NHibernate – Lessons Learned

As usual doing a Hello World using a technology turns out to be quite simple. It’s only when you start getting into serious stuff, you run into issues & of course learn a lot. I am sharing few of my learning’s on NHibernate over last month. The DB I am using is Oracle which makes these observations more important as there is a lot available out there on NHibernate but only with SQL SERVER.

1) Optimistic locking: NHibernate has an element called <version>, defined right after ID which can handle concurrency for you. I used a TIMESTAMP column in oracle & mapped it to a DateTime property in my C# class.

<version column=”ROWVERSION” type=”DateTime” name=”RowVersion” />

Now when you insert an entity containing version as above, NHibernate would automatically generate the TimeStamp for you & on update it will also do an automatic comparison. If you need to catch the Exception arising out of this issue, it would be StaleObjectStateException.

2) Cascade issues: A good description of why / what are cascades can be found here, though there are still few issues you will run into. Consider an entity called Class, which has a many-to-one relationship with professor.

<many-to-one name=”Professor” column=”A_PROFESSORID” cascade=”none” lazy=”false” />

For unidirectional associations like many-to-one (there is no one-to-many back), it makes sense to assign “none” to cascade, otherwise you will see superfluous updates. In this scenario, whenever you modify class attributes / properties, it will fire updates for Professor.
Though you still may not be able to completely get rid of superfluous updates. Let me put up one more  scenario. I have a Department & I have a Class (one-to-many). Now for this you would keep cascade=”all” for obvious reasons as a save / update /delete to Department should also save / update / delete Classes. But if you modify only a single property of department you will still end up updating all classes 😦 . I hope such superfluous updates will be removed with upcoming versions.

In case you require a soft delete (which is the case for many applications, maintaining an IsActive Flag), you can keep cascade option as “Save-Update” in parent (one-to-many).

3) BiDirectional / UniDirectional navigational relationships / associations: If you want to define a one-way only traversal  through NHibernate you may not be quite successful. Say, a department has classes (one-to-many). Now if your DB (Domain) says that classes can’t stand on their own they have to always belong to a department then you are in a fix. You must provide a bidirectional reference so that whenever you create a new instance of a class, you can bind it to Department.

public virtual void AddUniversityClass(UniversityClass universityClass)
if(_classes == null)
_classes = new ObservableList();
universityClass.Department = this; //BiDirectional, Class has a department & department has classes

If you don’t do above your insert of Class would fail as they would have a null foreign key for Department. Sounds obvious but looks more like database structure affecting your object model (navigation), which you normally don’t want. Yet some may argue in favor of it, citing benefits of explicit constraints. One way could be making your navigation relationship (many-to-one for instance) private.

4) For collections don’t forget inverse=”true”: Why? I could have elaborated but it’s already explained here. This tells that responsibility for updating the column value is on the other side (just specifying inverse=’true’ on the collection <one-to-many> association).

5) Oracle supports batching through adonet.batch_size: This was confirmed to me by Ayende and Tomer. Batching would club the CRUD statements & send them to DB at one shot giving decent performance gain. The only thing I don’t like here is the attribute name. After all if the batching is done for oracle also, why call it adonet.batch_size? It was confusing for me atleast 😦 . Also this works only with ODP.NET.

6) Use fetch=”join” for one-to-many & many-to-one relationships: This is to avoid select N + 1 problem. In my infancy stage of programming I use fall into this trap (limited knowledge of SQL 🙂 ). N.B. outer-join attribute is deprecated.

7) Always use Criteria queries unless you need to do a projection: Criteria Queries are easier to read, they leverage on configuration files (e.g. fetch=”join”), & they safely handle parameters (developers run into concatenation of parameters using HQL). But alas you can’t use Criteria Queries everywhere. For instance if you need to fetch only few fields of a given entity (no associations, only selected properties for a lookup display), HQL is the only way out.
string hqlQuery = “select new Department(D.ID, D.Name) from Department as D”; // Your class needs to have this constructor along with the default one
IQuery _query = Session.CreateQuery(hqlQuery);
IList _list = _query.List();
var observablelist = new ObservableList();
foreach (Department department in _list) { observablelist.Add(department); }
N.B. Projections are of utmost importance in NHibernate. Try to avoid bringing any unnecessary data to the client even if you have to resort to untyped objects. You can use a reader like loop to create your typed object graph & throw that graph back to client.

