SQLAlchemy: What's the difference between flush() and commit()?


What the difference is between flush() and commit() in SQLAlchemy?

I’ve read the docs, but am none the wiser – they seem to assume a pre-understanding that I don’t have.

I’m particularly interested in their impact on memory usage. I’m loading some data into a database from a series of files (around 5 million rows in total) and my session is occasionally falling over – it’s a large database and a machine with not much memory.

I’m wondering if I’m using too many commit() and not enough flush() calls – but without really understanding what the difference is, it’s hard to tell!

Asked By: AP257



A Session object is basically an ongoing transaction of changes to a database (update, insert, delete). These operations aren’t persisted to the database until they are committed (if your program aborts for some reason in mid-session transaction, any uncommitted changes within are lost).

The session object registers transaction operations with session.add(), but doesn’t yet communicate them to the database until session.flush() is called.

session.flush() communicates a series of operations to the database (insert, update, delete). The database maintains them as pending operations in a transaction. The changes aren’t persisted permanently to disk, or visible to other transactions until the database receives a COMMIT for the current transaction (which is what session.commit() does).

session.commit() commits (persists) those changes to the database.

flush() is always called as part of a call to commit() (1).

When you use a Session object to query the database, the query will return results both from the database and from the flushed parts of the uncommitted transaction it holds. By default, Session objects autoflush their operations, but this can be disabled.

Hopefully this example will make this clearer:

s = Session()

s.add(Foo('A')) # The Foo('A') object has been added to the session.
                # It has not been committed to the database yet,
                #   but is returned as part of a query.
print 1, s.query(Foo).all()

s2 = Session()
s2.autoflush = False

print 2, s2.query(Foo).all() # The Foo('B') object is *not* returned
                             #   as part of this query because it hasn't
                             #   been flushed yet.
s2.flush()                   # Now, Foo('B') is in the same state as
                             #   Foo('A') was above.
print 3, s2.query(Foo).all() 
s2.rollback()                # Foo('B') has not been committed, and rolling
                             #   back the session's transaction removes it
                             #   from the session.
print 4, s2.query(Foo).all()

1 [<Foo('A')>]
2 [<Foo('A')>]
3 [<Foo('A')>, <Foo('B')>]
4 [<Foo('A')>]
Answered By: snapshoe

Why flush if you can commit?

As someone new to working with databases and sqlalchemy, the previous answers – that flush() sends SQL statements to the DB and commit() persists them – were not clear to me. The definitions make sense but it isn’t immediately clear from the definitions why you would use a flush instead of just committing.

Since a commit always flushes (https://docs.sqlalchemy.org/en/13/orm/session_basics.html#committing) these sound really similar. I think the big issue to highlight is that a flush is not permanent and can be undone, whereas a commit is permanent, in the sense that you can’t ask the database to undo the last commit (I think)

@snapshoe highlights that if you want to query the database and get results that include newly added objects, you need to have flushed first (or committed, which will flush for you). Perhaps this is useful for some people although I’m not sure why you would want to flush rather than commit (other than the trivial answer that it can be undone).

In another example I was syncing documents between a local DB and a remote server, and if the user decided to cancel, all adds/updates/deletes should be undone (i.e. no partial sync, only a full sync). When updating a single document I’ve decided to simply delete the old row and add the updated version from the remote server. It turns out that due to the way sqlalchemy is written, order of operations when committing is not guaranteed. This resulted in adding a duplicate version (before attempting to delete the old one), which resulted in the DB failing a unique constraint. To get around this I used flush() so that order was maintained, but I could still undo if later the sync process failed.

See my post on this at: Is there any order for add versus delete when committing in sqlalchemy

Similarly, someone wanted to know whether add order is maintained when committing, i.e. if I add object1 then add object2, does object1 get added to the database before object2
Does SQLAlchemy save order when adding objects to session?

Again, here presumably the use of a flush() would ensure the desired behavior. So in summary, one use for flush is to provide order guarantees (I think), again while still allowing yourself an “undo” option that commit does not provide.

Autoflush and Autocommit

Note, autoflush can be used to ensure queries act on an updated database as sqlalchemy will flush before executing the query. https://docs.sqlalchemy.org/en/13/orm/session_api.html#sqlalchemy.orm.session.Session.params.autoflush

Autocommit is something else that I don’t completely understand but it sounds like its use is discouraged:

Memory Usage

Now the original question actually wanted to know about the impact of flush vs. commit for memory purposes. As the ability to persist or not is something the database offers (I think), simply flushing should be sufficient to offload to the database – although committing shouldn’t hurt (actually probably helps – see below) if you don’t care about undoing.

sqlalchemy uses weak referencing for objects that have been flushed: https://docs.sqlalchemy.org/en/13/orm/session_state_management.html#session-referencing-behavior

This means if you don’t have an object explicitly held onto somewhere, like in a list or dict, sqlalchemy won’t keep it in memory.

