Writing Database Migrations for Zero-Downtime Upgrades

Beginning in Ocata, OpenStack Glance uses Alembic, which replaced SQLAlchemy Migrate as the database migration engine. Moving to Alembic is particularly motivated by the zero-downtime upgrade work. Refer to [GSPEC1] and [GSPEC2] for more information on zero-downtime upgrades in Glance and why a move to Alembic was deemed necessary.

Stop right now and go read [GSPEC1] and [GSPEC2] if you haven’t done so already. Those documents explain the strategy Glance has approved for database migrations, and we expect you to be familiar with them in what follows. This document focuses on the “how”, but unless you understand the “what” and “why”, you’ll be wasting your time reading this document.

Prior to Ocata, database migrations were conceived as monoliths. Thus, they did not need to carefully distinguish and manage database schema expansions, data migrations, or database schema contractions. The modern database migrations are more sensitive to the characteristics of changes being attempted and thus we clearly identify three phases of a database migration: (1) expand, (2) migrate, and (3) contract. A developer modifying the Glance database must supply a script for each of these phases.

Here’s a quick reminder of what each phase entails. For more information, see [GSPEC1].


Expand migrations MUST be additive in nature. Expand migrations should be seen as the minimal set of schema changes required by the new services that can be applied while the old services are still running. Expand migrations should optionally include temporary database triggers that keep the old and new columns in sync. If a database change needs data to be migrated between columns, then temporary database triggers are required to keep the columns in sync while the data migrations are in-flight.


Sometimes there could be an exception to the additive-only change strategy for expand phase. It is described more elaborately in [GSPEC1]. Again, consider this as a last reminder to read [GSPEC1], if you haven’t already done so.

Data migrations MUST NOT attempt any schema changes and only move existing data between old and new columns such that new services can start consuming the new tables and/or columns introduced by the expand migrations.
Contract migrations usually include the remaining schema changes required by the new services that couldn’t be applied during expand phase due to their incompatible nature with the old services. Any temporary database triggers added during the expand migrations MUST be dropped with contract migrations.

Alembic Migrations

As mentioned earlier, starting in Ocata Glance database migrations must be written for Alembic. All existing Glance migrations have been ported to Alembic. They can be found here [GMIGS1].

Schema Migrations (Expand/Contract)

  • All Glance schema migrations must reside in glance.db.sqlalchemy.alembic_migrations.versions package

  • Every Glance schema migration must be a python module with the following structure

    """<docstring describing the migration>
    Revision ID: <unique revision id>
    Revises: <parent revision id>
    <your imports here>
    revision = <unique revision id>
    down_revision = <parent revision id>
    depends_on = <id of dependent revision or None>
    def upgrade():
        <your schema changes here>

    Identifiers revision, down_revision and depends_on are elaborated below.

  • The revision identifier is a unique revision id for every migration. It must conform to one of the following naming schemes.

    All monolith migrations must conform to:

    <release name><two-digit sequence number per release>

    And, all expand/contract migrations must conform to:

    <release name>_[expand|contract]<two-digit sequence number per release>


    Monolith migration: ocata01
    Expand migration: ocata_expand01
    Contract migration: ocata_contract01

    This name convention is devised with an intention to easily understand the migration sequence. While the <release name> mentions the release a migration belongs to, the <two-digit sequence number per release> helps identify the order of migrations within each release. For modern migrations, the [expand|contract] part of the revision id helps identify the revision branch a migration belongs to.

  • The down_revision identifier MUST be specified for all Alembic migration scripts. It points to the previous migration (or revision in Alembic lingo) on which the current migration is based. This essentially establishes a migration sequence very much a like a singly linked list would (except that we use a previous link here instead of the more traditional next link.)

    The very first migration, liberty in our case, would have down_revision set to None. All other migrations must point to the last migration in the sequence at the time of writing the migration.