8 ) Many-To-Many doesn’t work with extra columns: Many-To-Many is normally expressed in database with help of third table. Though NHibernate doesn’t require a corresponding class for the third (mapping) table, but if third table contains additional columns other then the primary keys of involved tables, NHibernate won’t be able to support them. Solution we found was to move those additional attributes from the third table to the involved tables.

9) Components are of good value: To be frank I ignored the components completely when I started with NHibernate. In fact the whole concept of Entity vs. Value objects wasn’t clear to me even after going through DDD books. I mean, I got Value objects don’t require an identity but how does that affect my programming. But boy, I was wrong. I could have elaborated on the same here, but would request you to go through Hibernate in Action section 3.5 (starting page 92-93).

10) unsaved-value is important: You can use it to specify default values for columns. NHibernate also uses it to distinguish between new & modified entities.
E.g. Session.SaveOrUpdate(“Department”, department); //unsaved value would be used here to determine whether to do an insert or update. My Id reads as below for Oracle:

<id name=”ID” column=”A_ID” unsaved-value=”0″>
      <generator class=”Infrastructure.GenerateID, Infrastructure” /><!– GenerateID is a class that implements IIdentifierGenerator interface, in my case it returns a GUID. There is no identity column in Oracle !–>

11) NHibernate supports database views: You can have a mapping file point to a database view as well. I normally use it for summary display (complex queries). Ensure you check your performance before getting into it (especially no where clauses attached). Views typically won’t have an primary column but your mapping file would still required one for ID element. So you can pick a column of your choice which is unique and make it part of ID by removing the same from property mapping. You can point generator class to native (an easy way to get away).

<id name=”_year” column=”YEAR” unsaved-value=”0″ access=”field”>
      <generator class=”native” />

12) Parameterized Queries: If you are using NHibernate ideally you would talk to underlying DB with Criteria queries, HQL or raw SQL. NHibernate supports safe parameter passing in all of them as show below:
a) Criteria Queries: ICriteria criteria = Session.CreateCriteria(typeof(Post), “P”).Add(Expression.Eq(“P.PostId”, postId));
b) HQL or Raw SQL: s.CreateQuery(“from Post p where p.Title = :title”).SetString(“title”,”NHibernate”).List();
You also need to add a line to NHibernate configuration as discussed here – <property name=’prepare_sql’>true</property>

13) NHProf: Finally you should use NHProf to improve your understanding on the way NHibernate works.

I would appreciate your observations on above points.


7 thoughts on “NHibernate – Lessons Learned

  1. I got here via your comment on Ayende’s blog at http://ayende.com/Blog/archive/2008/12/31/nh-prof-alerts-use-statement-batching.aspx about getting adonet.batch_size working with Oracle.

    Was there a reason why you weren’t able to get it working initially, but have apparently been able to get it working now? Admittedly I haven’t looked into it very much yet (that post was the first Google result).

    Good post above on NHibernate. I definitely second the “not much info out there with NHibernate and Oracle.” If I’d known better, I would have kept a running journal of Oracle quirks that I needed to overcome with using NHibernate with Oracle (never mind the fact that I’m hooking into a legacy database with several “interesting” design implementations).

    Thanks in advance,


  2. Ayende has already responded with what I guessed might be the issue (and which you must have found out yourself by now): “the problem is with the way oracle’s batches work. It wouldn’t be reported as a batch in the profiler.”

    Much thanks.

  3. Hi Niraj

    Really good collection of tips.

    I am using Criteria queries exclusively in our application, including Projection. There are 2 criterion classes that do most of the work, Projections and ProjectionList. There are a number of others that cover the rest of the possible edge cases.

    HQL has an advantage though that it can be used in a named query in the mapping which will then make it ‘compiled’, or at least pre-parsed in NHibernate terms.

  4. how to model when a value type has to provide an association to an entity? for example – departments of a purchase company are modeled as a collection value type of company. What if this department has to provide association to an entity called supplier company specifying the agreement between supplier company and purchase companies’ department

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