Done “Establishing DBI”!?

Summary of the “Establishing DBI” project

The “Establishing DBI” project, funded by the R consortium, started about a year ago. It includes the completion of two new backends, RPostgres and RMariaDB, and a quite a few interface extensions and specifications. Learn more about DBI, R’s database interface, on

This blog post showcases only the visible changes, a substantial amount of work went into extending the DBI specification and making the three open-source database backends compliant to it. After describing the release of the two new backends RMariaDB and RPostgres, I’ll be discussing the following improvements:

  • Consistent support for accessing tables in schemas
  • Quoting literal values, in addition to strings and identifiers
  • More fine-grained creation of tables
  • Reading and writing 64-bit integers
  • Reading geometry columns from a PostGIS database
  • Handling of duplicate column names
  • New helpers in DBI
  • Reusing code across backends

I conclude with an outlook on things left to do.

Release of RPostgres and RMariaDB

The DBI specification has been formulated in the preceding R consortium project, “Improving DBI”. It is both an automated test suite and a human-readable description of behavior, implemented in the DBItest package. For this project, I extended this specification and could also use it to implement RPostgres and RMariaDB: for once, test-driven development was pure pleasure, because the tests were already there!

I took over maintenance of the RPostgres and RMariaDB packages, which are complete rewrites of the RPostgreSQL and RMySQL packages, respectively. These packages use C++ (with Rcpp) as glue between R and the native database libraries. A reimplementation and release under a different name has made it much easier to fully conform to the DBI specification: only listing temporary tables and casting to blob or character is not supported by RMariaDB (due to a limitation of the DBMS), all other parts of the specification are fully covered.

Projects that use RPostgreSQL or RMySQL can continue to do so, or switch to the new backends at their own pace (which likely requires some changes to the code). For new projects I recommend RPostgres or RMariaDB to take advantage of the thorougly tested codebases and of the consistency across backends.

Schema support

Consistent access of tables in database schemas was planned for the “Improving DBI” project already, but I have implemented it only recently. It felt safer to see how the interface works on three backends, as opposed to implementing it for just RSQLite and then perhaps having to adapt it.

The new Id() function constructs identifiers. All arguments must be named, yet DBI doesn’t specify the argument names, because DBMS have an inconsistent notion of namespaces. The objects returned by Id() are “dumb”, they gain meaning only when used in methods such as dbQuoteIdentifier() or dbWriteTable().

For listing database objects in schemas, the new dbListObjects() generic can be used. It returns a data frame that contains identifiers (like those created by the Id() function) and a flag that indicates if the identifier is complete (i.e., pointing to a table or view) or a prefix. Incomplete identifiers can be passed to dbListObjects() again, which allows traversing the tree of database objects.

The following example assumes a schema my_schema. A table named my_table is created in this schema, objects are listed, and the table is read again.

pg_conn <- dbConnect(Postgres())

table_name <- Id(schema = "my_schema", table = "my_table")

## <Id> schema = my_schema, table = my_table

data <- data.frame(a = 1:3, b = letters[1:3])
dbWriteTable(pg_conn, table_name, data)


##                               table is_prefix
## 1    <Id> table = geography_columns     FALSE
## 2     <Id> table = geometry_columns     FALSE
## 3      <Id> table = spatial_ref_sys     FALSE
## 4       <Id> table = raster_columns     FALSE
## 5     <Id> table = raster_overviews     FALSE
## 6             <Id> table = topology     FALSE
## 7                <Id> table = layer     FALSE
## 8                 <Id> table = temp     FALSE
## 9            <Id> schema = topology      TRUE
## 10          <Id> schema = my_schema      TRUE
## 11 <Id> schema = information_schema      TRUE
## 12         <Id> schema = pg_catalog      TRUE
## 13             <Id> schema = public      TRUE

  prefix = Id(schema = "my_schema")

##                                       table is_prefix
## 1 <Id> schema = my_schema, table = my_table     FALSE

dbReadTable(pg_conn, table_name)

##   a b
## 1 1 a
## 2 2 b
## 3 3 c

In addition to dbReadTable() and dbWriteTable(), also dbExistsTable() and dbRemoveTable() and the new dbCreateTable() and dbAppendTable() (see below) support an Id() object as table name. The dbQuoteIdentifier() method converts these objects to SQL strings. Some operations (e.g. checking if a table exists) require the inverse, the new dbUnquoteIdentifier() generic takes care of converting valid SQL identifiers to (a list of) Id() objects:

quoted <- dbQuoteIdentifier(pg_conn, table_name)

## <SQL> "my_schema"."my_table"

dbUnquoteIdentifier(pg_conn, quoted)

## [[1]]
## <Id> schema = my_schema, table = my_table

The new methods work consistently across backends, only RSQLite is currently restricted to the default schema. (Schemas in RSQLite are created by attaching another database, this use case seemed rather exotic but can be supported with the new infrastructure.)

