The Universe of Discourse
Sat, 08 Feb 2014

Everything needs an ID

I wrote some time ago about Moonpig's use of GUIDs: every significant object was given a unique ID. I said that this was a useful strategy I had only learned from Rik, and I was surprised to see how many previously tricky programming problems became simpler once the GUIDs were available. Some of these tricky problems are artifacts of Perl's somewhat limited implementation of hashes; hash keys must be strings, and the GUID gives you an instantaneous answer to any question about what the keys should be.

But it reminds me of a similar maxim which I was thinking about just yesterday: Every table in a relational database should have a record ID field. It often happens that I am designing some table and there is no obvious need for such a field. I now always put one in anyway, having long ago learned that I will inevitably want it for something.

Most recently I was building a table to record which web pages were being currently visited by which users. A record in the table is naturally identified by the pair of user ID and page URL; it is not clear that it needs any further keys.

But I put in a record ID anyway, because my practice is to always put in a record ID, and sure enough, within a few hours I was glad it was there. The program I was writing has not yet needed to use the record IDs. But to test the program I needed to insert and manipulate some test records, and it was much easier to write this:

update table set ... where record_id = 113;

than this:

update table set ... where user_id = 97531 and url = 'http://hostname:port/long/path/that/is/hard/to/type';

If you ever end up with two objects in the program that represesent record sets and you need to merge or intersect them synthetically, having the record ID numbers automatically attached to the records makes this quite trivial, whereas if you don't have them it is a pain in the butt. You should never be in such a situation, perhaps, but stranger things have happened. Just yesterday I found myself writing

    function relativize (pathPat) {
      var dummyA = document.createElement('a');
      dummyA.href = document.URL;
      return "http://" + + pathPat;

which nobody should have to do either, and yet there I was. Sometimes programming can be a dirty business.

During the bootstrapping of the user-url table project some records with bad URLs were inserted by buggy code, and I needed to remove them. The URLs all ended in % signs, and there's probably some easy way to delete all the records where the URL ends in a % sign. But I couldn't remember the syntax offhand, and looking up the escape sequence for LIKE clauses would have taken a lot longer than what I did do, which was:

delete from table where record_id in (43, 47, 49)

So the rule is: giving things ID numbers should be the default, because they are generally useful, like handles you can use to pick things up with. You need a good reason to omit them.

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