Developers
August 18, 2020

ORM vs Plain SQL: Which Should You Choose and When

Understanding the difference between ORM and plain SQL is an important factor in choosing the best solution for a given task.

Databases are the unsung heroes of the tech industry and beyond. Virtually every industry relies on databases in one way or another. Doctors rely on them to keep track of customers and appointments, web applications rely on them to run their services, email clients use them to store emails, countless applications use them to store settings, and much more.

In many cases, when someone thinks of a database, they think of a traditional relational database. In many ways, a relational database is similar to a spreadsheet, with rows and columns of data organized into a table. Relational databases have multiple tables, similar to multiple spreadsheets, linked together via fields with unique IDs.

SQL: The Old Standby

Structured Query Language (SQL) is a powerful language designed to harness the capabilities of a relational database. With SQL, a developer can pull information from a single table, or from a range of tables using joins. A join condition pulls data from multiple tables, based on specific columns.

For example, a database containing customer information might be called “Customers.” This table would have fields for unique information, such as the customer name, date of birth, a unique customer ID, and more.

A separate table perhaps called “CustomerPhone” could contain every phone number associated with a given customer. This second table would be linked to the first via the customer ID field. A join statement could pull information from both tables, capturing all records that match that customer ID.

Needless to say, however, becoming proficient with SQL takes time and effort. Like any programming language, SQL has its own rules, syntax, and requirements. One small mistake can completely break an otherwise well-written query.

ORM: The Alternative Method

Object-Relational Mapping (ORM) is another way of interacting with a database. Rather than using SQL to interact with the database, ORM provides a method of interacting with a database using an object-oriented language.

This functionality is usually provided through a library, framework or API that works with an object-oriented language. As a result, there is a level of abstraction between the database and the programmer, with the library acting as the go-between.

Advantages and Disadvantages of ORM

It’s easy to see the advantages ORM represents. First and foremost, ORM allows a programmer to interact with a relational database without becoming an expert in SQL.

Second, and equally important, ORM allows a developer to use the language of their choice. While developers often know more than one language, many developers have languages they prefer to use. They may be working on a large project that primarily uses a single language. ORM lets developers continue to use that language, which can save time and keep code streamlined.

ORM can also offer significant advantages for developers who are constantly switching back-and-forth between different types of databases. Because it adds a layer of abstraction, a developer doesn’t have to remember the subtle differences between MySQL, PostgreSQL, SQLite, and others. Instead, they can focus exclusively on using ORM and it handles low-level database interaction.

Another advantage of ORM is that it can offer better performance than standard SQL, especially when the developer is not that familiar with SQL. In these cases, the out-of-the-box performance ORM offers is often better than the lackluster SQL code.

All of these advantages come at a cost, however. One of the biggest disadvantages is the potential vendor lock-in. Because ORM is often provided through a library, framework, or API, there’s always the chance a developer may become so dependent on ORM that it becomes difficult to move to other solutions.

Another potential disadvantage of using ORM is the very abstraction that makes it so easy to use. There comes a point in many development lifecycles when the developer needs to know exactly what is happening under-the-hood. The abstraction ORM provides, however, insulates the developer from that layer, potentially making low-level troubleshooting more difficult.

Advantages and Disadvantages of SQL

SQL offers definite pros and cons of its own. One of its biggest benefits is the ability to eke out the best possible performance. Although ORM can offer better out-of-the-box performance, developers proficient in SQL can use it to the fullest and achieve a higher level of performance.

Using SQL ensures no chance of vendor lock-in since there is no dependence on any third-party code to access the database.

Similarly, SQL allows a developer to see exactly what is happening in the underlying database, making troubleshooting complex problems easier than when using ORM.

The disadvantage of using SQL is that it requires the developer to learn the language and become proficient enough to unlock its full potential. Similarly, unlocking SQL’s full potential requires writing complex SQL statements that can easily be mistyped.

Which Should You Use?

As with most things in the world of development, which option is best depends largely on the circumstances. If you’re already comfortable with SQL or would like to learn it, that will likely offer the best long-term option, in terms of power and ability.

On the other hand, if you bounce between databases, don’t want to learn SQL, or would prefer to do all your programming in the language of your choice, ORM may be the better option.

TagsORMSQLDatabase
Matt Milano
Technical Writer
Matt is a tech journalist and writer with a background in web and software development.

