Object Prefetch Filter

A Pattern for Improving the Performance of Object Retrieval of Object-Relational Mapping Tools

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Tim Wellhausen


January 06, 2008

Abstract: Object-relational mapping tools provide a bridge between object-oriented programming languages and relational database systems. Although the concepts of object-relational mapping are well understood, the performance of object retrieval still is a crucial point in using the tools. Prefetching objects is a means to improve the performance, in particular to avoid the so-called n+1 selects problem. This problem arises when a list of objects is retrieved from a database and for each object another database call needs to be executed to retrieve referenced objects. This paper presents a pattern that, if applied to the implementation of a mapping tool, gives application developers the choice to explicitly define for every query which part of a network of objects to prefetch.


Over the last years, the usage of object-relational mapping tools has become wide-spread. These tools diminish the impedance mismatch between object-oriented programming and relational databases by providing and supporting an object-oriented API to store objects into relational databases (for a list of available tools, at least for the Java platform, see [C2Wiki]).

Many publications, including individual patterns and pattern languages ([Keller1997], [Keller1998], [Fowler2003]), have documented key elements of object-relational mapping. The fundamental problems are now well-understood and solved by the available tools. However, the mismatch still exists. As good as the available tools are, they cannot completely hide the conceptual difference between objects and relational semantics.

One of the major remaining issues is performance, in particular the performance of object retrieval when a network of persistent objects is navigated. Most recent mapping tools support transparent loading of associated objects on demand. A developer therefore doesn't need to explicitly fetch associated objects. Instead, this is done transparently by the mapping tool when the graph of objects is navigated.

Such a comfortable solution to object retrieval comes at a price, however. Used naively, this approach may lead to severe performance problems because each individual object retrieval operation causes a round-trip to the database. This behavior is well-known and documented as the n+1 selects problem (see, for example, [Bauer+2004]).

To understand the n+1 selects problem, suppose that, in an e-commerce system, there is an Order object that contains a set of OrderItem objects, each of which references a Product object (see Fig. 1 on the next page). When the Order object is retrieved, none of its related order items are fetched at this moment. If the Order class provides a getOrderItems() method, however, all order items are transparently loaded when the method is called. Suppose now that all order items need to be checked for the availability of the ordered products. Every time an order item's Product object is requested, the database is called to fetch the product data. For n order items, the database is therefore accessed 1 (order items) + n (products) times in total.

A solution to the n+1 selects problem is object prefetching. If this technique is applied, the number of round-trips to the database can be cut down significantly by fetching associated objects in advance, i.e. before they are needed for the first time.

Applied to the example of iterating over order items, the performance of checking the products could be considerably improved: When the set of order items is loaded, all associated products are loaded as well. Mapping tools do this either by using an outer join expression or by executing a further select statement.

There has been some research lately on how to support object prefetching best. Some approaches suggest to profile and dynamically change the prefetch behavior of an application ([Han+2003], [Ibrahim+2006]). As long as these approaches have not yet manifested in mainstream tools, however, developers still need to cope with prefetching manually.

This paper documents the Object Prefetch Filter pattern that supports the explicit prefetching of objects. It is based on the idea that a developer defines explicitly which part of an object graph is needed at a time and that the mapping tool then prefetches the required network of objects at minimal costs.

The pattern is difficult to apply if it is not supported by a mapping tool itself. Therefore, the Object Prefetch Filter pattern primarily addresses the authors of mapping tools. Depending on the design of a mapping tool, it may be possible to implement the pattern as a wrapper on top of an existing tool. The Object Prefetch Filter pattern therefore also addresses application developers who are interested in extending the data access infrastructure of their project.

Running Example

To illustrate the n+1 selects problem and how the Object Prefetch Filter pattern helps to solve this problem, a real-world running example is given. Consider an e-commerce application that takes orders for the products a company sells. The domain model for this application is shown in Figure 1. A costumer may place any number of orders. An order is made up of an arbitrary number of order items, each of which refers to a product. Furthermore, every order has an invoice and a shipping address that both belong to the customer.

Fig. 1: Domain model of an e-commerce application

The e-commerce application needs to perform many tasks to keep the shop running. Among these tasks are:

To generate an overview list of the customer's orders, the system has to retrieve both the customer object and all of its associated orders (see dashed line in Fig. 2). If the system has to generate a detailed list of the customer's orders, it additionally needs to fetch the order items of all orders and their related products (see additional dotted line in Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Objects needed to generate a detailed list of a customer's orders

To generate an invoice for an order, the system needs to fetch the appropriate Order object and all associated objects that are shown in the diagram.

If the object-relational mapping tool in use does not support object prefetching, the performance of both the second and the third task would suffer because of the n+1 selects problem. If the mapping tool supports prefetching but does not provide a flexible means to define the objects to be prefetched on a per-query basis, it is not possible to optimize the object retrieval for all tasks: For some tasks, too few objects are prefetched, for other tasks, too many.