Quoting literal values

When working on the database backends, it has become apparent that quoting strings and identifiers isn’t quite enough. Now there is a way to quote arbitrary values, i.e. convert them to a string that can be pasted into an SQL query:

sqlite_conn <- dbConnect(SQLite())

mariadb_conn <- dbConnect(MariaDB(), dbname = "test")

dbQuoteLiteral(sqlite_conn, 1.5)

## <SQL> 1.5

dbQuoteLiteral(mariadb_conn, 1.5)

## <SQL> 1.5

dbQuoteLiteral(pg_conn, 1.5)

## <SQL> 1.5::float8

dbQuoteLiteral(mariadb_conn, Sys.time())

## <SQL> '20180501204025'

dbQuoteLiteral(pg_conn, Sys.time())

## <SQL> '2018-05-01 22:40:25'::timestamp

The default implementation works for ANSI SQL compliant DBMS, the method for RPostgres takes advantage of the :: casting operator as seen in the examples.

More fine-grained creation of tables

DBI supports storing data frames as tables in the database via dbWriteTable(). This operation consists of multiple steps:

  • Checking if a table of this name exists, if yes:
    • If overwrite = TRUE, removing the table
    • If not, throwing an error
  • Creating the table with the correct field structure
  • Preparing the data for writing
  • Writing the data

To reduce complexity and allow for more options without cluttering the argument list of dbWriteTable(), DBI now provides generics for the individual steps:

  • The existing dbRemoveTable() generic has been extended with temporary and fail_if_missing arguments. Setting temporary = TRUE makes sure that only temporaries are removed. By default, trying to remove a table that doesn’t exist fails, setting fail_if_missing = FALSE changes this behavior to a silent success.

  • The new dbCreateTable() generic accepts a data frame or a character vector of DBMS data types and creates a table in the database. It builds upon the existing sqlCreateTable() generic and also supports the temporary argument. If a table by that name already exists, an error is raised.

  • The new dbAppendTable() generic uses a prepared statement (created via sqlAppendTableTemplate()) to efficiently insert rows into the database. This avoids the internal overhead of converting values to SQL literals.

The following example shows the creation and population of a table with the new methods.


## <Id> schema = my_schema, table = my_table

dbRemoveTable(pg_conn, table_name, fail_if_missing = FALSE)

dbCreateTable(pg_conn, table_name, c(a = "int8", b = "float8"))

dbAppendTable(pg_conn, table_name, data.frame(a = 1:3, b = 1:3))

## [1] 3

str(dbReadTable(pg_conn, table_name))

## 'data.frame':    3 obs. of  2 variables:
##  $ a:integer64 1 2 3 
##  $ b: num  1 2 3

The dbWriteTable() methods in the three backends have been adapted to use the new methods.

Support for 64-bit integers

As seen in the previous example, 64-bit integers can be read from the database. The three backends RSQLite, RPostgres and RMariaDB now also support writing 64-bit integers via the bit64 package:

data <- data.frame(a = bit64::as.integer64(4:6), b = 4:6)
dbAppendTable(pg_conn, table_name, data)

## [1] 3

str(dbReadTable(pg_conn, table_name))

## 'data.frame':    6 obs. of  2 variables:
##  $ a:integer64 1 2 3 4 5 6 
##  $ b: num  1 2 3 4 5 6

Because R still lacks support for native 64-bit integers, the bit64 package feels like the best compromise: the returned values can be computed on, or coerced to integer, numeric or even character depending on the application. In some cases, it may be useful to always coerce. This is where the new bigint argument to dbConnect() helps:

pg_conn_int <- dbConnect(Postgres(), bigint = "integer")
str(dbReadTable(pg_conn_int, table_name))

## 'data.frame':    6 obs. of  2 variables:
##  $ a: int  1 2 3 4 5 6
##  $ b: num  1 2 3 4 5 6

pg_conn_num <- dbConnect(Postgres(), bigint = "numeric")
str(dbReadTable(pg_conn_num, table_name))

## 'data.frame':    6 obs. of  2 variables:
##  $ a: num  1 2 3 4 5 6
##  $ b: num  1 2 3 4 5 6

pg_conn_chr <- dbConnect(Postgres(), bigint = "character")
str(dbReadTable(pg_conn_chr, table_name))

## 'data.frame':    6 obs. of  2 variables:
##  $ a: chr  "1" "2" "3" "4" ...
##  $ b: num  1 2 3 4 5 6

The bigint argument works consistently across the three backends RSQLite, RPostgres and RMariaDB, the DBI specification contains a test for and a description of the requirements.

