6. ZODB Persistent Components

Most Zope components live in the Zope Object DataBase (ZODB). Components that are stored in ZODB are said to be persistent. Creating persistent components is, for the most part, a trivial exercise, but ZODB does impose a few rules that persistent components must obey in order to work properly. This chapter describes the persistence model and the interfaces that persistent objects can use to live inside the ZODB.

6.1. Persistent Objects

Persistent objects are Python objects that live for a long time. Most objects are created when a program is run and die when the program finishes. Persistent objects are not destroyed when the program ends, they are saved in a database.

A great benefit of persistent objects is their transparency. As a developer, you do not need to think about loading and unloading the state of the object from memory. Zope’s persistent machinery handles all of that for you.

This is also a great benefit for application designers; you do not need to create your own kind of “data format” that gets saved to a file and reloaded again when your program stops and starts. Zope’s persistence machinery works with any kind of Python objects (within the bounds of a few simple rules) and as your types of objects grow, your database simply grows transparently with it.

6.1.1. Persistence Example

Here is a simple example of using ZODB outside of Zope. If all you plan on doing is using persistent objects with Zope, you can skip this section if you wish.

The first thing you need to do to start working with ZODB is to create a “root object”. This process involves first opening a “storage” , which is the actual backend storage location for your data.

ZODB supports many pluggable storage back-ends, but for the purposes of this article we’re going to show you how to use the ‘FileStorage’ back-end storage, which stores your object data in a file. Other storages include storing objects in relational databases, Berkeley databases, and a client to server storage that stores objects on a remote storage server.

To set up a ZODB, you must first install it. ZODB comes with Zope, so the easiest way to install ZODB is to install Zope and use the ZODB that comes with your Zope installation. For those of you who don’t want all of Zope, but just ZODB, see the instructions for downloading ZODB from the ZODB web page.

After installing ZODB, you can start to experiment with it right from the Python command line interpreter. If you’ve installed Zope, before running this set of commands, shut down your Zope server, and “cd” to the “lib/python” directory of your Zope instance. If you’re using a “standalone” version of ZODB, you likely don’t need to do this, and you’ll be able to use ZODB by importing it from a standard Python package directory. In either case, try the following set of commands:

chrism@saints:/opt/zope/lib/python$ python
Python 2.1.1 (#1, Aug  8 2001, 21:17:50)
[GCC 2.95.2 20000220 (Debian GNU/Linux)] on linux2
Type "copyright", "credits" or "license" for more information.
>>> from ZODB import FileStorage, DB
>>> storage = FileStorage.FileStorage('mydatabase.fs')
>>> db = DB( storage )
>>> connection = db.open()
>>> root = connection.root()

Here, you create storage and use the ‘mydatabse.fs’ file to store the object information. Then, you create a database that uses that storage.

Next, the database needs to be “opened” by calling the ‘open()’ method. This will return a connection object to the database. The connection object then gives you access to the ‘root’ of the database with the ‘root()’ method.

The ‘root’ object is the dictionary that holds all of your persistent objects. For example, you can store a simple list of strings in the root object:

root['employees'] = ['Bob', 'Mary', 'Jo']

Now, you have changed the persistent database by adding a new object, but this change is so far only temporary. In order to make the change permanent, you must commit the current transaction:


Transactions are ways to make a lot of changes in one atomic operation. In a later article, we’ll show you how this is a very powerful feature. For now, you can think of committing transactions as “checkpoints” where you save the changes you’ve made to your objects so far. Later on, we’ll show you how to abort those changes, and how to undo them after they are committed.

If you had used a relational database, you would have had to issue a SQL query to save even a simple python list like the above example. You would have also needed some code to convert a SQL query back into the list when you wanted to use it again. You don’t have to do any of this work when using ZODB. Using ZODB is almost completely transparent, in fact, ZODB based programs often look suspiciously simple!

Working with simple python types is useful, but the real power of ZODB comes out when you store your own kinds of objects in the database. For example, consider a class that represents a employee:

from Persistence import Persistent

class Employee(Persistent):

    def setName(self, name):
        self.name = name

Calling ‘setName’ will set a name for the employee. Now, you can put Employee objects in your database:

for name in ['Bob', 'Mary', 'Joe']:
    employee = Employee()


Don’t forget to call ‘commit()’, so that the changes you have made so far are committed to the database, and a new transaction is begun.

