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How do I change a schema?

Glean supports modifying the schema directly, while providing backwards compatibility between existing clients and data across the schema change.

Basic rules

To preserve compatibility between clients and data, the schema can only be changed in compatible ways. This means:

  • Adding or removing a field from a record, if the field has a defaultable type (see Default values)
  • Adding or removing an alternative from a sum type
  • Adding or removing a predicate or type declaration

An example of an incompatible change would be changing the type of a field, for example from nat to bool.

Of course it's fine to make arbitrary changes to a schema that you're working on; the compatibility rules only come into effect when the schema is landed. From that point there might be existing clients and databases in use, so Glean will reject any incompatible schema changes.


When the schema is changed, Glean supports any combination of old or new clients (that is, clients built against the old or new version of the schema) with old or new data.

  • If the client requests a field that doesn't exist in the data, the field will be filled with its default value.
  • If a query matches on an alternative that doesn't exist in the schema, the match will fail.
  • If the data contains an alternative that doesn't exist in the client's schema, then the client will receive an unknown value (this is represented as an EMPTY constructor in the Thrift-generated datatypes).

Default values

A defaultable type is any type that is not a predicate. So for example, if P is a predicate type, then we could add a field f : maybe P but not a field f : P. The reason for this restriction is that Glean must be able to substitute a default value for the field when a client is using the new schema but the data is using the old schema, and there cannot be a default value for a predicate.

Default values for missing fields are determined according to the following table:

TypeDefault value
{ field₁ : T₁, ..., fieldₙ : Tₙ }{ field₁ = default(T₁), ..., fieldₙ = default(Tₙ) }
{ field₁ : T₁ | ... | fieldₙ : Tₙ }{ field₁ = default(T₁) }
maybe Tnothing
enum { name₁ | ... | nameₙ }name₁

What if my schema changes are incompatible?

If you don't care about backwards compatibility, then an easy workaround is to just bump the version of the whole schema, so for example if you have

schema graphql.1 {

then change it to

schema graphql.2 {

and make whatever changes you need. The new version of the schema is entirely separate from the old version as far as Glean is concerned, so there are no restrictions on what changes can be made.

If you want to retain some backwards compatibility, then you can add new predicates representing the new data. You have the option of

  1. Writing both the old and the new data to the database
  2. Producing two databases, one with the old data and one with the new data. The databases can be distinguished by different names or different properties.

With approach (1), you can migrate clients incrementally and then eventually stop producing the old data. But the downside of this approach is that the database may contain a lot more data than necessary; writing may take a lot longer, and so on.

With approach (2), you first have to ensure clients select the old database. Then as you migrate clients, change them to use the new data and select the new database at the same time.

How does it work?

A particular instance of the schema is identified by a SchemaId. This is a hash value computed from the full contents of the schema. The SchemaId of the current schema is available through the schema_id value exported by the builtin schema (the Glean.Schema.Builtin.Types module in Haskell).

The server keeps track of multiple instances of the schema in a schema index. Each instance of the schema is identified by its SchemaId. Each database also contains the schema that it was written with. The schema index is manipulated using the gen-schema tool in the Glean repository; to use a particular index we can use --schema indexfile:FILE or --schema indexconfig:CONFIG.

A client sends its SchemaId to the server in the schema_id field of the query. For Haskell clients this is done automatically: the client passes its SchemaId when initialising the Glean client library, and this SchemaId is passed on to the server for every query.

The server knows which schema the client is using, so it can translate the data in the database into the client's schema automatically.

When a database is created, the schema used by the database is chosen by the glean.schema_id property set by the client creating the database. Again for Haskell clients this happens automatically.

Evolving schemas

Glean also allows backwards-compatibility between co-existing schemas, which can be useful if you want to perform schema changes in a more explicit way, or to rename schemas.

The feature is enabled using a top-level directive

schema my_schema.2 evolves my_schema.1

This declaration has the effect of treating queries for my_schema.1 predicates as if they were for my_schema.2. That is the query results will be retrieved from the database in the shape of a my_schema.2 fact and transformed into a fact of the equivalent my_schema.1 predicate specified in the query.

The new schema must contain all the predicates of the old schema, either with new versions or old versions, and their definitions must be backwards compatible. We can achieve this by copying the entire content of the old schema into the new one and modifying it there.

Now what should Glean do when a client asks for a fact from an old schema?

  • Answer with db facts from the old schema
  • Answer with db facts from the new schema transformed into the old ones.

If there are no facts of the old schema in in the database we will take option 2. If the database has any fact at all of the old schema we choose option 1.

That is, schema evolutions only take effect if there are no facts of the old schema in the database; it is ignored otherwise.

As an example suppose we start with the following schemas:

schema src.1 {
predicate File {
path : string

schema os.1 {
import src.1

predicate Permissions {
file : File,
permissions : nat

schema info.1 {
import src.1

predicate IsTemporary {
file : File
} F where F = src.File { path = "/tmp".. }

Now we want to make a backward-compatible change to src.File and add an extension field. We could add this to the file:

schema src.2 {
predicate File {
path : string,
extension : string

schema src.2 evolves src.1

Now if the indexer is still producing only src.1 facts, all other predicates will work as before and queries for src.File.2 will return no results.

Once the indexer is changed to produce only src.2 facts queries like src.File.1 _ will be fulfilled using data from the src.2 schema, converting the src.File.2 results to the shape of src.File.1 before returning to the client.

This is also the case in the derivation query of info.IsTemporary. Although info imports src.1, the query will be transformed to use src.2 facts.

On the other hand, os.Permissions will be empty. This must be the case because its first field references a src.File.1 fact, of which there is none in the database. For this predicate to continue being available we must evolve its schema as well.

schema os.2 {             # changed
import src.2 # changed

predicate Permissions {
file : File,
permissions : nat

schema os.2 evolves os.1 # changed