Why Asynchronous ORM?

Conclusion first: in many cases, you don’t need to use an asynchronous ORM, or even asyncio itself. But when you do, it’s very important to get it done correctly.

When asyncio Helps

As Mike Bayer - the author of SQLAlchemy - pointed out, even Python itself can be slower than the database operation in a stereotypical business-style CRUD-ish application, because the modern databases are so fast when the query is simple, and this kind of application usually deploys the database in a super reliable network. In this case, it doesn’t make sense to say “Hey I wanna use asyncio because I love this asynchronous ORM”.

The problem asyncio solves is quite different: when you need to deal with a lot of concurrent tasks, some of which may block on I/O for arbitrary time, asyncio could largely leverage the scalability with cooperative multitasking. This is explained in Asynchronous Programming 101. So the ultimate reason to use asyncio should be the application itself, not the database.

For example, a chat server may need to talk to tens of thousands of clients at the same time. The clients are idle for most of the time, because the user didn’t send a message in seconds, which is thousands of times longer than the time needed by the server to handle the message. Obviously the last thing you want is to have tens of thousands of OS threads to wait for each of those clients to reply, as it’ll disproportionately consume way too much hardware resource. In contrast, asyncio could easily handle this concurrency with reasonably tiny overhead.


Another example is authentication using OpenID Connect Authorization Code Flow as a Client. If the Token Endpoint of the Authorization Server responds fast, everything is fine. But once it’s delayed for even just a few seconds due to unreliable Internet or overloaded server or whatever reasons, the Client would face a concurrency challenge. According to Liebig’s law, the minimum throughput of the Client or the Server determines the overall performance. Comparing to asyncio, it’s not wise to use threading model to build the Client and rely on the Internet which may make the Client the shortest stave.

Arbitrary delays may happen in the database too. In PostgreSQL, you can LISTEN to some asynchronous events that happens unpredictably. Some normal bulk queries may also take a long time to run, and the database locks can occasionally block too, especially the dead ones. But these are usually not considered as a high-concurrency scenario, because the database will possibly hit its bottleneck before your server does, or there are smarter ways to handle such situations than asyncio. Nevertheless, the database could be the reason to use asyncio, depending on the actual case.

In closing, there are scenarios when asyncio could help with concurrency issues. Now that we know we will write an asynchronous server, then the next question is:

How to Access Database

The first thing to balance here is ORM - how much convenience would you like to sacrifice for execution performance. As we are talking about ORM, let’s assume we need at least some level of abstraction over raw SQL, or else low-level tools like asyncpg would be a neat choice. Don’t get me wrong - asyncpg is great and convenient to use, but there won’t be such a question “why asynchronous ORM” if we’re not seeking an objective layer over bare SQL. It’s totally reasonable and sometimes beneficial and fun to play with SQL in asynchronous contexts, it’s just out of our scope here.

Because simple queries are executed so fast in the database, one obvious but wrong approach is to just run the query in the main thread. It won’t work because it will 100% cause a dead lock - not a typical database dead lock, but a hybrid one between the connection pool and cooperative multitasking. For example, here’s a very simple server:

import asyncio
from fastapi import FastAPI
from sqlalchemy import create_engine
from sqlalchemy.orm import sessionmaker

app = FastAPI()
e = create_engine("postgresql://localhost")
Session = sessionmaker(bind=e)

async def read_root():
    session = Session()
        now = session.execute("SELECT now()").scalar()
        await asyncio.sleep(0.1)  # do some async work
        return str(now)

This follows advices found in When do I construct a Session, when do I commit it, and when do I close it? from SQLAlchemy - linking the session scope to the request scope. It works fine within 10 concurrent requests, but freezes miserably for any number beyond 10: all requests hang and the only way to stop the server is kill -9.

What just happened is called a resource starvation. While the first 10 requests were waiting for the async work (sleep(0.1)), the 11th request came in and tried to acquire a new database connection from the pool. But the connection pool is already exhausted (default max_overflow=10) by the first 10 requests, the 11th request was then blocked by the acquisition. However, this acquisition is unfortunately a blocking operation, therefore the main thread is blocked and the first 10 requests lost their chance to finish the async work and return their connection back to the pool to resume the 11th’s acquisition.

The root cause of such starvation is making asynchronous calls in a transaction scope created implicitly by the default autocommit=False. So other than limiting the number of concurrent requests down to 10, a more reasonable solution is to avoid doing asynchronous calls in transaction scopes by explicitly ending them:

async def read_root():
    session = Session()
        now = session.execute("SELECT now()").scalar()
        session.rollback()  # return the connection to avoid starvation
        await asyncio.sleep(0.1)  # do some async work
        return str(now)

Because of the implicit nature of typical ORMs, it’s very hard to identify all such transaction scopes and make sure there’s no await in them - you may have started an implicit transaction by simply accessing a property like current_user.name. In practice, it is an impossible mission to correctly mix blocking ORM code with asynchronous programming in the same thread. So never do this.