6.2. Persistent Rules

There are a few rules that must be followed when your objects are persistent.

  • Your objects, and their attributes, must be “pickleable”.
  • Your object cannot have any attributes that begin with ‘_p_’.
  • Attributes of your object that begin with ‘_v_’ are “volatile” and are not saved to the database (see next section).
  • You must explicitly signal any changes made to mutable attributes (such as instances, lists, and dictionaries) or use persistent versions of mutable objects, like ‘ZODB.PersistentMapping’ (see below for more information on ‘PersistentMapping’.)

In this section, we’ll look at each of these special rules one by one.

The first rules says that your objects must be pickleable. This means that they can be serialized into a data format with the “pickle” module. Most python data types (numbers, lists, dictionaries) can be pickled. Code objects (method, functions, classes) and file objects (files, sockets) cannot be pickled. Instances can be persistent objects if:

  • They subclass ‘Persistence.Persistent’
  • All of their attributes are pickleable

The second rule is that none of your objects attributes can begin with ‘_p_’. For example, ‘_p_b_and_j’ would be an illegal object attribute. This is because the persistence machinery reserves all of these names for its own purposes.

The third rule is that all object attributes that begin with ‘_v_’ are “volatile” and are not saved to the database. This means that as long as the persistent object is in Zope memory cache, volatile attributes can be used. When the object is deactivated (removed from memory) volatile attributes are thrown away.

Volatile attributes are useful for data that is good to cache for a while but can often be thrown away and easily recreated. File connections, cached calculations, rendered templates, all of these kinds of things are useful applications of volatile attributes. You must exercise care when using volatile attributes. Since you have little control over when your objects are moved in and out of memory, you never know when your volatile attributes may disappear.

The fourth rule is that you must signal changes to mutable types. This is because persistent objects can’t detect when mutable types change, and therefore, doesn’t know whether or not to save the persistent object or not.

For example, say you had a list of names as an attribute of your object called ‘departments’ that you changed in a method called ‘addDepartment’:

class DepartmentManager(Persistent):

    def __init__(self):
        self.departments = []

    def addDepartment(self, department):

When you call the ‘addDepartment’ method you change a mutable type, ‘departments’ but your persistent object will not save that change.

There are two solutions to this problem. First, you can assign a special flag, ‘_p_changed’:

def addDepartment(self, department):
    self._p_changed = 1

Remember, ‘_p_’ attributes do something special to the persistence machinery and are reserved names. Assigning 1 to ‘_p_changed’ tells the persistence machinery that you changed the object, and that it should be saved.

Another technique is to use the mutable attribute as though it were immutable. In other words, after you make changes to a mutable object, reassign it:

def addDepartment(self, department):
    departments = self.departments
    self.department = departments

Here, the ‘self.departments’ attribute was re-assigned at the end of the function to the “working copy” object ‘departments’. This technique is cleaner because it doesn’t have any explicit ‘_p_changed’ settings in it, but this implicit triggering of the persistence machinery should always be understood, otherwise use the explicit syntax.

A final option is to use persistence-aware mutable attributes such as ‘PersistentMapping’, and ‘IOBTree’. ‘PersistentMapping’ is a mapping class that notifies ZODB when you change the mapping. You can use instances of ‘PersistentMapping’ in place of standard Python dictionaries and not worry about signaling change by reassigning the attribute or using ‘_p_changed’. Zope’s Btree classes are also persistent-aware mutable containers. This solution can be cleaner than using mutable objects immutably, or signaling change manually assuming that there is a persistence-aware class available that meets your needs.

6.3. Transactions and Persistent Objects

When changes are saved to ZODB, they are saved in a transaction. This means that either all changes are saved, or none are saved. The reason for this is data consistency. Imagine the following scenario:

  1. A user makes a credit card purchase at the sandwich.com website.
  2. The bank debits their account.
  3. An electronic payment is made to sandwich.com.