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DevelopersAugust 18, 2020
ORM vs Plain SQL: Which Should You Choose and When
Understanding the difference between ORM and plain SQL is an important factor in choosing the best solution for a given task.

Databases are the unsung heroes of the tech industry and beyond. Virtually every industry relies on databases in one way or another. Doctors rely on them to keep track of customers and appointments, web applications rely on them to run their services, email clients use them to store emails, countless applications use them to store settings, and much more.

In many cases, when someone thinks of a database, they think of a traditional relational database. In many ways, a relational database is similar to a spreadsheet, with rows and columns of data organized into a table. Relational databases have multiple tables, similar to multiple spreadsheets, linked together via fields with unique IDs.

SQL: The Old Standby

Structured Query Language (SQL) is a powerful language designed to harness the capabilities of a relational database. With SQL, a developer can pull information from a single table, or from a range of tables using joins. A join condition pulls data from multiple tables, based on specific columns.

For example, a database containing customer information might be called “Customers.” This table would have fields for unique information, such as the customer name, date of birth, a unique customer ID, and more.

A separate table perhaps called “CustomerPhone” could contain every phone number associated with a given customer. This second table would be linked to the first via the customer ID field. A join statement could pull information from both tables, capturing all records that match that customer ID.

Needless to say, however, becoming proficient with SQL takes time and effort. Like any programming language, SQL has its own rules, syntax, and requirements. One small mistake can completely break an otherwise well-written query.

ORM: The Alternative Method

Object-Relational Mapping (ORM) is another way of interacting with a database. Rather than using SQL to interact with the database, ORM provides a method of interacting with a database using an object-oriented language.

This functionality is usually provided through a library, framework or API that works with an object-oriented language. As a result, there is a level of abstraction between the database and the programmer, with the library acting as the go-between.

Advantages and Disadvantages of ORM

It’s easy to see the advantages ORM represents. First and foremost, ORM allows a programmer to interact with a relational database without becoming an expert in SQL.

Second, and equally important, ORM allows a developer to use the language of their choice. While developers often know more than one language, many developers have languages they prefer to use. They may be working on a large project that primarily uses a single language. ORM lets developers continue to use that language, which can save time and keep code streamlined.

ORM can also offer significant advantages for developers who are constantly switching back-and-forth between different types of databases. Because it adds a layer of abstraction, a developer doesn’t have to remember the subtle differences between MySQL, PostgreSQL, SQLite, and others. Instead, they can focus exclusively on using ORM and it handles low-level database interaction.

Another advantage of ORM is that it can offer better performance than standard SQL, especially when the developer is not that familiar with SQL. In these cases, the out-of-the-box performance ORM offers is often better than the lackluster SQL code.

All of these advantages come at a cost, however. One of the biggest disadvantages is the potential vendor lock-in. Because ORM is often provided through a library, framework, or API, there’s always the chance a developer may become so dependent on ORM that it becomes difficult to move to other solutions.

Another potential disadvantage of using ORM is the very abstraction that makes it so easy to use. There comes a point in many development lifecycles when the developer needs to know exactly what is happening under-the-hood. The abstraction ORM provides, however, insulates the developer from that layer, potentially making low-level troubleshooting more difficult.

Advantages and Disadvantages of SQL

SQL offers definite pros and cons of its own. One of its biggest benefits is the ability to eke out the best possible performance. Although ORM can offer better out-of-the-box performance, developers proficient in SQL can use it to the fullest and achieve a higher level of performance.

Using SQL ensures no chance of vendor lock-in since there is no dependence on any third-party code to access the database.

Similarly, SQL allows a developer to see exactly what is happening in the underlying database, making troubleshooting complex problems easier than when using ORM.

The disadvantage of using SQL is that it requires the developer to learn the language and become proficient enough to unlock its full potential. Similarly, unlocking SQL’s full potential requires writing complex SQL statements that can easily be mistyped.

Which Should You Use?

As with most things in the world of development, which option is best depends largely on the circumstances. If you’re already comfortable with SQL or would like to learn it, that will likely offer the best long-term option, in terms of power and ability.

On the other hand, if you bounce between databases, don’t want to learn SQL, or would prefer to do all your programming in the language of your choice, ORM may be the better option.

ORM
SQL
Database
About the author
Matt Milano -Technical Writer
Matt is a tech journalist and writer with a background in web and software development.

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