    For example, Glance has two migrations in Mitaka, namely, mitaka01 and mitaka02. The migration sequence for Mitaka should look like:

  • The depends_on identifier helps establish dependencies between two migrations. If a migration X depends on running migration Y first, then X is said to depend on Y. This could be specified in the migration as shown below:

    revision = 'X'
    down_revision = 'W'
    depends_on = 'Y'

    Naturally, every migration depends on the migrations preceding it in the migration sequence. Hence, in a typical branch-less migration sequence, depends_on is of limited use. However, this could be useful for migration sequences with branches. We’ll see more about this in the next section.

  • All schema migration scripts must adhere to the naming convention mentioned below:

    <unique revision id>_<very brief description>.py


    Monolith migration: ocata01_add_visibility_remove_is_public.py
    Expand migration: ocata_expand01_add_visibility.py
    Contract migration: ocata_contract01_remove_is_public.py

Dependency Between Contract and Expand Migrations

  • To achieve zero-downtime upgrades, the Glance migration sequence has been branched into expand and contract branches. As the name suggests, the expand branch contains only the expand migrations and the contract branch contains only the contract migrations. As per the zero-downtime migration strategy, the expand migrations are run first followed by contract migrations. To establish this dependency, we make the contract migrations explicitly depend on their corresponding expand migrations. Thus, running contract migrations without running expansions is not possible.

    For example, the Community Images migration in Ocata includes the experimental E-M-C migrations. The expand migration is ocata_expand01 and the contract migration is ocata_contract01. The dependency is established as below.

    revision = 'ocata_contract01'
    down_revision = 'mitaka02'
    depends_on = 'ocata_expand01'

    Every contract migration in Glance MUST depend on its corresponding expand migration. Thus, the current Glance migration sequence looks as shown below:

           |                         |
           |                         |
    ocata_expand01 <------  ocata_contract01
           ^                         ^
           |                         |
           |                         |
     pike_expand01 <------   pike_contract01

Data Migrations

  • All Glance data migrations must reside in glance.db.sqlalchemy.alembic_migrations.data_migrations package.

  • The data migrations themselves are not Alembic migration scripts. And, hence they don’t require a unique revision id. However, they must adhere to a similar naming convention discussed above. That is:

    <release name>_migrate<two-digit sequence number per release>_<very brief description>.py


    Data Migration: ocata_migrate01_community_images.py
  • All data migrations modules must adhere to the following structure:

    def has_migrations(engine):
        <your code to determine whether or not there are any pending rows to be
        return <boolean>
    def migrate(engine):
        <your code to migrate rows in the database.>
        return <number of rows migrated>


  • Starting in Ocata, Glance needs every database migration to include both monolithic and Expand-Migrate-Contract (E-M-C) style migrations. At some point in Pike, E-M-C migrations will be made default. At that point, it would be no longer required to include monolithic migration script.

  • Alembic is a database migration engine written for SQLAlchemy. So, any migration script written for SQLAlchemy Migrate should work with Alembic as well provided the structural differences above (primarily adding revision, down_revision and depends_on) are taken care of. Moreover, it maybe easier to do certain operations with Alembic. Refer to [ALMBC] for information on Alembic operations.

  • A given database change may not require actions in each of the expand, migrate, contract phases, but nonetheless, we require a script for each phase for every change. In the case where an action is not required, a no-op script, described below, MUST be used.

    For instance, if a database migration is completely contractive in nature, say removing a column, there won’t be a need for expand and migrate operations. But, including a no-op expand and migrate scripts will make it explicit and also preserve the one-to-one correspondence between expand, migrate and contract scripts.

    A no-op expand/contract Alembic migration:

    """An example empty Alembic migration script
    Revision ID: foo02
    Revises: foo01
    revision = foo02
    down_revision = foo01
    def upgrade():

A no-op migrate script:

"""An example empty data migration script"""

def has_migrations(engine):
    return False

def migrate(engine):
    return 0