Now imagine that an error happens during the last step of this process, sending the payment to sandwich.com. Without transactions, this means that the account was debited, but the payment never went to sandwich.com! Obviously this is a bad situation. A better solution is to make all changes in a transaction:

  1. A user makes a credit card purchase at the sandwich.com website.
  2. The transaction begins
  3. The bank debits their account.
  4. An electronic payment is made to sandwich.com.
  5. The transaction commits

Now, if an error is raised anywhere between steps 2 and 5, all changes made are thrown away, so if the payment fails to go to sandwich.com, the account won’t be debited, and if debiting the account raises an error, the payment won’t be made to sandwich.com, so your data is always consistent.

When using your persistent objects with Zope, Zope will automatically begin a transaction when a web request is made, and commit the transaction when the request is finished. If an error occurs at any time during that request, then the transaction is aborted, meaning all the changes made are thrown away.

If you want to intentionally abort a transaction in the middle of a request, then just raise an error at any time. For example, this snippet of Python will raise an error and cause the transaction to abort:

raise SandwichError('Not enough peanut butter.')

A more likely scenario is that your code will raise an exception when a problem arises. The great thing about transactions is that you don’t have to include cleanup code to catch exceptions and undo everything you’ve done up to that point. Since the transaction is aborted the changes made in the transaction will not be saved.

Because Zope does transaction management for you, most of the time you do not need to explicitly begin, commit or abort your own transactions. For more information on doing transaction management manually, see the links at the end of this chapter that lead to more detailed tutorials of doing your own ZODB programming.

6.3.1. Subtransactions

Zope waits until the transaction is committed to save all the changes to your objects. This means that the changes are saved in memory. If you try to change more objects than you have memory in your computer, your computer will begin to swap and thrash, and maybe even run you out of memory completely. This is bad. The easiest solution to this problem is to not change huge quantities of data in one transaction.

If you need to spread a transaction out of lots of data, however, you can use subtransactions. Subtransactions allow you to manage Zope’s memory usage yourself, so as to avoid swapping during large transactions.

Subtransactions allow you to make huge transactions. Rather than being limited by available memory, you are limited by available disk space. Each subtransaction commit writes the current changes out to disk and frees memory to make room for more changes.

To commit a subtransaction, you first need to get a hold of a transaction object. Zope adds a function to get the transaction objects in your global namespace, ‘get_transaction’, and then call ‘commit(1)’ on the transaction:


You must balance speed, memory, and temporary storage concerns when deciding how frequently to commit subtransactions. The more subtransactions, the less memory used, the slower the operation, and the more temporary space used. Here’s and example of how you might use subtransactions in your Zope code:

tasks_per_subtransaction = 10
i = 0
for task in tasks:
    i = i + 1
    if i % tasks_per_subtransaction == 0:

This example shows how to commit a subtransaction at regular intervals while processing a number of tasks.

6.3.2. Threads and Conflict Errors

Zope is a multi-threaded server. This means that many different clients may be executing your Python code in different threads. For most cases, this is not an issue and you don’t need to worry about it, but there are a few cases you should look out for.

The first case involves threads making lots of changes to objects and writing to the database. The way ZODB and threading works is that each thread that uses the database gets its own connection to the database. Each connection gets its own copy of your object. All of the threads can read and change any of the objects. ZODB keeps all of these objects synchronized between the threads. The upshot is that you don’t have to do any locking or thread synchronization yourself. Your code can act as though it is single threaded.

However, synchronization problems can occur when objects are changed by two different threads at the same time.

Imagine that thread 1 gets its own copy of object A, as does thread 2. If thread 1 changes its copy of A, then thread 2 will not see those changes until thread 1 commits them. In cases where lots of objects are changing, this can cause thread 1 and 2 to try and commit changes to object 1 at the same time.

When this happens, ZODB lets one transaction do the commit (it “wins”) and raises a ‘ConflictError’ in the other thread (which “looses”). The looser can elect to try again, but this may raise yet another ‘ConflictError’ if many threads are trying to change object A. Zope does all of its own transaction management and will retry a losing transaction three times before giving up and raising the ‘ConflictError’ all the way up to the user.

6.3.3. Resolving Conflicts

If a conflict happens, you have two choices. The first choice is that you live with the error and you try again. Statistically, conflicts are going to happen, but only in situations where objects are “hot-spots”. Most problems like this can be “designed away”; if you can redesign your application so that the changes get spread around to many different objects then you can usually get rid of the hot spot.

