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ORM Next Level

We have so far seen how to declare Plain Old C-Sharp Objects (POCO)s that we can directly relate to our database tables. We have a way to use LINQ to access the data in our tables as POCOs including the ability to create, read, update, and delete data.

However, we had to manually create the database tables to ensure they were aligned with our C-Sharp objects. This is an issue in a few ways:

  1. It is a manual process that the developer has to work through.
  2. Other members of our development team would have to make the same manual changes to their local copies of the database.
  3. There is no source code control history of these changes.
  4. There is no way to automate the process when we eventually deploy our application to our servers up in the cloud.

There must be a solution!

Enter Migrations!

Many modern ORM systems allow for the idea of migrations. A set of code, or configuration, that describe incremental changes to the database that migrate the design of the database from a previous configuration to a new one.

Initially our database design might start off as empty, no tables. An initial migration might be described as "From a database without any tables, please add the following tables with the following columns and relationships." After working on the application for a while and receiving feedback from the team, management, or customers we may discover we need a new attribute of one of our database models (POCO + table). We could then make a new migration that says "Please add an integer column named Salary to the People table."

These migrations will live in our project as a series of c-sharp classes that will be *automatically created for us. We will add them to our code as if we wrote it and manage it in our source control.

These generated migrations solve the above problems:

  1. It is no longer a manual process.
  2. Other members of our team will get the same database changes when they get updated code.
  3. The source code control will record this just like any other code change.
  4. The code will be in our project when we deploy to the cloud so we can keep that database up-to-date.

Migrations are a wonderful benefit of having an ORM. Let's see how to add this capability to our system and start to use it.

Add the needed packages

In order to use EF Core migrations we need to add a package to our existing application and then restart any dotnet watch run

dotnet add package Microsoft.EntityFrameworkCore.Design

This package will allow us to use the EF Core migration commands.

Our first migration

Having added the necessary EF Core packages, we can now utilize a new command: dotnet ef migrations.

This command allows us to add and remove migrations to our system. The first command we will investigate is dotnet ef migrations add.

Adding a migration

From the terminal we can run:

dotnet ef migrations add InitialMigration

The CamelCased word after add will be the name of our migration. It should attempt to document the kind of change we are making to the design of our database. In later examples we'll see other uses and other patterns for naming, but for now this will represent our Initial Migration so we'll give it that name.

You'll see that a new folder named Migrations has appeared in our project. And inside you'll see three files. Before we dig into the contents of these files, let's review what the migration command did, and how it knows what to do.

When we add a migration .NET is comparing several things. It is comparing the design of the database it knows about so far to the collection of DbSet based POCOs we have described in our DbContext class. You'll notice in our DbContext we have four DbSet entries: Movies, Ratings, Roles, and Actors. .NET then considers what it has in its design. Since this is our first time using migrations on this project it doesn't know about any migrations for any of these models/tables. It will then proceed to make entries in our migration to record the details about each of these models. It looks at the structure of our POCOs to see what columns and types there should be. For instance, with Actors it sees there is a primary key Id, a string based FullName, and a DateTime based Birthday. It will then do the same thing with the outer tables. It bundles up all those changes and generates our migration files.

The structure of a migration

In our Migrations folder you'll see two files with the text InitialMigration as part of the name. Let's look at the one without the .Designer.cs part.

The structure of the file looks like this. We've left out the body of those methods for readability.

using System;
using Microsoft.EntityFrameworkCore.Migrations;
using Npgsql.EntityFrameworkCore.PostgreSQL.Metadata;
namespace SuncoastMovies.Migrations
public partial class InitialMigration : Migration
protected override void Up(MigrationBuilder migrationBuilder)
// Lots of code here, omitted for readability
protected override void Down(MigrationBuilder migrationBuilder)
// Lots of code here, omitted for readability

Every migration can be processed in two directions, Up and Down. The Up migration means "how do we take the current structure of the database and move FORWARD" while the Down migration would be used in a case where we wanted to rollback or undo that database change. The Down migration is essentially a safety net in case we realize the migration had a bad impact on the system.

If we look inside the body of the Up method we will see code similar to the following.

name: "Actors",
columns: table => new
Id = table.Column<int>(nullable: false)
.Annotation("Npgsql:ValueGenerationStrategy", NpgsqlValueGenerationStrategy.IdentityByDefaultColumn),
FullName = table.Column<string>(nullable: true),
Birthday = table.Column<DateTime>(nullable: false)
constraints: table =>
table.PrimaryKey("PK_Actors", x => x.Id);

You should recognize a few keywords in this code, Id, FullName, Birthday! These are the properties of our Actor POCO and the names of the related columns in our table.

This code was automatically generated for us and describes the initial structure of our tables. It uses existing EF Core classes and code to generate the appropriate SQL actions to create our tables. (Notice the CreateTable method it is using). You will notice similar code for Ratings, Movies, and Roles. There is even code to record the foreign key relationships between tables.