Object-relational mapping tools support the development of object-oriented applications that store their persistent data in relational databases. Such a mapping tool is able to load and update persistent objects including all of their references and make the persistent data available at runtime in form of a network of interconnected objects.

The data access layer of an application integrates and uses such a mapping tool to load, change, and update persistent data. The application's domain model may contain explicit references between its entities, which may be 1:1, 1:n, and n:m relations. To implement the domain logic, the application needs to navigate along these references.

To retrieve persistent objects from a database, object-relational mapping tools provide some kind of query functionality. Using a query, an application fetches objects and navigates among their object references to implement a use case or a service. If navigating the network of objects causes the mapping tool to transparently fetch objects only at the time when they are requested, the application's performance is likely to drop because of the n+1 selects problem.

To efficiently navigate among a network of persistent objects, the objects that are needed must be prefetched by the mapping tool, i.e. they must be loaded into memory before they are accessed.


How can an object-relational mapping tool support the efficient prefetching of a network of objects given that the developers know in advance which objects are needed at a time?


An application could explicitly add outer join expressions to a query to let the mapping tool prefetch the complete object graph by one select statement. In that case, the SQL statement that is executed on the database would not only load the data of the target object but also the data of its associated objects. In case of 1:1 associations, this approach works well. In case of 1:n and n:m associations, however, this approach leads to a duplication of the data retrieved from the database. In particular, if several 1:n or n:m associations need to be resolved, result sets grow huge because they contain cross products of data from the joined tables.

Instead, the application could issue several separate queries for individual parts of an object graph that is needed in a particular case and manually link the retrieved objects together. This approach, however, increases the development effort because in each case the developers themselves must explicitly cope with the problem how to efficiently prefetch the objects.

As an optimization to avoid the n+1 selects problem, the mapping tool could ensure that whenever one object of a specific type is loaded, all other objects of the same type that are referenced in the currently loaded network of objects are loaded as well. This approach, however, only work within the context of a database session, not when the objects need to be available outside this context. It may also lead to too many objects being prefetched.

A mapping tool could also support prefetching by statically declaring object associations to be always prefetched: Whenever an object of a specific type is loaded specific associated objects should be loaded, too. However, as the example has shown, it is very difficult to optimize the prefetch behavior of a domain model statically because different use cases may have different prefetch needs. Sometimes too few objects are prefetched, sometimes too many.


Therefore extend or wrap the query mechanism of an object-relational mapping tool so that an application may explicitly specify on a per-query basis the objects to be prefetched.

Create a means with which a developer may explicitly define the object associations to prefetch, i.e. a set of object traversal paths where each path is a concatenation of consecutive object associations, starting from the target object of a query. This is the object prefetch filter.

Make it possible to connect an object prefetch filter to a query so that the object-relational mapping tool can prefetch all objects that are accessible along any of the traversal paths. This means that once the target objects are returned to the application, the application may traverse from any target object along all object associations that are part of the prefetch filter without causing further database calls.


The implementation of the pattern consists of two parts: the prefetch filter that allows the definition of a network of objects to prefetch and an algorithm that actually prefetches the objects. Because an implementation of the pattern depends heavily on the facilities of an actual mapping tool, both parts are illustrated by resolving the example.

Suppose the example e-commerce application needs to present a detailed list of all orders of a customer. The application thus needs to load the Customer object, its Order objects, their OrderItem objects, and each order item's Product reference. To get and prefetch these objects, the application uses a dedicated query API, provided by the mapping tool.

A prefetch filter must be defined to include all of these objects. The appropriate pseudo code might look as follows:

Query query = session.createQuery("Customer");
query.setCriteria(...); // set criteria to load the customer by its id
new PrefetchFilter("orders",
Order order = (Order) query.retrieve();

The specification of the object traversal paths may employ the syntax of the object-graph navigation language ([OGNL]).

The mapping tool needs to analyze the prefetch filter to create an object prefetch strategy. This means that the mapping tool has to decide how many SQL queries to execute to prefetch all objects as requested. For each association, the mapping tool has two options: include the associated objects using an outer join statement or execute a separate SQL query.

The mapping tool thus needs to balance two forces: The fewer SQL queries it executes, the more likely there are cross products that lead to huge result sets. The more SQL queries it executes, the more database round trips add to the overall response time. In general, 1:1 associations should always be joined in. If an object contains one 1:n or n:m association only, the associated objects could also be joined in. If multiple such associations exist, further queries are necessary.

A prefetch filter is not restricted as to the depth of the association graph. The decision how to load associated objects therefore needs to be applied recursively. If the mapping tool decides to join in an association, it has to consider what to do with the associated objects' own references: join them in as well or execute further queries to fetch them.