Geometry columns

PostgreSQL has support for user-defined data types, this is used e.g. by PostGIS to store spatial data. Before, user-defined data types were returned as character values, with a warning. Thanks to a contribution by Etienne B. Racine:

  • the warnings are gone,
  • the user-defined data type is now stored in an attribute of the column in the data frame,
  • details on columns with user-defined data types are available in dbColumnInfo().
  c(id = "int4", geom = "geometry(Point, 4326)")

data <- data.frame(
  id = 1,
  geom = "SRID=4326;POINT(-71.060316 48.432044)",
  stringsAsFactors = FALSE
dbAppendTable(pg_conn, "geom_test", data)

## [1] 1

str(dbReadTable(pg_conn, "geom_test"))

## 'data.frame':    1 obs. of  2 variables:
##  $ id  : int 1
##  $ geom:Class 'pq_geometry'  chr "0101000020E61000003CDBA337DCC351C06D37C1374D374840"

res <- dbSendQuery(pg_conn, "SELECT * FROM geom_test")

##   name      type   .oid .known .typname
## 1   id   integer     23   TRUE     int4
## 2 geom character 101529  FALSE geometry


Special support for geometry columns is currently available only in RPostgres.

Duplicate column names

The specification has been extended to disallow duplicate, empty or NA column names. The deduplication used by our three backends is similar to that used by tibble::set_tidy_names(), but the DBI specification does not require any particular deduplication mechanism. Syntactic names aren’t required either:

dbGetQuery(sqlite_conn, "SELECT 1, 2, 3")

##   1 2 3
## 1 1 2 3

dbGetQuery(sqlite_conn, "SELECT 1 AS a, 2 AS a, 3 AS `a..2`")

##   a a..2 a..3
## 1 1    2    3

dbGetQuery(mariadb_conn, "SELECT 1, 2, 3")

##   1 2 3
## 1 1 2 3

dbGetQuery(mariadb_conn, "SELECT 1 AS a, 2 AS a, 3 AS `a..2`")

##   a a..2 a..3
## 1 1    2    3

dbGetQuery(pg_conn, "SELECT 1, 2, 3")

##   ?column? ?column?..2 ?column?..3
## 1        1           2           3

dbGetQuery(pg_conn, 'SELECT 1 AS a, 2 AS a, 3 AS "a..2"')

##   a a..2 a..3
## 1 1    2    3


Two little helper generics have been added.

The new dbIsReadOnly() generic (contributed by Anh Le) should return TRUE for a read-only connection. This is not part of the specification yet.

The dbCanConnect() tests a set of connection parameters. The default implementation simply connects and then disconnects upon success. For DBMS that can provide more efficient methods of checking connectivity, a lighter-weight implementation of this method may give a better experience.

None of the three backends currently provide specialized implementations for these generics.

Code reuse

I have made some efforts to extract common C++ classes for assembling data frames and prepare them for reuse. The C++ source code for the three backends contains files prefixed with Db, these are almost identical across the backends. The planned packaging into the RKazam package had to yield to higher-priority features described above.

The situation in the R code is similar: I have found myself copy-pasting code from one backend into another because I didn’t feel it’s ready (or standardized enough) to be included in the DBI package.

For both use cases, a code reuse strategy based on copying/updating template files or reconciling files may be more robust than the traditional importing mechanisms offered by R.


The upcoming CRAN release of DBI, DBItest and the three backends RSQLite, RMariaDB and RPostgres are an important milestone. Stability is important when more and more users and projects use the new backends. Nevertheless, I see quite a few potential improvements that so far were out of scope of the “Improving DBI” and “Establishing DBI” projects:

  1. Support running the test suite locally, to validate adherence to DBI for a particular installation.

  2. Consistent fast data import.

  3. Consistent query placeholders (currently $1 for RPostgres and ? for many other backends).

  4. Support for arbitrary data types via hooks.

  5. Assistance with installation problems on specific architectures, or connectivity problems with certain databases, or other specific issues.

  6. Rework the internal architecture of DBItest to simplify locating test failures.

  7. Improve the website.

  8. Non-blocking queries.

I have submitted another proposal to the R Consortium, hoping to receive support with these and other issues.


I’d like to thank the R Consortium for their generous financial support. Many thanks to the numerous contributors who helped make the past two projects a success.

Published by using 2172 words.