DBDoc (Database Schema Documenter)
Document your database schema (tables and columns), because your team will thank you, and this makes it easy. You really need a Data Dictionary to describe your database. Your team will be living in chaos until you have one. DBDoc gives you a simple one that everyone can easily work with.
DBDoc enables you to describe (via generated
COMMENT ON statements) your
relational database schema(s) in a simple text file, which is easy for
developers/DBAs to edit and search in the repo. The docs (each a snippet of a
sentence or a few, all in a single, versatile
dbdoc.org file) are then:
- viewable in an SQL client like DBeaver or Datagrip (the main use case) as tooltips and in other views
- greppable in your code base
- web-publishable as docs, enabling other stakeholders (eg, Product people) to view DB documentation (in Confluence or wherever)
- presentable one table at a time for brainstorming, explaining, etc, with an org presenter, like epresent or org-tree-slide (screenshot at bottom)
It works by running a simple
dbdoc script to convert a very minimal
ORG-valid and -prescribed syntax (top-level bullets, single paragraphs, and
definition lists) into (long) SQL
COMMENT ON statements, which can be run
automatically on your database (via migration or sourced or however you like).
(See far below for more screenshots.)
2023-09-12 (all postgres-only)
- Support non-=public= schemas (use
someschema.sometablefor top-level bullet)
- Round-tripper: see data in DB not in ORG file
- Round-tripper: see conflicts between DB and ORG file
- Error checking for duplicate tables and fields in ORG file (common when pasting from round-tripping)
Example dbdoc.org file
The following shows an example
dbdoc.org file describing a movie store
rental database and a few of its tables:
movie (a deprecated table with no
columns documented), and
actor. Notice: the hyphens instead of
underscores, newlines before definitions, other indentation.
An example translation then is from:
#+Title: Pagila Movie Store Rental Database
This is the "dbdoc" description file for the Pagila database. See the
for more detailed instructions on its purpose and expanding it. This file
contains short documentation for any tables and columns that could use
even the slightest bit of explanation.
Edit this file whenever you make schema changes. And be a good citizen
by helping to grow this file any time you're touching a table!
The remainder of this file will be used processed into comment
descriptions that will be visible in your SQL client, and can also be
exported as HTML.
A film, aka movie, is released initially in theaters, and then
available to movie /stores/, at which point they become available to
- title ::
The full name of the film, including things like sub-title and part
in a series; does not include language
- description ::
A brief synopsis (catchy prose) about the plot
DEPRECATED: replaced by =film=
An actor is very simple and non-comprehensive table to record the main
headlining /stars/ of the film. All fields are obvious. Note that
there may be duplicate actors that use slightly different names on occasion.
to an SQL migration file containing:
COMMENT ON TABLE film IS 'A film, aka movie …';
COMMENT ON COLUMN film.title IS 'The full name …';
COMMENT ON TABLE movie IS 'DEPRECATED: replaced …';
Compared to the ORG version, that SQL is pretty ugly – editing (quoting, line-length/newlines, indentation, formatting) becomes quite difficult. That’s why this tiny tool exists.
There is a testable
docs/dbdoc.org example (and its generated SQL
this repo that was written to minimally describe the pagila toy
database. Just run
dbdoc in the root of this repo to try it out!
- Install Babashka (any OS, tiny, fast, no dependencies).
- Clone this repo and put its root on your
Now you’re ready to run
dbdoc from anywhere, and that’s all
there is to it! Not even any CLI options. :)
One time only
- Create a single living .org file in your repo, eg,
docs/dbdoc.orgfor growing docs for your tables.
- Assuming you haven’t already somehow written a
COMMENTfor your DB, turn a SME analyst type or long-time developer or DBA in your company loose to write up a bunch of notes in the org file. Then edit a bit to ensure it’s valid ORG that DBDoc can handle..
- Set up env vars to change default file locations (optional, not well
export DBDOC_ORG=docs/dbdoc.org export DBDOC_SQL=resouces/migrations/<timestamp>-dbdoc.up.sql export DBDOC_HTML=docs/dbdoc.html
Continually (this is the only real process)
- Keep describing as many tables and columns as you see fit in your
docs/dbdoc.orgfile. Every time a developer changes or adds a field or table, they also should put a sentence or two describing its purpose in the org file.
dbdocto generate a time-stamped file like
resources/migrations/20201027000000-dbdoc.up.sql. IMPORTANT!! Don’t forget this step! (You don’t need all the developers on the teams do this, so long as someone does the generation/migrating once in a while.)
- Commit both the org and migration files.
- Generate HTML (from command line with Pandoc or Emacs) and publish
the new version to some site your company views (optional, see
- If your migrations aren’t automatic as part of your CI, run your migration (or just load the new SQL file if you don’t do migrations).
Table Documentation Best Practices
- Don’t need to be comprehensive and document every field when names make them obvious
- Add an example datum for a column
- Used-by references: other tables (probably not FKs) and code areas
- Add characteristic tags: deprecated/defunct, xl, hot, new, static, performance, donttouch, dragons
Showing Comments in Clients
- dbeaver (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!! the docs pop up everywhere)
- postico (see the Structure tab, as shown is screenshot)
- datagrip (how to enable)
Read on if you want more details…
The parser is limited and rigid and wants to see a table description paragraph for every table you wish to document. So, if you want to document some column in a table, you must also provide at least a tidbit sentence for the table too. It’s not a robust parser so just be careful. Alignment/indentation is important too, so follow the example format precisely – this is a tiny subset of actual org.
