View Source Bonfire's Database - an intro

Bonfire uses the excellent PostgreSQL database for most data storage. PostgreSQL allows us to make a wide range of queries and to make them relatively fast while upholding data integrity guarantees.

Postgres is a relational schema-led database - it expects you to pre-define tables and the fields in each table (represented in tabular form, i.e. as a collection of tables with each table consisting of a set of rows and columns). Fields can contain data or a reference to a row in another table. This usually means that a field containing a reference has to be pre-defined with a foreign key pointing to a specific field (typically a primary key, like an ID column) in a specific table.

A simple example would be a blogging app, which might have a post table with author field that references the user table.

A social network, by contrast, is actually a graph of objects. Objects need to be able to refer to other objects by their ID without knowing their type.

A simple example would be likes, you might have a likes table with liked_object field that references the post table. But you don't just have posts that can be liked, but also videos, images, polls, etc, each with their own table?

We needed the flexibility to have a foreign key that can reference any referenceable object. We call our system Pointers.

This guide is a brief introduction to Pointers. It assumes some foundational knowledge:

  • Basic understanding of how relational databases like Postgresql work, in particular:
    • Tables being made up of fields.
    • What a primary key is and why it's useful.
    • Foreign keys and relationships between tables (1 to 1, 1 to Many, Many to 1, Many to Many).
    • Views as virtual tables backed by a SQL query.
  • Basic understanding of Elixir (enough to follow the examples).
    • Basic working knowledge of the Ecto database library (schema and migration definitions)


Identifying objects - the ULID type

All referenceable objects in the system have a unique ID (primary key) whose type is the ULID. It's a lot like a UUID in that you can generate unique ones independently of the database. It's also a little different, being made up of two parts:

  • The current timestamp, to millisecond precision.
  • Strong random padding for uniqueness.

This means that it naturally sorts by time to the millisecond (close enough for us), giving us a performance advantage on queries ordered by a seperate creation datetime field (by contrast, UUIDv4 is randomly distributed).

If you've only worked with integer primary keys before, you are probably used to letting the database dispense an ID for you. With ULID (or UUID), IDs can be known before they are stored, greatly easing the process of storing a graph of data and allowing us to do more of the preparation work outside of a transaction for increased performance.

In PostgreSQL, we actually store ULIDs as UUID columns, thanks to both being the same size (and the lack of a ULID column type shipping with postgresql). You mostly will not notice this because it's handled for you, but there are a few places it can come up:

  • Ecto debug and error output may show either binary values or UUID-formatted values.
  • Hand-written SQL may need to convert table IDs to the UUID format before use.


It's just a table

The pointers system is mostly based around a single table represented by the Pointers.Pointer schema with the following fields:

  • id (ULID) - the database-wide unique id for the object, primary key.
  • table_id (ULID) - identifies the type of the object, references Pointers.Table.
  • deleted_at (timestamp, default: null) - when the object was deleted.

Every object that is stored in the system will have a record in this table. It may also have records in other tables (handy for storing more than 3 fields about the object!).

Don't worry about Pointers.Table for now, just know that every object type will have a record there so Pointers.Pointer.table_id can reference it.


Mixins - storing data about objects

Mixins are tables which contain extra information on behalf of objects. Each object can choose to record or not record information for each mixin. Sample mixins include:

  • user profile (containing a name, location and summary)
  • post content (containing the title, summary, and/or html body of a post or message)
  • created (containing the id of the object creator)

In this way, they are reusable across different object types. One mixin may (or may not) be used by any number of objects. This is mostly driven by the type of the object we are storing, but can also be driven by user input.

Mixins are just tables too! The only requirement is they have a ULID primary key which references Pointers.Pointer. The developer of the mixin is free to put whatever other fields they want in the table, so long as they have that primary-key-as-reference (which will be automatically added for you by the mixin_schema macro).

Here is a sample mixin definition for a user profile:

defmodule Bonfire.Data.Social.Profile do

  use Pointers.Mixin,
    otp_app: :bonfire_data_social,
    source: "bonfire_data_social_profile"

  mixin_schema do
    field :name, :string
    field :summary, :string
    field :website, :string
    field :location, :string

Aside from useing Pointers.Mixin instead of Ecto.Schema and calling mixin_schema instead of schema, pretty similar to a standard Ecto schema, right?

The arguments to use Pointers.Mixin are:

  • otp_app: the OTP app name to use when loading dynamic configuration, e.g. the current extension or app (required)
  • source: the underlying table name to use in the database

We will cover dynamic configuration later. For now, you can use the OTP app that includes the module.



Multimixins are like mixins, except that where an object may have 0 or 1 of a particular mixins, an object may have any number of a particular multimixin.

