Gadfly Frequently Asked Questions




General information

The following topics are of a general nature.

What is gadfly?

Gadfly is a relational database management system which uses a large subset of very standard SQL as its query language and Python modules and optional Python/C extension modules as its underlying engine. Gadfly stores the active database in memory, with recovery logging to a file system. It supports an optional TCP/IP based client server mode and log based failure recovery for system or software failures (but not for disk failures).

What is the current version?

The current version is Gadfly 1.0. To be sure you have the current version, please consult the version number that comes in the documentation.

Gadfly 1.0 attempts to fix all known bugs in previous versions and adds a small number of features (hopefully without adding too many new bugs).

Why SQL and the relational model?

Gadfly is based in SQL and the relational model primarily because the SQL query language and the relational model have been highly successful, are highly standard, and are well understood by a large number of programmers. If you understand standard SQL you already know how to use Gadfly -- and this distinguishes Gadfly from many similar database systems out there -- even ones which aren't "really free."

Why Python?

Gadfly is based in Python because Python made the development of such a relatively sophisticated and standard SQL implementation feasible for one programmer, in his spare time, and also because it automatically made Gadfly portable to almost any computing platform. In addition, Gadfly can be used with Python to develop sophisticated data manipulation applications easily.

What is the License? Is it Free? Why?

Gadfly can be used and modified in source form for any purpose, including commercial purposes. There is no explicit or implied warrantee for Gadfly, even though it is intended to be useful. Gadfly is free because I wanted people to use it, and I suspected they wouldn't if it wasn't free and highly standard, and furthermore I didn't want to risk the possibility of legal responsibility if people did use it and had problems.

You mean I can bundle it into my own product for free? Really?

Yes. Please do. Several organizations have done so already.

Where does it run?

To run Gadfly you need (1) a file system and (2) Python. If Python runs on your platform Gadfly should run there too. I have not been able to verify that this version runs on the Macintosh yet (since the Mac apparently has some fairly nonstandard file system conventions), but even if it doesn't it should run after a few trivial adjustments. Please let me know if Gadfly doesn't run on any of your platforms.

Gadfly is expected to run "out of the box" on Windows 95/98, Windows NT, all Unices or unix like platforms (Solaris, IX, BSD, Irix, Linux) and anywhere else where Python runs and there is a filesystem (Windows CE, QNX, Mac, etcetera).

Furthermore the Gadfly database storage format (based in the Python marshal format) is binary compatible between all these systems -- you can create a database on any one of the systems and use a binary transfer mechanism to any other system and the database should load and run.

What are the software/hardware requirements?

Gadfly requires a Python installation and sufficient memory and disk on the target machine to store the live databases in question. Since live Gadfly databases are kept in memory during active use Gadfly is not appropriate for databases that approach the size of virtual memory. In practice this means that on modern inexpensive machines Gadfly can store and manipulate databases with tens of thousands of rows without difficulty. Unless your machine is large databases with millions of rows might be infeasible -- and even if memory is sufficient the loading and storing of the database might make startup and shutdown speed an issue. Many interesting database instances never approach this size.

Is there a query optimizer?

Yes, Gadfly automatically optimizes queries using some relatively sophisticated methods that attempt to take advantage of any available indices, among other methods. Technically all optimization uses only "equality predicates" at this time, so queries involving many inequalities (eg, BETWEEN) and few or no equalities might be slow, or might create very large intermediate results. Most standard database applications use equality constraints extensively (eg, as foriegn keys or relationships) but if your application is, say, a scientific application that requires many inequality comparisons across multiple tables among floating point data, the Gadfly optimizer may not help much -- you may want to load the data into your own structures and hand optimize the access and combination methods.

On the other hand, if your application uses equality predicates often enough you may find that the Gadfly optimizer does pretty well, perhaps better than a "hand coded home grown database" would do without a lot of work.

Is it fast?

You probably want a benchmark comparison. I have none to offer. The query evaluation and load/store facilities for Gadfly seem to be pretty fast for non-huge databases -- particularly if you make intelligent use of indices. At this point the slowest part is the SQL parser itself. If you use a lot of similar SQL statements please consult the documentation on how to avoid reparsing statements by use of multiple cursors and dynamic parameters.

Unverified anecdotal reports suggest that Gadfly is not noticably slower than other free or freeish portable database systems; some have suggested it can even be faster, at least for certain types of use.