Org uses underscores for italic, and it’s tedious enough to have to
wrap every DB entity in equals (
=) in org to escape them, so they
should instead be documented with hyphens (
- ) (though this isn’t
required). IOW, all ORG hyphenated variables (eg,
become underscores in SQL (
my_var_name). So prefer to use
my-var-name in the ORG description.
It you use “straight” apostrophes (‘), they’ll be converted to curlies so as not to need SQL string escaping (and be prettier).
The first version of your migration file is a direct mapping from
it contains a
COMMENT ON for each description. Then each time you run
dbdoc, that migration file is maintained but renamed and always has a 1-to-1
mapping of org descriptions to
dbdoc script looks for an old migration file called
<timestamp>-dbdoc.up.sql and renames it (via
git-move) to a
present timestamp. This enables Git to see the the new migration as
simply a change from the last run, and so you can easily see the
before/after diff. This also saves on a clutter of generating a bunch
of extra migrations.
You can track progress of your documenting by noting how many tables
have or have not been covered. Use the
coverage.zsh script to offer
a simple coverage report.
Seeding an ORG doc file for first-time use
You can create a listing of all existing tables as a starter
ORG file: see
schema2org.zsh. Once created, you can just start
documenting! This is probably totally buggy; it’s a tiny sed script
working off a pg-dump.
This may be improved to populate with existing comment descriptions to enable “round-tripping”.
Round-Tripping (postgres only, for now)
If you already have comments on your tables, you can pull them into your ORG
doc (semi-manually) to still get the benefits of shared editing/viewing. So if
some of your team happens to add comments (inside a client, or with
ON statements) to your production DB (instead of the using dbdoc process),
round-tripping ensures you never lose data, keeping your
dbcoc.org as the
SPOT and synced with the DB. But encourage your teammates not to be writing
COMMENT ON statements and use dbdoc instead!
To run the round-tripper, dbdoc needs access to an up-to-date, running DB
instance. Export the
PGDATABASE env var to specify that DB. It will query
for all the descriptions and send them into a TSV
indb.tsv. Then it converts
dbdoc.org texts (as inorg.tsv) to be able to diff and determine
what’s new. Run
roundtrip.zsh to see it.
PGDATABASE=mydb roundtrip.zsh >>docs/dbdoc.org # careful here with the append!
That output contains org formatted text. Rather than dbdoc trying to inject
the new text into your hand-crafted
dbdoc.org doc, it simply prints the new
data in org-format to stdout, so that you can paste it into the appropriate
places in your
dbdoc.org file (or just append it as per that example). It is
alphabetized, so simply appending may not be wanted if you’re trying to keep
dbdoc.org file sorted by table name.
If there are conflicts (same field described in both ORG and DB), those are
WARNINGs printed to stderr, and you’re expected to resolve and paste them into
dbdoc.org file with the description you feel is most up-to-date.
Why use org instead of the more popular/common markdown?
ORG has definition lists which work great for column docs. For the
limited syntax that is DBDoc, org and md are effectively the same
* for heading instead of
But I will implement Markdown if anyone feels they need it.
Do I need Emacs to work with Org files?
No! Emacs is not required to for any part of DBDoc. Most common editors have some proper way to work with Org. Even if yours doesn’t, just edit in plain text mode.
How far should I go with documenting my tables?
Not super far. See recommendations above. I like to limit column docs to not more than a few sentences. A table doc can be a legthy paragraph (only one!). Your source code docstrings are probably a better place to get into the nitty gritty.
Why not just write the doc strings in SQL?
Then your editor would think you’re in SQL mode and wouldn’t do things like spell-checking or nice formatting. Plus, using ORG gives you a publishable HTML version of your docs.
Does this work for all databases?
It does work for many! It’s been tested with PostgreSQL, and should work with others too, such as:
How do I get this into Confluence without API access?
Your Confluence setup might only support creating a page from markdown
(not org or html). So you can use pandoc to convert from org to md
pandoc -s docs/dbdoc.org -o temp.md and then paste it into
Confluence from its “plus” menu while editing a page:
Markup > Markdown > Paste > Insert
Why can’t I use just my SQL client to add descriptive comments?
Because it seems wrong. Which copy of your DB are you wanting to
modify? Are you connecting your client to a production DB and making
edits to prod data? This doesn’t make sense to me and I don’t
understand why SQL clients support
COMMENT editing. Developers, DBAs,
QA, and others may not have prod access, and probably all need
different non-prod DBs to have up-to-date documentation at their
fingertips, and DBDoc enables putting that documentation into every
Similar Tools Comparison
dbdocs (same name but plural!)
dbdocs (plural) is decsribed as: “A free & simple tool to create web-based database documentation using DSL code. Designed for developers. Integrate seamlessly with your development workflow.” As a full DDL DSL, it is a much heavier commitment to incorporate. It also creates a rich website for your tables, whereas DBDoc just creates a single webpage that can be synced with Confluence or published wherever you choose. dbdocs creates ERDs, but DBDoc lets capable clients like DBeaver handle that for you.
The ActiveRecord ORM has the ability to support comments as part of a schema definition and migration syntax. You may not need DBDoc if you’re using AR. But if you want to publish your schema documentation, you should still use DBDoc!
There are many DB documentation tools in this realm. For any use cases I’ve encountered, they are overkill. But if you’re interested in much more sophisticated kitchen sink tools that may work with other types of DBMSs, look into ApexSQL, Redgate, and Dataedo.
COMMENT ON DATABASEas top-level paragraph (but ignore myriad other types). Actually, this can’t be done flexibly since it requires knowing the DB name.
- Identify fields/tables that are missing comments
Please submit an issue if you think of any enhancements or find bugs. I’m eager to improve this, but need your ideas!
Hover to see captions, just like in DB clients! There, you’ve been trained.