Tuesday, September 29, 2009

DDD: Performance Trade Offs

Domain Driven Design is a powerful technique composed of a lot of powerful patterns. It's focus is on designing rich object models that help control Domain complexity, like I talked about previously.

Before I stumbled on DDD I was trying to switch from stored procedure/record set based development to NHibernate/object model based development. One of the first stumbling blocks I encountered was what I refer to as "loading the object web." In a typical domain model your objects will have a lot of associations with each other. If you represent each of these with a property traversal (ex: Employee.Company.Branches.Sales...) things start to get messy.

The first problem you run into is in loading your Model from the database. To load any one Entity you have to load all of it's associations, and all those associations' associations, etc. This is a no go. The first way to handle this is through lazy loading, so the associations aren't loaded until you try to use them. That works, but it's a bit sloppy and it is not expressed in the Domain Model.

Another problem with this object web is determining how to persist changes and what records to lock. I have found database locking issues to be ridiculously complicated and amazingly ignored in the blog-o-sphere. For more on locking and its various solutions you should read Martin Fowler's Patterns of Enterprise Application Architecture. Fortunately DDD has a pattern we can apply to help address the web of objects problem: Aggregates.

The idea is simple, an Aggregate is a group of tightly related Entities. Evans says that all objects within the Aggregate should be loaded together and persisted together. He also says that objects outside the Aggregate can only have a reference to the Aggregate Root.

Roots are now explicitly indicated in our Model and they indicate where the boundaries between the objects in our object web are. This simplifies life considerably and it will also help with our database locking issues.

That's a lot of talk and I haven't even started talking about performance trade offs yet. Well, fortunately that really wont take long. If you are coming from the ad-hoc, off the cuff, procedural style, "Transaction Script" (as Martin Fowler would say) programming world like I am you may be alarmed by the Aggregate concept. You are used to executing a diverse array of procedures (filled with business logic) that return a specific subset of data: only what you need right now. But with DDD and the Aggregate, you're now going to return all the data for the Aggregate. This may be more data than you think you NEED at this point in your code.

There's your performance trade off. Retrieving more data when you don't necessarily need it. Why is this worth it? One simple reason is it allows you to enforce all your invariants (read: consistency rules) in the model all the time. You load all that data so that you can make sure all your data is in a consistent state at all times.

This also allows you to avoid triggers. You don't need a trigger in the database because your Model will do whatever the trigger would have done. Avoiding triggers is a performance benefit of DDD. Ironically, I've even seen that loading the Aggregate at once would have REDUCED the number of trips to the database in my code. This is because usually you don't just load something and be done with it. You tend to have to work with it. And there was a lot of duplication and repeated calls in the way I used to write my code that goes away once I have a Model in memory.

So sometimes the DDD approach can actually be more performant. But to be sure, other times it WILL do more work and WILL retrieve more data than the "Smart UI" (as Evans would say). But its worth it for the increased consistency and peace of mind that you gain, which is what allows you to deal with greater complexity.


  1. The only problem is that aggregate roots are sometimes action-specific. Say you've got a Customer with Orders which in turn contain OrderLines. When you check out an Order, Customer is the aggregate root (because you want to check his CreditLimit against unpaid Orders). However, when you want to create a shipping document, you only need Order as an aggregate root (no need for Customer here).
    You end up having multiple overlapping aggregates or you decide to create one uber root like Customer (which is not very handy not to mention the perf issues).

    Haven't found a solution for this (maybe it's just a lack of knowledge :)).

    1. Funny, I started to learn DDD with NHibernate and stumbled on the same problem. From what I read (and I may poorly understand it yet) entities from one aggregate shoudln't be used in another aggregate, so overlapping aggregates would be no go.
      I came to conclusion that either I will end up with massive root aggregates (which is bad) or I should change some of my entities to value objects (and that wasn't viable solution, because I couldn't find a way to do this). I hope that someone will eventually sum up all problems like that in some complete, bigger example project with understandable domain for people that can't translate articles with partial solutions to real code.