By Pete Su</authorblurb>
Developing data models in OpenACS 5.9.0 is much like developing data models for OpenACS 3, save for the implementation. As usual, you need to examine how to model the information that the application must store and manipulate, and define a suitable set of SQL tables. In our Notes application, we have to be able to keep track of who entered a particular note, when they did it, and the actual text of the notes that users have entered. A simple data model might look like this:
create table notes ( note_id integer primary key, owner_id integer references users(user_id), creation_user references(user_id) not null, creation_date date not null, last_modified date not null, title varchar(255) not null, body varchar(1024) )
We've omitted constraint names for the purpose of clarity.
Thinking further ahead, we can imagine doing any of the following things with Notes as well:
Define access control policies on notes.
Attach user comments on notes.
Allow users to define custom fields to store on their notes.
Automatically generate input forms or output displays for notes.
Allow other applications to use notes in ways we don't know of yet.
In OpenACS, the key to enabling these types of services on your
application data is to take advantage of the Object System. The
first question, then, is "Just what are objects, and what do
you use them for anyway?". The short answer: objects are
anything represented in the application's data model that will
need to be managed by any central service in OpenACS, or that may
be reusable in the context of future applications. Every object in
the system is represented using a row in the
acs_objects table. This table defines all
the standard attributes that are stored on every object, including
its system-wide unique ID, object type, and some generic auditing
To make use of the object system, you as the application developer have to write your data model in a way that is slightly more complex than in the ACS 3.x days. What you get for this extra work includes:
The Permissions System lets you track who is allowed to do what to the rows in an application table, and gives you an easy way to enforce this from Tcl.
Every object has an attribute called
context_idthat provides a way to trivially specify both the default permissions for an object, and the intended "scope" of an object. Just set the
context_idto the controlling object and forget about it.
And most importantly, any future object-level service - from a general-comments replacement to personalized ranking - will become available to your application "for free."
Using ACS objects is straightforward: all that's required are a few extra steps in the design of your application data model.
In order to hook our Notes application into the object system,
we make some calls to use our
notes table as the basis for a new
object type. Object types
are analogous to classes in programming languages such as C++ and
Java. In Java, a class defines a set of attributes that store data
and a set of methods that run code. In OpenACS, we use one or more
database tables to store the data attributes, and we define a
stored procedure package to hold procedures to define the
programming interface to the data model.
The object type itself is described using data in the
acs_attributes tables, which
play a role similar to the data dictionary in Oracle. As in Java,
object types can inherit attributes from a parent type, so the type
system forms a hierarchy. Unlike Java, Oracle does not support this
inheritance transparently, so we have to make sure we add our own
bookkeeping code to keep everything consistent. Below you'll
find the code needed to describe a new object type called
notes in your system.
Fire up your text editor and open the
for the PG version) file created when we created the package.
Then, do the following:
First, add an entry to the
acs_object_types table with the following
begin acs_object_type.create_type ( supertype => 'acs_object', object_type => 'note', pretty_name => 'Note', pretty_plural => 'Notes', table_name => 'NOTES', id_column => 'NOTE_ID' ); end; / show errors;
This PL/SQL call tells the system that we would like to use the
NOTES as the basis for a
new object type called
This type is a subtype of the
acs_object type, which means that we want
to inherit all of the basic attributes of all ACS objects. As
mentioned, it will take some work on our part to make this happen,
since Oracle can't do it automatically. In general, most basic
applications will define types that are simple subtypes of
Add entries to the
acs_attributes table to describe the data
attributes of the new type. This data can eventually be used to do
things like automatically generate user interfaces to manipulate
notes table, though that
functionality isn't yet available.
declare attr_id acs_attributes.attribute_id%TYPE; begin attr_id := acs_attribute.create_attribute ( object_type => 'note', attribute_name => 'TITLE', pretty_name => 'Title', pretty_plural => 'Titles', datatype => 'string' ); attr_id := acs_attribute.create_attribute ( object_type => 'note', attribute_name => 'BODY', pretty_name => 'Body', pretty_plural => 'Bodies', datatype => 'string' ); end; / show errors;
We can stop here and not bother to register the usual OpenACS
3.x attributes of
last_modified, since the object type
acs_object already defines
these attributes. Again, because the new type
note is a subtype of
acs_object, it will inherit these
attributes, so there is no need for us to define them.
The next thing we do is make a small modification to the data
model to reflect the fact that each row in the
notes table represents something that is
not only an object of type
note, but also an
acs_object. The new table definition looks
create table notes ( note_id integer references acs_objects(object_id) primary key, owner_id integer references users(user_id), title varchar(255) not null, body varchar(1024) )
modified_date columns are
absent since they already exist in
acs_objects. Also, note the constraint we
have added to reference the
acs_objects table, which makes clear that
note is a subtype of
acs_object, every row in the
notes table must have a corresponding row in the
acs_objects table. This is the fundamental
means by which we model inheritance; it guarantees that any
services that use the
acs_objects table to find objects will
transparently find any objects that are instances of any subtype of
The next step is to define a PL/SQL package for your new type, and write some basic procedures to create and delete objects. Here is a package definition for our new type:
create or replace package note as function new ( note_id in notes.note_id%TYPE default null, owner_id in notes.owner_id%TYPE default null, title in notes.title%TYPE, body in notes.body%TYPE, object_type in acs_object_types.object_type%TYPE default 'note', creation_date in acs_objects.creation_date%TYPE default sysdate, creation_user in acs_objects.creation_user%TYPE default null, creation_ip in acs_objects.creation_ip%TYPE default null, context_id in acs_objects.context_id%TYPE default null ) return notes.note_id%TYPE; procedure delete ( note_id in notes.note_id%TYPE ); end note; / show errors
You might be wondering what all the extra parameters are to
these calls, since we haven't mentioned them before. These
parameters are needed to fill out information that will be stored
about the object that's not stored directly in the table you
defined. The OpenACS Object System defines these attributes on the
acs_object since all
objects should have these attributes. Internally, there are tables
that store this information for you. Most of the data is pretty
self-explanatory and reflects attributes that existed in the
earlier OpenACS 3.x data models, with the exception of the
stores the ID of an object that represents the default security
domain to which the object belongs. It is used by the permissions system in this way:
if no permissions are explicitly attached to the object, then the
object inherits its permissions from the context. For example, if I
had told you how to use the permissions system to
specify that an object OBJ was "read only", then any
other object that used OBJ as its context would also be "read
only" by default. We'll talk about this more later.