However, then you have the database side of things to worry about. Presumably flushing without committing comes with some memory penalty to maintain the transaction. Again, I’m new to this but here’s a link that seems to suggest exactly this: https://stackoverflow.com/a/15305650/764365

In other words, commits should reduce memory usage, although presumably there is a trade-off between memory and performance here. In other words, you probably don’t want to commit every single database change, one at a time (for performance reasons), but waiting too long will increase memory usage.

Answered By: Jimbo

This does not strictly answer the original question but some people have mentioned that with session.autoflush = True you don’t have to use session.flush()… And this is not always true.

If you want to use the id of a newly created object in the middle of a transaction, you must call session.flush().

# Given a model with at least this id
class AModel(Base):
   id = Column(Integer, primary_key=True)  # autoincrement by default on integer primary key

session.autoflush = True

a = AModel()
a.id  # None
a.id  # autoincremented integer

This is because autoflush does NOT auto fill the id (although a query of the object will, which sometimes can cause confusion as in “why this works here but not there?” But snapshoe already covered this part).

One related aspect that seems pretty important to me and wasn’t really mentioned:

Why would you not commit all the time? – The answer is atomicity.

A fancy word to say: an ensemble of operations have to all be executed successfully OR none of them will take effect.

For example, if you want to create/update/delete some object (A) and then create/update/delete another (B), but if (B) fails you want to revert (A). This means those 2 operations are atomic.

Therefore, if (B) needs a result of (A), you want to call flush after (A) and commit after (B).

Also, if session.autoflush is True, except for the case that I mentioned above or others in Jimbo‘s answer, you will not need to call flush manually.

Answered By: Romain Vincent

Use flush when you need to simulate a write, for example to get a primary key ID from an autoincrementing counter.

john=Person(name='John Smith', parent=None)

son=Person(name='Bill Smith', parent=john.id)

Without flushing, john.id would be null.

Like others have said, without commit() none of this will be permanently persisted to DB.

Answered By: Adam Hughes

commit () records these changes in the database. flush () is always called as part of the commit () (1) call. When you use a Session object to query a database, the query returns results from both the database and the reddened parts of the unrecorded transaction it is performing.

Answered By: Kolya Sotnichenko

The existing answers don’t make a lot of sense unless you understand what a database transaction is. (Twas the case for myself until recently.)

Sometimes you might want to run multiple SQL statements and have them succeed or fail as a whole. For example, if you want to execute a bank transfer from account A to account B, you’ll need to do two queries like

UPDATE accounts SET value = value - 100 WHERE acct = 'A'
UPDATE accounts SET value = value + 100 WHERE acct = 'B'

If the first query succeeds but the second fails, this is bad (for obvious reasons). So, we need a way to treat these two queries "as a whole". The solution is to start with a BEGIN statement and end with either a COMMIT statement or a ROLLBACK statement, like

UPDATE accounts SET value = value - 100 WHERE acct = 'A'
UPDATE accounts SET value = value + 100 WHERE acct = 'B'

This is a single transaction.

In SQLAlchemy’s ORM, this might look like

                                      # BEGIN issued here
acctA = session.query(Account).get(1) # SELECT issued here
acctB = session.query(Account).get(2) # SELECT issued here

acctA.value -= 100
acctB.value += 100

session.commit()                      # UPDATEs and COMMIT issued here 

If you monitor when the various queries get executed, you’ll see the UPDATEs don’t hit the database until you call session.commit().

In some situations you might want to execute the UPDATE statements before issuing a COMMIT. (Perhaps the database issues an auto-incrementing id to the object and you want to fetch it before COMMITing). In these cases, you can explicitly flush() the session.

                                      # BEGIN issued here
acctA = session.query(Account).get(1) # SELECT issued here
acctB = session.query(Account).get(2) # SELECT issued here

acctA.value -= 100
acctB.value += 100

session.flush()                       # UPDATEs issued here 
session.commit()                      # COMMIT issued here 
Answered By: Ben

For simple orientation:

  • commit makes real changes (they become visible in the database)
  • flush makes fictive changes (they become visible just for you)

Imagine that databases work like git-branching.

  • First you have to understand that during a transaction you are not manipulating the real database data.
  • Instead, you get something like a new branch, and there you play around.
  • If at some point you write the command commit, that means: "merge my data-changes into main DB data".
  • But if you need some future data, that you can get only after commit (ex. insert into a table, and you need the inserted PKID), then you use the flush command, meaning: "calculate me the future PKID, and reserve it for me".
  • Then you can use that PKID value further in you code and be sure that the real data will be as expected.
  • Commit must always come at the end, to merge into main DB data.
Answered By: elano7
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