The entire query engine is designed to use the kjbuckets Python C extension module, and use of kjbuckets should speed the performance of Gadfly considerably -- Gadfly will run without it, but noticably slower (2x slower for even small databases, more for larger ones).

Are there data size limitations?

There are no intrinsic limitations. For example a "varchar" can be of any size. That said, remember that a gadfly database, in the absense of hackery (eg, storing a filename instead of a value) stores all data in memory, so at some point large values may fill up virtual memory and the load/store operations can get slowish.

What about recovery after crashes?

Gadfly supports a log with deferred updates recovery procedure, together with commits and rollbacks. This means that if your program crashes or if your computer crashes it should be able to restore a Gadfly database to the state of the database at the point of the last "commit". Any remaining bugs in this area are likely to have to do with data definition statements ("create" or "drop") so be careful to commit and checkpoint after modifying the data definitions. Of course, there are no known bugs, but it is possibly that not all possible combinations have been tested (this area is quite subtle, unfortunately :( ). Please see the recovery documentation for more information.

What about client/server based access?

Gadfly supports a TCP/IP based client/server mode, together with a non-standard but highly flexible security paradigm for the server. Please see the client/server mode documentation.

What about concurrency control?

Gadfly does not have true concurrency control. The only safe way to allow two concurrent agents to modify a single database is to have both of them communicate with the database via a gadfly server that arbitrates database accesses. The server will serve each agent serially -- one at a time -- in separate transactions each committed immediately.

Of course, two programs can have read-only access to the same database in separate memory instances without any problems.

Is there a mailing list?

Not yet - there may be once sufficient volunteers put their hands up to help maintain the project.

Who uses it?

My email suggests that quite a few people have been using Gadfly, including professional and industrial organizations of various sorts. From my vantage point it is not clear how serious all of these uses have been -- but some of them appear quite serious. Gadfly has been included in a number of CD-rom publications, such as Linux distributions.

Zope Corporation includes gadfly in Zope.

Is support available?

Not at present. There may be once sufficient volunteers put their hands up to help maintain the project.

What are the plans for Gadfly?

At this point the current plan is to maintain the current implementation and fix any bugs that arise. Some time in the distant future (several months maybe) a new release with major new features might arrive, but only if the new features allow existing applications to run. Gadfly will support backwards compatibility of existing databases.

How do I contribute some code that uses Gadfly?

Please contact the project maintainers.


This section relates to the installation of Gadfly and connecting Gadfly to other software.

Does Gadfly support ODBC or JDBC?

Although the Gadfly SQL subset is based on the ODBC 2.0 SQL definition Gadfly does not support the C-level ODBC calling mechanism. All direct accesses to Gadfly must use Python modules at this time.

How can I move a Gadfly database instance from one location/machine to another?

A gadfly database instance as stored in a file system directory may be copied to another directory even on another machine using any binary file copy mechanism. You must copy all files relating to the database instance in the gadfly database directory to the destination, and be sure that if you are copying across different platforms to use a binary copy mechanism (eg, ftp in binary mode).

How can I access gadfly from another program?

The only supported API (applications program interface) for gadfly at this writing is the Python Database API either using direct access or via the client/server mechanism. Although you must use Python to access a gadfly database at this time it is possible to embed a Python instance in another program. Please see the Python documentation.

What database size limits are there?

As mentioned there are no intrinsic limits (eg, a varchar can be of any size) except for the limitations of memory and the possibility that the load/store mechanism may get too slow if the database grows too large.

What are the file types in the gadfly database directory?

  • *.grl -- a relation representation where * is the relation name.

  • *.brl -- a back-up relation representation (for possible recovery).

  • *.gfd -- a data definitions file where * is the database name.

  • *.bfd -- a back-up data definitions file (for possible recovery).

  • *.gfl -- a log file where * is the database name

  • *.glb -- a back-up log file (for possible recovery).

Using Gadfly

The following section relates to the use of gadfly.

Does Gadfly support virtual tables (VIEWS)? Quantifiers? EXISTS?

Aggregates? Groupings? Indices? Of course it does! Gadfly supports a very large SQL subset. See the additional documentation for more detailed information.

How standard is the SQL subset supported?

