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Don Burleson Blog 







The Problem of Pointers: Logical vs. Physical

Oracle Database Tips by Donald Burleson

Logical Pointers

The usage of pointers to navigate object relationships within a traditional object-oriented application may also have to be re-worked if one plans to use a relational database.  In a non-persistent C++ applications, an object is created with the NEW operator, memory is allocated and the address of that object is captured.  Of course, this address is not permanent, and a subsequent run of the application may find the same object in another memory address.  For this reason, a method must be determined to replace the "physical" memory address pointers with "logical" pointers to the object.  (Figure 11.1)

Logical pointers generally assign an object-ID which are called an "OID", (rhymes with "annoyed").  The OID is associated to an object when it is instantiated (the OO term for object creation), and will use this OID as a logical pointer when navigating data relationships.  There are many ways to create logical OID's.  Some OODB's make their OID's by relating to the logical container (similar to a database "page") in which the object resides, including a byte offset into the container.  For example, if a CUSTOMER object hashes to container number 123 and is assigned space number 4 within that container, then the OID would have a value of 123-4. 

The question of access to relational data is simplified if we mark a data item as being the primary key for the object.  In this fashion, we can always retrieve the object from disk using SQL, and then re-establish the OID after we have re-instantiated the object.

The main goal of this technique is to take an object and stuff its data and pointers into a row of a relational table.  Of course, the relational table will not be able to make any sense of these pointers, and the relational table structure would not contain any of the "foreign keys" that we are accustomed to using for relational navigation.  SQL joins cannot be used against these tables, but queries against individual tables can still be performed. 

Figure 11.1  The duality of pointers

In other words, an object uses internal navigation through its pointers to other objects, while the relational database must join primary keys with foreign keys to establish a relationship.  Compare the following navigation between C++ objects and the relational equivalent.


       ordersForCustomer() {  // list all orders for a customer


              cout << "\n\nOrder summary for customer " << custName << " \n";

              int i;

              for(i=0;i<orderCount;i++) {

                 cout <<  "\n   Order = " << orderList[i]->orderNum;



       Select order_number from customer, order

       where customer_num = :custno and

       customer.customer_num = order.customer_num

Here we see that the navigation between objects is quite different from the navigation between rows in a relational database.  We must keep in mind that associations between objects are pointers to addresses in the memory of the C++ program.  Since each object pointers refers to a RAM memory location of an associated object, we must address the question about how to create "parallel universes" of associations, one for the relational database and another for the in-memory objects.

At first glance it may be tempting to simply store the in-memory pointers for the objects into rows of a relational table.  These in-memory addresses are established by C++ in the object constructor, and the actual memory address is dependent upon the prior objects that the program has constructed.  However, since the base register for the C++ program will be different for each execution of the program, we can never count on these in-memory addresses to be the same between executions of the program.  In other words, the in-memory address for the customer ABC object will always be different, each time the constructor is invoked.

When customer ABC is constructed for the first time, we must store the object in our relational database, independent of any internal C++ pointers.  When the object is retrieved by a later execution of the C++ program, the row is called from disk into the database buffer, and then transferred into C++ memory with a memory allocation (using the C++ malloc or new operators).  It is safe to assume that each time an object is retrieved from disk and allocated to the C++ program, it will have a new memory address.  So then, how can we manage internal associations between objects?

Consider the following example.  Here we have one customer, ABC, who has two orders, order 123 and order 456.  The customer object will have an internal array of pointers to orders, and will store the in-memory pointers for order 123 and order 456.  Each order, in turn, will store an up-level object pointer to point to customer ABC.  (figure 11.2)

Figure 11.2  Pointer structures between objects

Next, we will want to make these objects persistent, and store them as rows in our relational database.  We will want to store customer ABC as a row in the customer table, and orders 123 and 456 will each store as rows in  the order table.  Since we will store "ABC" as the primary key for the customer and as a foreign key for each order, we can be assured that the logical relationship between these relational rows will be maintained.  It would be senseless to try to store the array of order pointers, since their values would be meaningless to a subsequent run, but we could store information that there are exactly two orders for this customer. 

But what happens when customer ABC is retrieved by a subsequent run of our C++ program?  We can easily use SQL to retrieve the customer row from the table and malloc space in the programs memory for customer ABC, but how can we establish the pointers to orders 123 and 456?  They have not yet been retrieved, and will not have addresses until we manually call them in from the database and re-instanciate them.  At this point, customer ABC's array of pointers to orders contains nothing but NULL pointers, since the orders have not been retrieved from memory.  However, we could write a routine that would check to see if the pointer is NULL, and then go to the database and retrieve all orders for the customer with an SQL statement.  In this case we know that each order is identified by a unique order number, but it may not always be so easy to find a key for the sub-objects.  In either case, we must somehow keep the relational keys for each order that has been placed by the customer.  There are two approaches to this:

1.  Create a second array in each customer object to hold the relational keys for each order.  This array would parallel the array of pointers to orders in the customer object.

2. Create a global table of array references with the following fields:

customer           ABC                  order             123
customer           ABC                  order             456       

3.  Remove all arrays of pointer, and use linked-list structures.

Using method 1 or 2, orders 123 and 456 can now be brought into the memory of the C++ program by calling the appropriate SQL.  After the SQL has returned the rows, the objects are re-instantiated and the pointers re-assigned to the customer and order objects.




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