Using Alembic to Migrate SQLAlchemy Databases

There are several advantages of using SQLAlchemy as a wrapper for an SQL database. These include stability with large numbers of data records, class/object-oriented approach, plug-and-play underlying databases. However, one under-documented disadvantage is poor change management. If you add a field or table you generally need to regenerate the entire database. This is a pain if you are constantly tinkering.

There are a number of tools to help with change management.

If you are using SQLAlchemy as part of a Flask application, your best bet is Flask-Migrate. This allows you to easily initialise, upgrade and migrate database definitions. Also the tutorial within the docs is great – generally this works without further modification.

If you are using SQLAlchemy outside of a Flask application, one option is to use Alembic. (Flask-Migrate is a wrapper for various Alembic functions.)

Alembic requires a little more set up. The documentation is good but a little intense. Wading through to work out an easy implementation is a bit of a struggle. However, once you do realise how things work it can be rather easy*. It’s a bit like git, but for databases.

First install Alembic in your current Python environment:

pip install alembic

Then navigate to your project directory and initialise:

alembic init [dir_name, e.g. alembic]

This creates a directory structure within your project directory. You may want to add the [dir_name] to your .gitignore file.

You then need to edit two configuration settings.

First, go into .ini file in the newly-created directory. Now add the “sqlalchemy url”. For me this was:

sqlalchemy.url = sqlite:///[DB_name].db

Second, you need to add your database model’s metadata object to the “env.py” file in the [dir_name] directory. As my Python package isn’t installed I also needed a hack to add the parent directory to the Python “sys.path” list. My added lines in this file are:

parent_dir = os.path.abspath(os.path.join(os.getcwd()))
sys.path.append(parent_dir)
from datamodels import Base
target_metadata = Base.metadata

To add a new revision you use a “revision” command much like “git commit”. The key is the “–autogenerate” flag. This automatically determines the changes to your database based on changes to your data models as defined in (for me) a “datamodels.py” file. So to start run:

alembic revision --autogenerate -m "message"

Then you can update your database by running:

alembic upgrade head

*Thanks go to Mathieu Rodic and his post here for helping me work this out.

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