Soon we will see how to execute this code and have it automatically create our tables. However, if we needed to make adjustments to this file we can. It isn't typical for us to need to make adjustments for simple table designs. However, on larger projects you may find the team has customized these generated migrations.

The related file InitialMigration.Designer.cs is another autogenerated file that we should not have to modify. It stores details EF Core needs.

The final file SuncoastMoviesContextModelSnapshot.cs is .NET's overall view of the design of your database structure. This is the structure .NET will compare against when we make any future migrations. This file should not need to be edited.

You may also notice that your migration files start with a number such as: 20200417164221. This is a timestamp in the format Year-Month-Day-Hour-Minute-Second. This is important for a few reasons. The first reason is that migration order is important since some actions, for instance adding a column to a table, cannot be done before others, creating the table the column is being added too. The other reason is that it helps ensure there is not a name collision between multiple developers adding migrations.

Running the migration

To run the migration we will use another dotnet command. However, we must first recreate our database since we already manually added these tables. In the future we won't have to do this step since we'll only be using migrations to do database work.

For now let's make sure our database is clean by running command.

NOTE: This will remove all of our existing rows. So if you want that data, you can simply re-run the INSERT commands from the sql lessons again.

dropdb SuncoastMovies
createdb SuncoastMovies

Now that we know our database is empty of tables, as it would be had we started only from using EF Core migrations, we can run the command to apply the migrations to the database.

dotnet ef database update

This should run without errors. You may see output similar to this:

NOTE: If you have EF logging turned on you will also see the SQL commands being generated on your behalf.

Build started...
Build succeeded.
Applying migration '20200417164221_InitialMigration'.

You will notice that EF Core determined there was one migration to run and it was processed. If we go into our database with psql or pgcli we will see the following tables created!

| Schema | Name | Type | Owner |
| public | Actors | table | sdg |
| public | Movies | table | sdg |
| public | Ratings | table | sdg |
| public | Roles | table | sdg |
| public | __EFMigrationsHistory | table | sdg |

Notice we have our four tables we expected, but also an additional table, __EFMigrationsHistory. This table is what EF Core uses to keep track of which migrations have been processed into the system so far.

If we were to run this SQL statement:

select * from "__EFMigrationsHistory";

We would see an output similar to:

| MigrationId | ProductVersion |
| 20200417164221_InitialMigration | 3.1.3 |

The timestamp for your migration may be different as well as the ProductVersion. This table keeps an accounting of what migrations have been run so far.

Let's run our dotnet ef database update again to see that it is smart enough not to run the migration a second time.

> dotnet ef database update
Build started...
Build succeeded.
No migrations were applied. The database is already up to date.

Yes, we get a message No migrations were applied. The database is already up to date.

Now that we have an initial structure for our database, let's try adding a property/column to an existing model.

Adding a migration that changes an existing model

Let's add a boolean property to our Actor model to indicate if they are members of SAG-AFTRA. We'll call this field ScreenActorsGuildMember. The first step is to add this property to our model.

class Actor
public int Id { get; set; }
public string FullName { get; set; }
public DateTime Birthday { get; set; }
// Adding this field
public bool ScreenActorsGuildMember { get; set; }
// This is the related list of roles we an use (if properly used with Include)
public List<Role> Roles { get; set; }

Once we have added the field to the POCO class we can run the dotnet ef migrations add command again.

dotnet ef migrations add AddScreenActorsGuildMemberToActor

Notice we have given the migration a name that matches the work that we have done, in this case adding a property/column to a model/table.

After generating the migration we see a new file in the Migrations folder: 20200417183648_AddScreenActorsGuildMemberToActor.cs:

using Microsoft.EntityFrameworkCore.Migrations;
namespace SuncoastMovies.Migrations
public partial class AddScreenActorsGuildMemberToActor : Migration
protected override void Up(MigrationBuilder migrationBuilder)
name: "ScreenActorsGuildMember",
table: "Actors",
nullable: false,
defaultValue: false);
protected override void Down(MigrationBuilder migrationBuilder)
name: "ScreenActorsGuildMember",
table: "Actors");

In the Up migration we see code added to AddColumn to the Actors table that is a <bool>.

Now that we have:

  • Added the property to the model
  • Run the dotnet ef migrations add command and given it a good descriptive name
  • Reviewed the migration Up to make sure it captures the change we expected

we can run the dotnet ef database update command to have that column appear in our database.

dotnet ef database update


Build started...
Build succeeded.
Applying migration '20200417183648_AddScreenActorsGuildMemberToActor'.


This process of making small incremental additions to our POCOs, generating migrations, and applying them will repeat continuously through the development cycle. We often do not know, at the start of our project, all the requirements and all of the data we will need. Migrations give us a way to iterate on the design of our database structure and keep a history of the work that was done. As we build full stack applications we will be using EF Core and migrations to our advantage.

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