Additionally, a prefetch filter may contain circular dependencies. The mapping tool therefore needs to keep track of all loaded objects in order to avoid loading them several times or being stuck in a circular loop.

To load the Customer object of the example, a mapping tool may reason as follows: At first, the query's target object, the customer, is loaded; all of its orders are also loaded by joining them in. This decision is appropriate because joining in one 1:n association does not yet lead to cross products. To avoid cross products, however, the order items are not joined in.

Having loaded the customer with all of his orders, the mapping tool collects the Order objects' identifiers. Then it executes another query to load all OrderItem objects that belong to the Order objects loaded before, using the collected identifiers as foreign key references. In order to fetch the order items' Product objects, these objects are joined in.

Before the query returns the Customer object to the application, the mapping tool needs to connect all objects it has loaded so that the application receives a network of fully interconnected objects.


An Object Prefetch Filter makes it possible to explicitly define a graph of associated objects to be prefetched when a query is executed. Because an individual prefetch filter may be applied on a per-query basis, each individual service implementation can be optimized so that only the necessary objects are retrieved in advance.

The mapping tool knows which objects to prefetch before executing a query. It is therefore able to optimize the query execution by balancing the number of database round-trips (using appropriate join expressions) and the amount of data to be transferred from the database (executing additional queries to avoid cross products).

Loading a fully initialized network of objects at once simplifies passing these objects out of a session context, for example to the web presentation layer. In that case the presentation layer does not need to perform further calls to receive missing objects.

A disadvantage of a prefetch filter is that it must exactly specify in advance which associated objects must be loaded and that it must remain consistent with the needs of the application logic. If a prefetch filter is inappropriately set, queries may load too few or too many objects into memory, leading to further database calls or wasted memory, respectively.

Even if the implementation of the application cannot be corrupted (as long as loading on demand is available), there is a danger of losing performance during maintenance work. When business logic is changed, great care has to be taken that the prefetch filters are changed accordingly.

Known Uses

The author is only aware of one publicly available mapping tool that implements the Object Prefetch Filter pattern: Cayenne ([Cayenne]). The experience and knowledge of this pattern is mainly based on proprietary mapping tools that were developed and used inside companies.

One such proprietary tool, Dots, implements the Object Prefetch Filter pattern as described. Using the Dots API, retrieving a Customer object with all of its orders, order items, and products looks as follows:

Query query = service.createQuery("Customer");
query.setCondition(CB.equal("id", id));
IFilterGraph filter = FilterGraphFactory.createFilterGraph();
filter.addIncludes("orders", "orders.items", "orders.items.product");
IQueryResult result = service.execute(query, filter);
Customer customer = (Customer) result.getFirstObject();

The open source mapping tool Cayenne also implements the Object Prefetch Filter pattern. Using Cayenne's query API, loading an Order object with all of its associated objects being prefetched looks as follows:

SelectQuery query = 
new SelectQuery(Order.class,
Expression.fromString("id = "+id));
Order order = (Order) context.performQuery(query).get(0);

To give a counter-example, Hibernate ([Hibernate]), a wide-spread mapping tool, currently does not support the pattern as described. However, it provides two prefetch strategies. First, when creating a query, an application may define which objects should be prefetched by joining them in. Using Hibernate's criteria API, the example of creating an overview list of all orders of a customer looks as follows:

Criteria criteria = 
add(Expression.eq("id", id)).
setFetchMode("orders", FetchMode.JOIN);
Customer customer = (Customer) criteria.uniqueResult();

Although it is possible to prefetch objects to which there are 1:n or n:m relations, the Hi­ber­nate team advises against this because of cross products.

Besides dynamic prefetching, Hibernate also supports statically defined prefetching. Using appropriate mapping meta data, it can be specified that all objects that are involved in an association between specific types should be fetched from the database in blocks. The following meta data specification shows an example of this feature:

<class name="customer" table="customer">
<set name="orders" fetch="subselect">
<key column="customer_id"/>
<one-to-many class="Order"/>

The declaration fetch=”subselect” makes Hibernate fetch all Order objects from all customers retrieved by a query when the Order objects of one customer are accessed for the first time. This behavior therefore also avoids the n+1 selects problem but not on a per-query basis.


The Object Prefetch Filter pattern provides a solution for solving the n+1 selects problem on a per-query basis. The paper explained how an object relational mapping tool could implement the pattern: it needs to provide an API to let an application define graphs of objects to prefetch and needs to implement an algorithm that efficiently prefetches objects as requested. By setting filters, an application is thus able to explicitly define the needed network of objects, therefore optimizing the execution of application logic on a per-query basis.


Many thanks go to my EuroPLoP shepherd Uwe Zdun who gave a lot of insightful feedback and to the participants of the EuroPLoP 2007 workshop who pointed out several key aspects for improvement.


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