Last week, I improved an existing Django package and implemented some SQLite lookups for its JSONField to get some sense of how Django model fields work. This week, I tried to create a unified JSONField from scratch. It’s unified in the sense that it works on all database backends supported by Django. I also set up docker containers to run Django’s test suite with all database backends with the help of django-docker-box (though I ended up making my own for Oracle since it’s a bit more complex). However, I’m just going to talk about writing the field as that’s more interesting.

As before, the docs on how to write custom model fields is very handy. I started building my own JSONField and got it working in a relatively short time. Not without bugs and quirks I had to deal with on each database backend, though.

First, I wrote the code with SQLite as the top priority. I overrode the db_type method so it returns json. It’s also the name of the data type used in MySQL and MariaDB for JSON values, so I guess it’s a good start.

def db_type(self, connection):
    return 'json'

This means that the SQL query for the table creation will be something like:

CREATE TABLE ... (..., "column_name" json)

Now, is there a json datatype in SQLite, especially with the JSON1 extension available? Nope. I thought there was, as the JSON1 docs have some examples that use JSON as the data type of some columns. Anyway, the docs state that the extension stores JSON data as ordinary text.

You can actually use custom data type names in SQLite. It means we can still define our column’s data type as json, so the database schema will look pretty nice.

However, SQLite uses dynamic typing. This means that data types aren’t determined by the container (i.e. column) of the value. In SQLite, the data type is associated with the value itself. There’s something called type affinity in SQLite. It’s a system that tries to convert the values inserted into a table according to the preferred storage class for a column, called affinity.

There’s a break down of how SQLite determines column affinity in the data type docs. I recommend giving it a quick read.

Anyway, according to the docs, our json data type will have a NUMERIC affinity. This means, SQLite will try to store any values in the column as an INTEGER or REAL (in that order). This can lead into some problems.

When we retrieve a JSON value from the database, we would like it to be converted into its Python equivalent (bool, int, float, str, dict, list), despite it being stored as a text in the database. To illustrate:

>>> value = {'name': 'John', 'age': 20, 'height': 180.3}
>>> obj = JSONModel.objects.create(value=value)
>>> obj = JSONModel.objects.get(
>>> type(obj.value)
<class 'dict'>

That means, the serialization (fancy word for translation) of the value should be handled automatically by our JSONField. In Django, we implement this by overriding two essential methods in our Field subclass: get_prep_value and from_db_value (for serialization and deserialization, respectively).

Thanks to Python’s json library, we can use the json.dumps and json.loads functions for that purpose.

def get_prep_value(self, value):
    """Convert the value into a JSON string."""
    if value is None:
        return value
    return json.dumps(value)

def from_db_value(self, value, expression, connection):
    """Convert the JSON string value into a Python object."""
    if value is None:
        return value
    return json.loads(value)

Keep in mind that our field has a NUMERIC affinity in the database. Let’s say we want to insert a Python int as the value, let’s say 3. It’s a valid JSON value. If we call json.dumps(3), we will get the Python string '3'. Suppose we create a new object of our model. The value will be inserted into the database like so:

INSERT INTO myapp_mymodel VALUES (..., '3', ...)

That SQL query is perfectly fine, since SQLite stores JSON as ordinary text. However, with NUMERIC affinity, SQLite will try to convert the value into an INTEGER in the database. It succeeds in doing so, therefore it’s stored as an INTEGER.

If we go ahead and retrieve our object using Model.objects.get, our from_db_value will receive a Python int object 3 as the value, instead of str object '3', from the database backend. Of course, calling json.loads(3) would raise an exception (a TypeError, to be precise).

We could go ahead and add if isinstance(value, (int, float)) to our from_db_value method, but I find the best solution is to just ditch json as our db_type and use text instead, so our column will have a TEXT affinity and no conversion will be done by SQLite.

Actually, SQLite will assign TEXT affinity if the declared type of a column contains the string "CHAR", "CLOB", or "TEXT". So, we can actually specify something like json text as our data type, but I’m not sure if that’s something people would like. (I kind of like it, so I might use that later.)

Anyway, that’s just some SQLite magic.

For MySQL and MariaDB, we can use json as our data type and our JSONField would work without having to change anything else. That’s pretty cool!

If we want to make it cooler, we can add an SQL CHECK constraint using the JSON_VALID function available in SQLite, MySQL, and MariaDB. To do so, we can just override db_check method in our field. This will prevent invalid JSON values from getting inserted into the database table.

def db_check(self, connection):
    data = self.db_type_parameters(connection)
    if connection.vendor in ('mysql', 'sqlite'):
        return 'JSON_VALID(%(qn_column)s)' % data
    return super().db_check(connection)

Note that connection.vendor is also 'mysql' for MariaDB. Also, for MariaDB 10.4.3 and up, the JSON_VALID function is automatically used as a CHECK constraint for JSON data type.

Now, let’s move on to PostgreSQL.

PostgreSQL provides two data types for JSON values: json and jsonb. In short, jsonb is better. It supports indexing and other cool stuffs. You can see the JSON Types docs for more details.

django.contrib.postgres.fields.JSONField also uses jsonb. If you look at its source code, you can see that it doesn’t override from_db_value. Why is that?

Well, Django uses psycopg2 as the database adapter for its PostgreSQL backend. It turns out, psycopg2 already does JSON adaptation when it retrieves json and jsonb data from the database. The Python json module and json.loads are used, just like what our from_db_value method does. You can verify this in the psycopg2 source code.

Calling json.loads with the adapted value could throw a TypeError. It’s kind of like what happened with SQLite earlier. We can easily handle this by modifying our method like this:

def from_db_value(self, value, expression, connection):
    """Convert the JSON string value into a Python object."""
    if value is None or connection.vendor == 'postgresql':
        return value
    return json.loads(value)

However, I want to spice things up a bit. Let’s allow custom JSON encoder and decoder to be used in our serialization and deserialization process!