The PL/SQL package body contains the implementations of the
procedures defined above. The only subtle thing going on here is
that we must use
to insert a row into
acs_objects, before inserting a row into
notes. Similarly, when we
delete a row from
note, we have
to be sure to delete the corresponding
create or replace package body note as function new ( note_id in notes.note_id%TYPE default null, owner_id in notes.owner_id%TYPE default null, title in notes.title%TYPE, body in notes.body%TYPE, object_type in acs_object_types.object_type%TYPE default 'note', creation_date in acs_objects.creation_date%TYPE default sysdate, creation_user in acs_objects.creation_user%TYPE default null, creation_ip in acs_objects.creation_ip%TYPE default null, context_id in acs_objects.context_id%TYPE default null ) return notes.note_id%TYPE is v_note_id integer; begin v_note_id := acs_object.new ( object_id => note_id, object_type => object_type, creation_date => creation_date, creation_user => creation_user, creation_ip => creation_ip, context_id => context_id ); insert into notes (note_id, owner_id, title, body) values (v_note_id, owner_id, title, body); return v_note_id; end new; procedure delete ( note_id in notes.note_id%TYPE ) is begin delete from notes where note_id = note.delete.note_id; acs_object.del(note_id); end delete; end note; / show errors;
That's pretty much it! As long as you use the
note.new function to create notes, and the
note.delete function to delete
them, you'll be assured that the relationship each
note has with its corresponding
acs_object is preserved.
The last thing to do is to make a file
it's easy to drop the data model when, say, you're
begin acs_object_type.drop_type ('note'); end; / show errors drop package note; drop table notes;
While it is hard to give general design advice without knowing anything about a particular application, you should follow the following rule of thumb when deciding when to hook part of your data model to the object system:
Anything in your data model that needs to be available to
general OpenACS services such as user comments, permissions, and so
on should be a subtype of
acs_object. In addition, if you want your
data model to take advantage of attributes that exist in some
object type that is a subtype of
acs_object, then you should use the object
For example, for most applications, you will want to use objects to represent the data in your application that is user visible and thus requires access control. But other internal tables, views, mapping tables and so on probably don't need to be objects. As before, this kind of design decision is mostly made on an application-by-application basis, but this is a good baseline from which to start.
In this section we cover some overall guidelines for designing data models that are meant to be integrated with the OpenACS object system.
There are two basic rules you should follow when designing OpenACS 5.9.0 data models:
Never utilize fields in the
acs_objectstable in application specific ways. That is, never assign any application-specific semantics to this data. In the notes application, we use the
last_modifiedfields, but this is OK since we do not assign any application-specific meaning to these fields.
In particular, never assign any application specific semantics to the
context_idattribute of an object. This field is used for a very specific purpose by the permissions system, and using this field in any other way whatsoever is guaranteed to make your application act strangely.
As we'll see later, the Notes example will point each note object's
context_idto the package instance in which the note was created. The idea will be that in a real site, the administrator would create one package instance for every separate set of Notes (say, one per user). The instance would "own" all of the notes that it created, and the administrator would be able to use the package instance as the basis for access control, which is convenient.
The reason behind these two rules is pretty straightforward: First, the OpenACS Object system itself is meant to be a generic and reusable tool for any application to use for basic services. Second, in order for this to work, the various parts of the OpenACS Objects data model must be interpreted in the same way by all applications that use the data model. Therefore, assigning any application-specific semantics to any part of the core data model is a bad thing to do, because then the semantics of the data model are no longer independent of the application. This would make it impossible to build the generic tools that the data model is trying to support.
Another less important reason for these two rules is to not
introduce any joins against the
acs_objects table in SQL queries in your
application that you do not absolutely need.
In the Notes example, the result of applying these rules is that
we are careful to define our own attribute for
owner_id rather than overloading
creation_user from the objects
table. But, since we will probably use
creation_date and so on for their intended
purposes, we don't bother to define our own attributes to store
that data again. This will entail joins with
acs_objects but that's OK because it
makes the overall data model cleaner. The real lesson is that
deciding exactly how and when to use inherited attributes is fairly
straightforward, but requires a good amount of thought at design
time even for simple applications.
Hooking into the OpenACS 5.9.0 object system brings the application developer numerous benefits, and doing it involves only four easy steps:
Describe the a new object type to the system. Most new application types will be subtypes of the built-in type
Define a table to store application object data.
Define a PL/SQL package to store procedures related to the new type. You have to define at least a function called
newto create new application objects and a procedure called
deleteto delete them.
Define a package body that contains the implementations of the PL/SQL procedures defined above.
Try not to write queries in your application that join against
acs_objects. This means you should never use the fields in
acs_objectsfor application-specific purposes. This is especially true for the
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