneaks in and left joins mutate into outer joins.

    This is by far the biggest effect on apps over time. It’s getting to the point that I can gauge age by eyeballing the number of fields that retain their NOT NULL constraint.

  2. All Relationships Become Many-to-Many

    Some guy works in DC but lives in Virginia, so he needs two Locations. A new type of incoming email needs to be shoveled out to different feeds. A state has both a primary and a caucus. Someone eventually realizes categories never really were mutually exclusive.

    The modern database paradigm is defined by relations, so of course that’s what falls apart as soon as you get an app into production. The urge to hack is overwhelming, fudge in a little denormalization or duplicate a row and the pressure’s off for now, but it’s like freezing a bottle of water, it always grows and breaks worse in the end.

  3. Chatter Always Expands

    All the little oddities that change database schemas affect the user presentation as well. Chatter is the intro and outro text around the content of a page that almost no one ever reads. But it has to be there to explain what’s going on, the source of information, why things may seem peculiar, the limitations of the dataset, etc. Add in the difficulty of writing succintly and chatter grows until you burn it all down by rebuilding the app.

And when you do rebuild the app from the ground up, you have your chance to slip some NULLs back on, renormalize your data to have easy one-to-many relationships, and present the data in a self-evident and consistent fashion. Then, about a week later, there’s a politician who’s a Democrat but running for re-election as an Independent…

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