Both json.dumps and json.loads accept a keyword argument cls. It can be used to specify the class of a JSON encoder and decoder, respectively. The argument is None by default, which will make the functions use the built-in json.JSONEncoder and json.JSONDecoder.

If we would like to allow custom JSON encoder and decoder, we need to pass them as an argument in our JSONField constructor and make it an instance attribute. This way, we can pass the encoder and decoder to our json.dumps and json.loads calls like so:

def __init__(self, encoder=None, decoder=None, default=dict, *args, **kwargs):
    self.encoder, self.decoder = encoder, decoder
    super().__init__(default=default, *args, **kwargs)

def get_prep_value(self, value):
    if value is None:
        return value
    return json.dumps(value, cls=self.encoder)

def from_db_value(self, value, expression, connection):
    if value is None:
        return value
    return json.loads(value, cls=self.decoder)

We also need to override the deconstruct method accordingly:

def deconstruct(self):
    name, path, args, kwargs = super().deconstruct()
    if self.default is dict:
        del kwargs['default']
    if self.encoder is not None:
        kwargs['encoder'] = self.encoder
    if self.decoder is not None:
        kwargs['decoder'] = self.decoder
    return name, path, args, kwargs

You probably notice that I left off the conditional for PostgreSQL in from_db_value. If we stick to our solution, we won’t be able to use a custom decoder, since we will just return the value adapted by psycopg2.

A naive solution might be to call json.dumps on that value and call json.loads with our decoder, basically serializing it and deserializing it again. It could work, but that would be slow. We need a way to prevent psycopg2 from adapting the value to Python objects.

According to the docs, we can either cast the column to text in the query, or register a no-op loads with register_default_json (the registration is shared for the same database connection). If we choose the latter, we might break compatibility with contrib.postgres’s JSONField, since it doesn’t allow a custom decoder and it relies on psycopg2’s loads instead.

Thankfully, we can implement the former by overriding select_format. It’s not documented as of this writing, but the docstring gives a clue on how it can be used. I found examples of overridden select_format in contrib’s GIS fields. Apparently, we can do it like this:

def select_format(self, compiler, sql, params):
    if compiler.connection.vendor == 'postgresql':
        return '%s::text' % sql, params
    return super().select_format(compiler, sql, params)

Therefore, from_db_value will always retrieve a string value for non-NULL values in the database, and we can call json.loads just like for other backends.

Phew! Now, we’ve got our JSONField working on SQLite, MySQL, MariaDB, and PostgreSQL. We’ve also allowed the use of custom JSON encoder and decoder. Let’s move on to the last database backend: Oracle.

Oracle can use VARCHAR2, BLOB, or CLOB data types to store JSON values. It recommends us to use BLOB, but there are some downsides:

  • When selecting data from a BLOB column, if you want to view it as printable text then you must use SQL function to_clob.

  • When performing insert or update operations on a BLOB column, you must explicitly convert character strings to BLOB format using SQL function rawtohex.

I haven’t verified if that’s the case with cx_Oracle (Oracle Database adapter for Python). Since an implementation of JSONField on Oracle is available and it uses CLOB instead, I’m going to use CLOB too. If BLOB turns out to be feasible to implement (without some complex things), I might switch to BLOB.

Oracle also provides the IS JSON constraint for columns that hold JSON data. It also recommends us to use this constraint in our table definition, because we won’t be able to use the simple dot-notation syntax to query the JSON data otherwise.

However, from my experience, the IS JSON constraint only accepts a JSON object or array as its value. Meaning, we can only use dict or list Python objects and not any of bool, int, float, and str as our field’s value.

To add that constraint in our field, we can override db_check like before:

def db_check(self, connection):
    data = self.db_type_parameters(connection)
    if connection.vendor in ('mysql', 'sqlite'):
        return 'JSON_VALID(%(qn_column)s)' % data
    if connection.vendor == 'oracle':
        return '%(qn_column)s IS JSON' % data
    return super().db_check(connection)

Another thing to note is that cx_Oracle returns a Python object of type LOB for values with BLOB, CLOB, and NCLOB data types. We cannot simply use json.loads as the decoder doesn’t know how to decode LOB objects. In order to do that, we must obtain the str equivalent of the LOB object by calling the .read method of the LOB.

The oracle-json-field package overcomes this by subclassing TextField. TextField on Oracle is implemented using NCLOB in Django, and the database backend already has a converter that calls the .read method.

We can either modify the backend so it also does the same for our JSONField, or we can also override the get_db_converters method in our field. I choose the latter to be consistent with my previous decisions.

The get_db_converters method isn’t documented as of this writing, but we basically just need to create a list that contains the functions that we want to be run before returning the final value. Then, we extend that list with the one returned by the original get_db_converters.

I implemented mine like this:

def convert_jsonfield_value(value, expression, connection):
    if connection.vendor == 'oracle':
    return value

class JSONField(Field):
    def get_db_converters(self, connection):
        return [convert_jsonfield_value] + super().get_db_converters(connection)

Now, our from_db_value method will get the equivalent str of the LOB as the value.

And, that’s it! We’ve successfully implemented our own unified JSONField. We have yet to implement custom lookups and transforms, but that’s on our to-do list. I made a draft PR to Django for this field today (which also happens to be my birthday!). If some things in that PR turn out different from what I wrote here, maybe I’ve found some better approaches in implementing them.

Whoa, this turned out long. Anyway, if you want to leave a feedback, feel free to comment below or on the PR, I’d love to hear some thoughts about this. I’ll be back here with another post next week!