For this to work, a multimixin must have a compound primary key which must contain an id column referencing Pointers.Pointer and at least one other field which will collectively be unique.

An example multimixin is used for publishing an item to feeds:

defmodule Bonfire.Data.Social.FeedPublish do

  use Pointers.Mixin,
    otp_app: :bonfire_data_social,
    source: "bonfire_data_social_feed_publish"

  alias Pointers.Pointer

  mixin_schema do
    belongs_to :feed, Pointer, primary_key: true

Notice that this looks very similar to defining a mixin. Indeed, the only difference is the primary_key: true in this line, which adds a second field to the compound primary key. This results in ecto recording a compound primary key of (id, feed_id) for the schema (the id is added for you as with regular mixins).


Declaring Object Types


Picking a table id

The first step to declaring a type is picking a unique table ID in ULID format. You could just generate one at the terminal, but since these IDs are special, we tend to assign a synthetic ULID that are readable as words so they stand out in debug output.

For example, the ID for the Feed table is: 1TFEEDS0NTHES0V1S0FM0RTA1S, which can be read as "It feeds on the souls of mortals". Feel free to have a little fun coming up with them, it makes debug output a little more cheery! The rules are:

  • The alphabet is Crockford's Base32.
  • They must be 26 characters in length.
  • The first character must be a digit in the range 0-7.

To help you with this, the Pointers.ULID.synthesise!/1 method takes an alphanumeric binary and tries to return you it transliterated into a valid ULID. Example usage:

iex(1)> Pointers.ULID.synthesise!("itfeedsonthesouls")

11:20:28.299 [error] Too short, need 9 chars.
iex(2)> Pointers.ULID.synthesise!("itfeedsonthesoulsofmortalsandothers")

11:20:31.819 [warn]  Too long, chopping off last 9 chars
iex(3)> Pointers.ULID.synthesise!("itfeedsonthesoulsofmortals")
iex(4)> Pointers.ULID.synthesise!("gtfeedsonthesoulsofmortals")

11:21:03.268 [warn]  First character must be a digit in the range 0-7, replacing with 7



Virtuals are the simplest and most common type of object. Here's a definition of block:

defmodule Bonfire.Data.Social.Block do

  use Pointers.Virtual,
    otp_app: :bonfire_data_social,
    table_id: "310CK1NGSTVFFAV01DSSEE1NG1",
    source: "bonfire_data_social_block"

  alias Bonfire.Data.Edges.Edge

  virtual_schema do
    has_one :edge, Edge, foreign_key: :id

It should look quite similar to a mixin definition, except that we use Pointers.Virtual this time (passing an additional table_id argument) and we call the virtual_schema macro.

The primary limitation of a virtual is that you cannot put extra fields into one. This also means that belongs_to is not generally permitted because it results in adding a field. has_one and has_many work just fine as they do not cause the creation of fields in the schema.

This is not usually a problem, as extra fields can be put into mixins or multimixins as appropriate.

Under the hood, a virtual has a view (in this example, called bonfire_data_social_block). It looks like a table with just an id, but it's populated with all the ids of blocks that are not deleted. When the view is inserted into, a record is created in the pointers table for you transparently. When you delete from the view, the corresponding pointers entry is marked deleted for you.



The other, lesser used, type of object is called the Pointable. The major difference is that unlike the simple case of virtuals, pointables are not backed by views, but by tables.

When a record is inserted into a pointable table, a copy is made in the pointers table for you transparently. When you delete from the table, the the corresponding pointers entry is marked deleted for you. In these ways, they behave very much like virtuals. By having a table, however, we are free to add new fields.

Pointables pay for this flexibility by being slightly more expensive than virtuals:

  • Records must be inserted into/deleted from two tables (the pointable's table and the pointers table).
  • The pointable table needs its own primary key index.

Here is a definition of a pointable type (indicating an ActivityPub activity whose type we don't recognise, stored as a JSON blob):

defmodule Bonfire.Data.Social.APActivity do

  use Pointers.Pointable,
    otp_app: :bonfire_data_social,
    table_id: "30NF1REAPACTTAB1ENVMBER0NE",
    source: "bonfire_data_social_apactivity"

  pointable_schema do
    field :json, :map

The choice of using a pointable instead of a virtual combined with one or more mixins is ultimately up to you.


Writing Migrations

Migrations are typically included along with the schemas as public APIs you can call within your project's migrations.