What about thread pool?

The idea is to defer all blocking code into a thread pool, and run asynchronous cooperative multitasking in the main thread. This is theoretically possible, but the same implicit ORM issue keeps haunting us - how do you guarantee there is no blocking calls in the main thread? Taking one step back, let’s assume we could do this cleanly. What would the code look like? There must be a clear API as the logical separation between the blocking and asynchronous code - the server executes major DB-free business logic in the main thread with asynchronous programming, and calls blocking methods for encapsulated database operations in a thread pool.

This reminds me of its opposite pattern, where the main server runs in blocking mode, deferring I/O intensive operations into a task queue like Celery. Both approaches solve the problem, the reason to choose one over the other is on the concentration of business logic - you’d want to write the majority of your code in the main server, and defer only sub-tasks or low priority operations into a thread pool or task queue. In reality, using a task queue to e.g. send emails is a more reasonable approach. If you’re doing that in the opposite way, you may want to reconsider the design.

In summary, other than using raw SQL, the existing typical ORMs could not serve asynchronous programming well enough. We need true asynchronous ORMs.

Asynchronous ORM Done Right

I would describe a proper asynchronous ORM as follows:

Don’t Starve.

The very basic requirement for an asynchronous ORM is to avoid resource starvation, at least avoid the part caused by the ORM design. The fix is actually pretty straightforward - just make everything async.

In the example above, if the connection acquisition is asynchronous, it won’t block the main thread any more (it’ll block it’s own coroutine instead). Therefore, the other tasks would get a chance to finish the async work and return the connection back to the pool, thus the starvation is avoided:

async def read_root():
    async with db.acquire() as conn:  # }
        async with conn.begin():      # } These two won't block the main thread
            now = await db.scalar("SELECT now()")
            await asyncio.sleep(0.1)  # do some async work
            return str(now)

Even though this code won’t cause any resource starvation, using await within database transactions is still strongly discouraged, unless it is for the database query or absolutely necessary. Because after yielding the execution, we have no idea when we can resume the following execution. That leads to a hanging transaction or at least an unused database connection for a moment. Doing so won’t kill the server immediately, but it has a few disadvantages:

  1. As the database connection pool is usually much smaller than the asynchronous server concurrency, this kind of code caps the concurrency down to the DB pool level.

  2. Taking a database connection from the pool for nothing is a waste of resource, especially when the database pool is the shortest stave.

  3. Database transactions should be kept short as much as possible. Because long-hanging transactions may keep certain database locks, leading to performance issues or even triggering a chain reaction of deadlocks.

Be explicit.

With that said, it is especially important to make everything explicit - all the connection acquisition, transactions and executions. Anything that will block must be marked with an await or async with, so that you’ll know for sure when a statement is trying to make any database I/O. Fortunately there’s no other way in asyncio to do this - following the pattern of Twisted, asyncio is already forcing explicit await for any asynchronous operations.

Being explicit in other part of the ORM design is also useful for enhancing the quality of users’ code. This has nothing to do with asynchronous, it’s not a golden standard or something with a clear cut either. For example:

  • We could design the ORM model instances to be stateless, so that the users don’t have to learn and worry about maintaining the state of the instances.

  • There shouldn’t be any “buffered operations” which users could “flush” with a single statement once for all.

  • The user should just give direct one-off commands and the ORM executes them right away.

  • Also I think the convenience tooling should be well-balanced, the user doesn’t have to guess or remember what an API means - for example, there’re more than one ways to load a many-to-one relationship, I’d prefer to write the query by myself rather than trying to remember what “join_without_n_plus_1()” means.

Be productive.

Explicitness and productivity are kind of like two sides of the same coin - more explicitness means less productive, and more convenience means less explicit. As we are already using Python, being able to code productively is especially important. For an asynchronous ORM, is it possible to find a proper balance between the two?

I think some of the fundamental principals must be explicit, for example the stateless model and asynchronous yieldings. Then we could add convenient tooling on top of this foundation as much as it doesn’t harm the basic explicitness. The tooling could better be simple wrappers, grammar sugars or shortcuts for lengthy code, with a proper and intuitive naming. This is mostly the idea behind GINO’s design.

Additionally, being able to leverage an existing ecosystem is also an important part in productivity. People could use what they’ve learned directly, port what they wrote to the new platform with minimum effort. More importantly - reuse some of the tools from the ecosystem without having to reinvent the wheel again.