Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Hibernate Sessions

I have been using Hibernate for a very long time; at least nine years if not more. It is perhaps the best known ORM tool in the Java/.NET world today. There are many alternatives but none have the feature set or maturity of Hibernate. Hibernate is perhaps not the easiest tool to use, partly due to its long history, and partly because the problem it tries to solve is complicated, but you can get started with some basic information quite nicely. All criticism aside, it is still a fine tool for a general purpose ORM approach, and perhaps the best one to use for bigger applications.

Sessions seem like an appropriate place to start when navigating the Hibernate waters, so let us examine that topic.


Working with Hibernate is built around sessions. This is the Unit of Work pattern, and to use Hibernate correctly, you must understand this concept well.

The pattern you use to work with Hibernate is as follows:
  • Open session
  • Begin transaction
  • Using the session, query persistent mapped objects.
  • and/or add new objects to session.
  • and/or delete queried objects
  • and/or modify objects queried or added.
  • Commit transaction
  • Close session.
This is your logical transaction, the Unit of Work that you perform, per action, in your application. Note that while this is often the same as a database transaction, these concepts are not equivalent. You may, if you so choose, open a session and transaction, query objects, make changes, flush those changes to a database (commit), open another transaction, make more changes, flush (another commit), and so on. One session, many transactions. This allows you to keep tracking all the changes that you are making but stage your database changes in several steps.

The same basic steps in C# code using NHibernate:

using (var session = sessionFactory.OpenSession())
using (var tx = session.BeginTransaction())
 var customer = session.Load<Customer>(customerId);
 customer.Name = "New Name";

 var newCustomer = new Customer(anotherCustomerId, "Another Customer");


What do you get by doing this?
  • all mapped objects that are introduced to sessions are tracked for their changes.
  • once the transaction in committed, all those changes will be persisted to the database.
  • all objects within the session are cached. Objects accessed by their IDs come from the cache if already there. This includes all session.Load/Get calls and objects loaded via relationships by their IDs.
  • Hibernate can batch your updates to the database. Say you made 100 changes to objects, if you had set your batch size to 100, you will likely update everything in one database round trip. Hibernate is also smart enough to flush changes to the database when it needs to so you don't have to worry when to flush things manually. It is enough just to commit the transactions and close sessions as was explained.

Problems with Sessions

If you deviate from the mentioned session usage pattern, you will run into issues, and you will complicate your life tremendously.

Objects Outside Sessions

Hibernate does not know how to deal with any objects that it is not tracking within a session. You know when you have messed something up with the session management if you run into "non unique object", "not persistent object", "non transient object", "lazy loading", or "no active session" exceptions.

What these kinds of exceptions mean is that you are trying to interact with Hibernate with objects that were not introduced to the session, session was already closed, or the objects were introduced in another session (which now is obviously closed). All the objects that you want Hibernate to track, should be loaded, queried, modified, deleted in the same session. If not, then you must explicitly reintroduce (merge) objects back to the session. If you have lazy loading references, or collections, they can only be accessed within the same active session. Since lazy loading is an important concept to be utilized with Hibernate, it is also perhaps the most common scenario where the problems arise.

Lazy Loading and UI Rendering

People often use Hibernate loaded objects while rendering some type of user interface. A web page is typically rendered by passing some Hibernate objects to the view template engine. The problem with this is that objects may have lazy loading members that are loaded at the time of access only, not when the parent object was originally loaded. When a web page is rendered from the template, in may be that the Hibernate session is already closed because the control has already moved away from the code that programmers write (in a controller for example).

For this type of approach to work, the session must be open, even during page rendering. This is often referenced as the Open Session in View pattern. However, I can't openly recommend this pattern, while it solves the problem. It overlooks the fact that views are often composed from more than one action in real life, and are more naturally represented by individual sessions, one per action. Also, domain/Hibernate models are not often the same thing as view models and it might be better to actually translate domain (Hibernate) models to view models and back again to domain models. I am using the "domain model" here quite liberally, but distinctively as a separate concept from view models.

Many of us who use the MVC (Model View Controller) frameworks for our web application often struggle with the "model" concept. Typical frameworks do not really require anything from the M in the MVC, so developers are often left to come up with their own idea what the M means. Sadly, this will also lead to misuse of tools like Hibernate and more generally to mixing different layer concepts. The M in MVC is the mental model of the user (what user sees on the screen), not an internal representation of the domain (programmer's mental model). The domain model, incidentally, is what you load and manipulate with the help of Hibernate, but it is not the M in MVC. The controller (C) is where the translation between the mental models happens.

Session Infrastructure

Managing sessions means repeating a lot of boilerplate code, unless you use infrastructure. You want to hide session management in common scenarios so you do not need to worry about it a whole lot. Obviously, you must still be aware that all of that machinery is still there under the hood.

One of the best pieces of advice in this regard comes from Ayende@Rahien blog series about odorless and frictionless code

Note that this is done for .NET MVC, but many frameworks have similar hookup points to do infrastructure work. The action filter code in the example wraps around your action call and repeats the usage pattern boilerplate code that I explained. This is simply an "around advice" or "interceptor" in AOP terms.

It also demonstrates the point about "actions". There can be many actions in a web request, where each action executes a particular job for the page. Think of the actions like little windows or blocks on a web page that typical designs render, each separate from another. Sessions should last only so long as the action does, same with transactions.