Gadfly SQL is based on ODBC 2.0 SQL which in turn is based on an SQL standard draft. This means that Gadfly SQL adheres closely to the SQL you find in many other database products and documented in many books and other documentation. A number of people have implemented Gadfly databases and transferred the SQL with few to no modifications from the implementation directly to Oracle or MS-Access, for example.

Are BLOBS (binary large objects) and arbitrary string values supported?

Yes, varchars have no intrinsic size limit and can be used to store marshalled or pickled Python BLOBS -- but the application using gadfly will have to know when to "deserialize" the objects (using marshal or pickle or other mechanisms). For example it is even possible to store Python byte code objects in a gadfly database in this way. In particular gadfly stores all strings, including strings with null bytes and newlines, but for such strings you must use dynamic parameters (or other mechanisms that avoid embedding the string directly into the SQL syntax), like:

s = chr(0)+chr(10)
cursor.insert("insert into table x(v) values (?)", (s,))


s = chr(0)+chr(10)
cursor.insert("insert into table x(v) values ('%s')" % (s,))

Since the SQL parser will choke on the latter.

How can I find the column names in a "select *"?

The nasty answer is "don't use select *", but if you really want to you can get the order of names for the columns from the description attribute for a cursor:

>>> from gadfly import gadfly
>>> g = gadfly("test", "dbtest")
>>> c = g.cursor()
>>> c.execute("select * from work")
>>> c.description
(('RATE', None, None, None, None, None, None), ('NAME', None, None, None,
None, None, None), ('HOURS', None, None, None, None, None, None))
>>> print c.pp()
40.2  | sam     | 30
10.2  | norm    | 45
5.4   | woody   | 80
4.4   | diane   | 3
12.9  | rebecca | 120
200.0 | cliff   | 26
3.5   | carla   | 9

IE, c.description[i][0] gives the name of the ith column. The query mechanism essentially randomizes the order of the columns in a select * and you cannot rely on the engine producing columns in any specific order unless you specify the order in the query explicitly.

Can I add my own table implementation?

Yes you can, to a limited extent. Use the remote view protocol in The table you add can extract information from any source but must not recursively query the same database instance (using a Python implementation) and place it into a Gadfly database either only once on first usage or once per query. The table added cannot be updated via SQL and you cannot load "only the part of the table you need for this query." The table added must be explicitly re-added during the database initialization on each usage, and if you implement the table incorrectly you may cause some gadfly queries to crash. Use with caution: this is an advanced feature. See

Why can't I update my own table implementation via SQL?

Although it is possible to create a protocol which allows non standard table implementations to be updated and optimized via SQL, the implications to the query optimization mechanism and the crash recovery strategy are not clear and may be quite subtle. At this time the implementation opts to avoid possible bugs by not supporting such features, although programmers are welcome to experiment at their own risk, with the understanding that their experimental modifications may not be supported in future releases.

It is perfectly possible to change the number of rows or values in no modifications from the implementations without using SQL or gadfly, however and have the updates automatically reflected in the table instance in the database. [You should not, however, change the number or names of the columns.]

For example gfintrospect.DictKeyValueView will "wrap" a Python dictionary as a gadfly table and automatically reflect modifications made by an external Python program to the dictionary.

How do you define a primary key?

New in 1.0 you can get the effect of a primary key by defining a unique index on the primary key columns:

create unique index pkey on person(firstname, lastname)

Effectively will enforce a primary key constraint for (firstname, lastname) on the person table.

What about NULLs, Triggers and other missing stuff?

The present release opted not to add missing standard or non-standard features that were likely to cause major modifications to large sections of the implementation, and therefore were likely to introduce bugs.

Where is the LIKE predicate?

The LIKE predicate for string matching is still not supported at the SQL level. For what it's worth, it is easy to use Python's string matching (regex, re,, etcetera) facilities on the result of a query. Also, for what it's worth, since the gadfly optimizer won't easily be able to optimize for string matching the "by hand" method would essentially be what gadfly would do anyway, without major modifications to the implementation.

After a crash Gadfly won't recover! Help!

This shouldn't happen, but did happen (at least once) for a previous release. If it happens again, you can explicitly delete the log files from the database directory in order to recover the database to a state which may or may not correspond to the state of the database at the second to last commit/checkpoint operation. It is possible, but not likely, that the database state will include some but not all updates from the last commit, but, to repeat, it shouldn't happen. Please report the problem if it occurs again.