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Constraint language for advanced data modeling

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In this article we discuss the constraint language of TypeDB’s functional database programming model, including constraints that can be placed on subtype terms, type sizes, and type dependencies.

At a glance: syntax essentials

In a nutshell, the constraint language of TypeDB 3.0 will include the following new syntactic constructs:

  • @values(v1, v2, ...) restricts a given value type to specific values v1, v2, … . For example, the definition color value string @values("red", "blue", "green"); constrains the color attribute to only have values "red", "blue", or "green".
  • @card(n..m) can be used when relating role players or owning attributes: it ensures the cardinality of a relation’s roles or an owner’s attributes lies in the range n, ..., m. Not that the upper bound m may be omitted.
  • @cascade is used for marking relation types as dependent on their role players and enabling cascading deletes. There is also an query-level version of the annotation which allows to overwrite schema behavior.
  • @independent is used for marking attribute types independent from their owners and preventing cascading deletes (i.e. we keep attributes in the database even when their owners get deleted).
  • The update clause is particularly useful when updating data of cardinality at most 1, as we’ve seen the example above.
  • @distinct ensures distinctness of elements for role-player or attribute lists. For example, acyclic_path relates node[] @distinct ensures no acyclic_path contains a node twice.
  • Further provide to @key and @unique, we provide an annotation @subkey(LABEL) which makes an owned attribute part of a LABEL-named joint key across (potentially) multiple attributes.

Now, let’s see some examples!

Enums via value restrictions

The new @values annotation constrains attribute types to only have instances with certain values. For example, consider the following schema-level definition:

define status sub attribute, value string @values("SUCCESS", "FAILURE");

This defines a status attribute type of string value type, but constrains all its attribute instance to be either the string "SUCCESS" or the string "FAILURE". Thus, when we try running the following query

insert $server isa server, has status "HAPPY";

TypeDB will return us an error, since "HAPPY" is not among the specified values "SUCCESS", "FAILURE".


Cardinality constrains the number of elements in our types: the annotation @card(n..m) says that a type will have between n and m elements (m > 1).

In TypeDB’s data model, cardinality constraints apply to either to the number of players of a role in a specific relation, or, the number of attributes of a specific owner. The upper bounds can be set to * to indicate that a type can have “arbitrarily many” elements.

Let’s see the three cases where cardinality can apply.

  1. The definition define marriage relates spouse @card(2..2); means that each marriage instance will have exactly 2 objects playing the role of spouse. If we were to omit the annotation then, by default, define a relates b; will be interpreted with cardinality @card(1..1). Also: as a universal rule, any relation instance must have at least one role player (even when using @card(0..m) … orphans will be auto-deleted)!
  2. The definition define person owns middle_name @card(0..); means that a person instance will have any number of middle_names. By default, define a owns b; will be interpreted with cardinality @card(0..1).
  3. The definition define person plays marriage:spouse @card(0..1); mean that each person can be in at most one marriage relation. By default, define a plays b will be interpreted with cardinality @card(0..).

Violating cardinality

When inserting and deleting data, cardinality constraints come into play as follows.

  • During an insert, violating the upper cardinality bound of either played roles or owned attributes will throw an error (e.g., trying to add a 3rd spouse to an existing marriage will throw an error).
  • During a delete, violating the lower cardinality bound of played roles or owned attributes will throw an error (e.g., trying to delete one of the two spouses of an existing marriage will throw an error). For relations, this behavior is overwritten by the @cascade annotation as we will learn shortly.

Cardinality and distinctness for lists

Cardinality constraints also apply to lists (recall: lists can be used exactly when modeling relation roles and attribute ownerships). This applies to two cases:

  • action_flow relates item[] @card(1..10); means that each action_flow relation instance will have between 1 and 10 ordered items. By default, define a relates b[] will be interpreted with cardinality @card(1..).
  • define person owns middle_name[] @card(0..5); means that each person can have up to 5 ordered middle_names. By default, define a owns b[] will be interpreted with cardinality @card(0..).

In both cases, we may further add the constraint @distinct which constrains lists to not have duplicates.

As mentioned earlier, “empty lists” in TypeDB are the same as no lists at all (i.e. variables in patterns cannot match empty lists). With that in mind, insert and delete clauses work just as in the previous section.

Cascades, independence, and updates

The cardinality behavior outlined above can be modified with the following set of further annotations.

Cascade at Schema-level

Relation can be set to @cascade when their role players are deleted. For example, the definition marriage sub relation @cascade; would modify our delete behavior described earlier: instead of throwing an error when a spouse is deleted from an existing marriage it will instead result in the deletion of the entire marriage.

Independent attributes

The @cascade annotation does not apply to attribute ownership. This makes sense: when we delete an attribute of an entity, this rarely implies the entity should be deleted! But, by default, we will cascade along the opposite direction: i.e., if an attribute as no more owners, then TypeDB will remove it.

This default behavior can be overwritten using the annotation @independent. For example, defining name sub attribute @independent, value string; will ensure that even if no more owners of a given name remain in the database, names will still remain as independent elements of the name type.

Updating card(1..1) data

Cardinality interacts with another annotation: any played role or owned attribute with upper cardinality bound of 1 can be updated. For example, given

  ownership sub relation,
  relates owner @card(1..1), 
  relates owned @card(0..);

then we could write a query of the form

  $o isa ownership;
  $king isa person, has name "King";
  $o links (owner: $king);

As a result $king will become the owner in every ownership.

Updating card(m..) data and lists

Let’s try running the following query instead:

  $o isa ownership;
  $peasant isa person, has name "Peasant";
  $freedom isa public_property, has description "Freedom of thought";
  $o links (owner: $peasant, owned: $freedom);

Here, an error would be returned, since this insert clause is equivalent to

  $o links (owner: $peasant);
  $o links (owned: $freedom);

The last line contradicts the rule that udpate can only be used for card(1..1) situations (i.e. when we know what to update). This is not the case for the owned role: the ownership $o could in theory link to many owned objects. In this case, we would not know which one of those owned object is to be updated by $freedom.

Importantly, the situation changes when updating list data. In this case, update can always be used since there is a unique list to be updated. We have seen an example of this earlier!

The future

TypeDB’s new constraint language dramatically enhances the expressivity of its underlying typed data model, and addresses many important use-cases for our users. Now, we would like to hear from you: which constraints do you think will be most useful to you? And: which other constraints should we add in the future?

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