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Model One-to-Many Relationships with Embedded Documents

Overview

This page describes a data model that uses embedded documents to describe a one-to-many relationship between connected data. Embedding connected data in a single document can reduce the number of read operations required to obtain data. In general, you should structure your schema so your application receives all of its required information in a single read operation.

Embedded Document Pattern

Consider the following example that maps patron and multiple address relationships. The example illustrates the advantage of embedding over referencing if you need to view many data entities in context of another. In this one-to-many relationship between patron and address data, the patron has multiple address entities.

In the normalized data model, the address documents contain a reference to the patron document.

// patron document
{
   _id: "joe",
   name: "Joe Bookreader"
}

// address documents
{
   patron_id: "joe", // reference to patron document
   street: "123 Fake Street",
   city: "Faketon",
   state: "MA",
   zip: "12345"
}

{
   patron_id: "joe",
   street: "1 Some Other Street",
   city: "Boston",
   state: "MA",
   zip: "12345"
}

If your application frequently retrieves the address data with the name information, then your application needs to issue multiple queries to resolve the references. A more optimal schema would be to embed the address data entities in the patron data, as in the following document:

{
   "_id": "joe",
   "name": "Joe Bookreader",
   "addresses": [
                {
                  "street": "123 Fake Street",
                  "city": "Faketon",
                  "state": "MA",
                  "zip": "12345"
                },
                {
                  "street": "1 Some Other Street",
                  "city": "Boston",
                  "state": "MA",
                  "zip": "12345"
                }
              ]
 }

With the embedded data model, your application can retrieve the complete patron information with one query.

Subset Pattern

A potential problem with the embedded document pattern is that it can lead to large documents, especially if the embedded field is unbounded. In this case, you can use the subset pattern to only access data which is required by the application, instead of the entire set of embedded data.

Consider an e-commerce site that has a list of reviews for a product:

{
  "_id": 1,
  "name": "Super Widget",
  "description": "This is the most useful item in your toolbox.",
  "price": { "value": NumberDecimal("119.99"), "currency": "USD" },
  "reviews": [
    {
      "review_id": 786,
      "review_author": "Kristina",
      "review_text": "This is indeed an amazing widget.",
      "published_date": ISODate("2019-02-18")
    },
    {
      "review_id": 785,
      "review_author": "Trina",
      "review_text": "Nice product. Slow shipping.",
      "published_date": ISODate("2019-02-17")
    },
    ...
    {
      "review_id": 1,
      "review_author": "Hans",
      "review_text": "Meh, it's okay.",
      "published_date": ISODate("2017-12-06")
    }
  ]
}

The reviews are sorted in reverse chronological order. When a user visits a product page, the application loads the ten most recent reviews.

Instead of storing all of the reviews with the product, you can split the collection into two collections:

  • The product collection stores information on each product, including the product’s ten most recent reviews:

    {
      "_id": 1,
      "name": "Super Widget",
      "description": "This is the most useful item in your toolbox.",
      "price": { "value": NumberDecimal("119.99"), "currency": "USD" },
      "reviews": [
        {
          "review_id": 786,
          "review_author": "Kristina",
          "review_text": "This is indeed an amazing widget.",
          "published_date": ISODate("2019-02-18")
        }
        ...
        {
          "review_id": 776,
          "review_author": "Pablo",
          "review_text": "Amazing!",
          "published_date": ISODate("2019-02-16")
        }
      ]
    }
    
  • The review collection stores all reviews. Each review contains a reference to the product for which it was written.

    {
      "review_id": 786,
      "product_id": 1,
      "review_author": "Kristina",
      "review_text": "This is indeed an amazing widget.",
      "published_date": ISODate("2019-02-18")
    }
    {
      "review_id": 785,
      "product_id": 1,
      "review_author": "Trina",
      "review_text": "Nice product. Slow shipping.",
      "published_date": ISODate("2019-02-17")
    }
    ...
    {
      "review_id": 1,
      "product_id": 1,
      "review_author": "Hans",
      "review_text": "Meh, it's okay.",
      "published_date": ISODate("2017-12-06")
    }
    

By storing the ten most recent reviews in the product collection, only the required subset of the overall data is returned in the call to the product collection. If a user wants to see additional reviews, the application makes a call to the review collection.

Tip

When considering where to split your data, the most frequently-accessed portion of the data should go in the collection that the application loads first. In this example, the schema is split at ten reviews because that is the number of reviews visible in the application by default.

See also

To learn how to use the subset pattern to model one-to-one relationships between collections, see Model One-to-One Relationships with Embedded Documents.

Trade-Offs of the Subset Pattern

Using smaller documents containing more frequently-accessed data reduces the overall size of the working set. These smaller documents result in improved read performance for the data that the application accesses most frequently.

However, the subset pattern results in data duplication. In the example, reviews are maintained in both the product collection and the reviews collection. Extra steps must be taken to ensure that the reviews are consistent between each collection. For example, when a customer edits their review, the application may need to make two write operations: one to update the product collection and one to update the reviews collection.

You must also implement logic in your application to ensure that the reviews in the product collection are always the ten most recent reviews for that product.

Other Sample Use Cases

In addition to product reviews, the subset pattern can also be a good fit to store:

  • Comments on a blog post, when you only want to show the most recent or highest-rated comments by default.
  • Cast members in a movie, when you only want to show cast members with the largest roles by default.