Bullet Working as a team against a common database schema can be a real challenge. Some teams prefer to have their local code connect to a centralized database, but this approach can create many headaches. If I make a schema change to a shared database, but am not ready to check in my code, that can break the site for another developer. For a project like Subtext, it is just not feasible to have a central database.

Instead, I prefer to work on a local copy of the database and propagate changes via versioned change scripts. That way, when I check in my code, I can let others know which scripts to run on their local database when they get latest source code. Of course this can be also be a big challenge as the number of scripts starts to grow and developers are stuck bookkeeping which scripts they have run and which they haven’t.

That is why I always recommend to my teams that we script schema and data changes in an idempotent manner whenever possible. That way, it is much easier to simply batch updates together in a single file (per release for example) and a developer simply runs that single script any time an update is made.

As an example, suppose we have a Customer table and we need to add a column for the customer’s favorite color. I would script it like so:

    SELECT * FROM [information_schema].[columns] 
    WHERE   table_name = 'Customer' 
    AND table_schema = 'dbo'
    AND column_name = 'FavoriteColorId'
    ALTER TABLE [dbo].[Customer]
    ADD FavoriteColorId int

This script basically checks for the existence of the FavoriteColorId column on the table Customer and if it doesn’t exist, it adds it. You can run this script a million times, and it will only make the schema change once.

You’ll notice that I didn’t query against the system tables, instead choosing to lookup the information in an INFORMATION_SCHEMA view named Columns. This is the Microsoft recommendation as they reserve the right to change the system tables at any time. The information views are part of the SQL-92 standard, so they are not likely to change.

There are 20 schema views in all, listed below with their purpose (aggregated from SQL Books). Note that in all cases, only data accessible to the user executing the query against the information_schema views is returned.

Name Returns
COLUMN_DOMAIN_USAGE Every column that has a user-defined data type.
COLUMN_PRIVILEGES Every column with a privilege granted to or by the current user in the current database.
COLUMNS Lists every column in the system
CONSTRAINT_COLUMN_USAGE Every column that has a constraint defined on it.
CONSTRAINT_TABLE_USAGE Every table that has a constraint defined on it.
DOMAIN_CONSTRAINTS Every user-defined data type with a rule bound to it.
DOMAINS Every user-defined data type.
KEY_COLUMN_USAGE Every column that is constrained as a key
PARAMETERS Every parameter for every user-defined function or stored procedure in the datbase. For functions this returns one row with return value information.
REFERENTIAL_CONSTRAINTS Every foreign constraint in the system.
ROUTINE_COLUMNS Every column returned by table-valued functions.
ROUTINES Every stored procedure and function in the database.
SCHEMATA Every database in the system.
TABLE_CONSTRAINTS Every table constraint.
TABLE_PRIVILEGES Every table privilege granted to or by the current user.
TABLES Every table in the system.
VIEW_COLUMN_USAGE Every column used in a view definition.
VIEW_TABLE_USAGE Every table used in a view definition.
VIEWS Every View

When selecting rows from these views, the table must be prefixed with information_schema as in SELECT * FROM information_schema.tables.

Please note that the information schema views are based on a SQL-92 standard so some of the terms used in these views are different than the terms in Microsoft SQL Server. For example, in the example above, I set table_schema = 'dbo'. The term schema refers to the owner of the database object.

Here is another code example in which I add a constraint to the Customer table.

    SELECT * 
    FROM [information_schema].[referential_constraints] 
    WHERE constraint_name = 'FK_Customer_Color' 
      AND constraint_schema = 'dbo'
  FK_Customer_Color FOREIGN KEY
  ) REFERENCES dbo.Color

I generally don’t go to all this trouble for stored procedures, user defined functions, and views. In those cases I will use Enterprise manager generate a full drop and create script. When a stored procedure is dropped and re-created, you don’t lose data as you would if you dropped and re-created a table that contained some data.

With this approach in hand, I can run an update script with new schema changes confident that I any changes in the script that I have already applied will not be applied again. The same approach works for lookup data as well. Simply check for the data’s existence before inserting the data. It is a little bit more work up front, but it is worth the trouble and schema changes happen less frequently than code or stored procedure changes.