Most virtuals are incredibly simple to migrate for:

defmodule Bonfire.Data.Social.Post.Migration do

  import Pointers.Migration
  alias Bonfire.Data.Social.Post

  def migrate_post(), do: migrate_virtual(Post)


If you need to do more work, it can be a little trickier. Here's an example for block, which also creates a unique index on another table:

defmodule Bonfire.Data.Social.Block.Migration do

  import Ecto.Migration
  import Pointers.Migration
  import Bonfire.Data.Edges.Edge.Migration
  alias Bonfire.Data.Social.Block

  def migrate_block_view(), do: migrate_virtual(Block)

  def migrate_block_unique_index(), do: migrate_type_unique_index(Block)

  def migrate_block(dir \\ direction())

  def migrate_block(:up) do

  def migrate_block(:down) do


Notice how we have to write our up and down versions separately to get the correct ordering of operations. Handling down migrations can be a bit awkward in ecto.



As of now, pointables are a little trickier to define flexibly than virtuals because we want to preserve the ability for the user to define extra fields in config. There are some questions about how useful this is in practice, so we might go for a simpler option in future.


defmodule Bonfire.Data.Social.APActivity.Migration do
  use Ecto.Migration
  import Pointers.Migration
  alias Bonfire.Data.Social.APActivity

  defp make_apactivity_table(exprs) do
    quote do
      require Pointers.Migration
      Pointers.Migration.create_pointable_table(Bonfire.Data.Social.APActivity) do
        Ecto.Migration.add :json, :jsonb

  defmacro create_apactivity_table, do: make_apactivity_table([])
  defmacro create_apactivity_table([do: body]), do: make_apactivity_table(body)

  def drop_apactivity_table(), do: drop_pointable_table(APActivity)

  defp maa(:up), do: make_apactivity_table([])
  defp maa(:down) do
    quote do: Bonfire.Data.Social.APActivity.Migration.drop_apactivity_table()

  defmacro migrate_apactivity() do
    quote do
      if Ecto.Migration.direction() == :up,
        do: unquote(maa(:up)),
        else: unquote(maa(:down))




Mixins look much like pointables:

defmodule Bonfire.Data.Social.Profile.Migration do

  import Pointers.Migration
  alias Bonfire.Data.Social.Profile

  # create_profile_table/{0,1}

  defp make_profile_table(exprs) do
    quote do
      require Pointers.Migration
      Pointers.Migration.create_mixin_table(Bonfire.Data.Social.Profile) do
        Ecto.Migration.add :name, :text
        Ecto.Migration.add :summary, :text
        Ecto.Migration.add :website, :text
        Ecto.Migration.add :location, :text
        Ecto.Migration.add :icon_id, strong_pointer(Bonfire.Files.Media)
        Ecto.Migration.add :image_id, strong_pointer(Bonfire.Files.Media)

  defmacro create_profile_table(), do: make_profile_table([])
  defmacro create_profile_table([do: {_, _, body}]), do: make_profile_table(body)

  # drop_profile_table/0

  def drop_profile_table(), do: drop_mixin_table(Profile)

  # migrate_profile/{0,1}

  defp mp(:up), do: make_profile_table([])

  defp mp(:down) do
    quote do

  defmacro migrate_profile() do
    quote do
      if Ecto.Migration.direction() == :up,
        do: unquote(mp(:up)),
        else: unquote(mp(:down))




Similar to mixins:

defmodule Bonfire.Data.Social.FeedPublish.Migration do

  import Ecto.Migration
  import Pointers.Migration
  alias Bonfire.Data.Social.FeedPublish

  @feed_publish_table FeedPublish.__schema__(:source)

  # create_feed_publish_table/{0,1}

  defp make_feed_publish_table(exprs) do
    quote do
      require Pointers.Migration
      Pointers.Migration.create_mixin_table(Bonfire.Data.Social.FeedPublish) do
        Ecto.Migration.add :feed_id,
          Pointers.Migration.strong_pointer(), primary_key: true

  defmacro create_feed_publish_table(), do: make_feed_publish_table([])
  defmacro create_feed_publish_table([do: {_, _, body}]), do: make_feed_publish_table(body)

  def drop_feed_publish_table(), do: drop_pointable_table(FeedPublish)

  def migrate_feed_publish_feed_index(dir \\ direction(), opts \\ [])
  def migrate_feed_publish_feed_index(:up, opts),
    do: create_if_not_exists(index(@feed_publish_table, [:feed_id], opts))
  def migrate_feed_publish_feed_index(:down, opts),
    do: drop_if_exists(index(@feed_publish_table, [:feed_id], opts))

  defp mf(:up) do
    quote do

  defp mf(:down) do
    quote do

  defmacro migrate_feed_publish() do
    quote do
      if Ecto.Migration.direction() == :up,
        do: unquote(mf(:up)),
        else: unquote(mf(:down))

  defmacro migrate_feed_publish(dir), do: mf(dir)



More examples

Take a look at a few of the migrations in our data libraries. Between them, they cover most scenarios by now:

If you want to know exactly what's happening, I can only suggest reading the code for Pointers.Migration, it's surprisingly readable.