Your second choice is to try and resolve the conflict. In many situations, this can be done. For example, consider the following persistent object:

class Counter(Persistent):

    self.count = 0

    def hit(self):
        self.count = self.count + 1

This is a simple counter. If you hit this counter with a lot of requests though, it will cause conflict errors as different threads try to change the count attribute simultaneously.

But resolving the conflict between conflicting threads in this case is easy. Both threads want to increment the self.count attribute by a value, so the resolution is to increment the attribute by the sum of the two values and make both commits happy; no ‘ConflictError’ is raised.

To resolve a conflict, a class should define an ‘_p_resolveConflict’ method. This method takes three arguments.

‘oldState’ – The state of the object that the changes made by the current transaction were based on. The method is permitted to modify this value.

‘savedState’ – The state of the object that is currently stored in the database. This state was written after ‘oldState’ and reflects changes made by a transaction that committed before the current transaction. The method is permitted to modify this value.

‘newState’ – The state after changes made by the current transaction. The method is not permitted to modify this value. This method should compute a new state by merging changes reflected in ‘savedState’ and ‘newState’, relative to ‘oldState’.

The method should return the state of the object after resolving the differences.

Here is an example of a ‘_p_resolveConflict’ in the ‘Counter’ class:

class Counter(Persistent):

    self.count = 0

    def hit(self):
        self.count = self.count + 1

    def _p_resolveConflict(self, oldState, savedState, newState):

        # Figure out how each state is different:
        savedDiff= savedState['count'] - oldState['count']
        newDiff= newState['count']- oldState['count']

        # Apply both sets of changes to old state:
        oldState['count'] = oldState['count'] + savedDiff + newDiff

        return oldState

In the above example, ‘_p_resolveConflict’ resolves the difference between the two conflicting transactions.

6.4. Threadsafety of Non-Persistent Objects

ZODB takes care of threadsafety for persistent objects. However, you must handle threadsafey yourself for non-persistent objects which are shared between threads.

6.4.1. Mutable Default Arguments

One tricky type of non-persistent, shared objects are mutable default arguments to functions, and methods. Default arguments are useful because they are cached for speed, and do not need to be recreated every time the method is called. But if these cached default arguments are mutable, one thread may change (mutate) the object when another thread is using it, and that can be bad. So, code like:

def foo(bar=[]):

Could get in trouble if two threads execute this code because lists are mutable. There are two solutions to this problem:

  • Don’t use mutable default arguments. (Good)
  • If you use them, you cannot change them. If you want to change them, you will need to implement your own locking. (Bad)

We recommend the first solution because mutable default arguments are confusing, generally a bad idea in the first place.

6.4.2. Shared Module Data

Objects stored in modules but not in the ZODB are not persistent and not-thread safe. In general it’s not a good idea to store data (as opposed to functions, and class definitions) in modules when using ZODB.

If you decide to use module data which can change you’ll need to protect it with a lock to ensure that only one thread at a time can make changes.

For example:

from threading import Lock

def put(obj):

def get():
        return queue.pop()

Note, in most cases where you are tempted to use shared module data, you can likely achieve the same result with a single persistent object. For example, the above queue could be replaced with a single instance of this class:

class Queue(Persistent):

    def __init__(self):

    def put(self, obj):
        self.list=self.list + [obj]

    def get(self):
        return obj

Notice how this class uses the mutable object ‘self.list’ immutably. If this class used ‘self.list.pop’ and ‘self.list.append’, then the persistence machinary would not notice that ‘self.list’ had changed.

6.5. Shared External Resources

A final category of data for which you’ll need to handle thread-safety is external resources such as files in the filesystem, and other processes. In practice, these concerns rarely come up.

6.6. Other ZODB Resources

This chapter has only covered the most important features of ZODB from a Zope developer’s perspective. Check out some of these sources for more in depth information:

6.7. Summary

The ZODB is a complex and powerful system. However using persistent objects is almost completely painless. Seldom do you need to concern yourself with thread safety, transactions, conflicts, memory management, and database replication. ZODB takes care of these things for you. By following a few simple rules you can create persistent objects that just work.