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MySQL’s REPLACE Considered Harmful

So we’ve set up a client with an online poll application using MySQL. Polls are created in Bricolage, and when they’re published, rather than writing data to files, the template writes data to the MySQL database. PHP code on the front-end server then uses the database records to manage the polls.

On the recommendation of one of my colleagues, I was using the MySQL REPLACE statement to insert and update poll answers in the database. At first, this seemed like a cool idea. All I had to do was create a unique index on the story_id and ord (for answer order) columns and I was set. Any time someone reordered the answers or changed their wording in Bricolage, the REPLACE statement would change the appropriate records and just do the right thing.

Or so I thought.

Come the day after the launch of the new site, I get a complaint from the customer that the percentage spread between the answers doesn’t add up to 100%. After some investigation, I realized that the poll_results table is using the ID of each question to identify the votes submitted by readers. This makes sense, of course, and is excellent relational practice, but I have overlooked the fact that REPLACE essentially replaces rows every time it is used. This means that even when a poll answer hasn’t changed, it gets a new ID. Yes, that’s right, its primary key value was changing. Yow!

Now we might have caught this earlier, but the database was developed on MySQL 3.23.58 and, as is conventional among MySQL developers, there were no foreign key constraints. So the poll results were still happily pointing to non-existent records. So a poll might appear to have 800 votes, but the percentages might be counted for only 50 votes. Hence the problem with the percentages not adding up to 100% (nowhere near it, in fact).

Fortunately, the production application is on a MySQL 4.1 server, so I made a number of changes to correct this issue:

  • Added foreign key constraints
  • Exploited a little-known (mis)feature of Bricolage to store primary keys for all poll answers (and questions, for that matter)
  • Switched from REPLACE to INSERT, UPDATE, and DELETE statements using the primary keys

I also started using transactions when making all these updates when a poll is published so that changes are always atomic. Now it works beautifully.

But the lesson learned is that REPLACE is a harmful construct. Yes, it was my responsibility to recognize that it would create new rows and therefore new primary keys. But any construct that changes primary keys should be stricken from any database developer’s toolbox. The fact that MySQL convention omits the use of foreign key constraints makes this a particularly serious issue that can appear to have mysterious consequences.

So my advice to you, gentle reader, is don’t use it.

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