There’s just something about datalog.

This blog post about is about a very lightweight encoding of datalog to SQLite. SQLite bindings exist in nearly every language so this light embedding makes it very easy to make a pretty decent datalog in any language of your choice.

If you want to know what you can do with datalog, I’ve got a pile of stuff here

I’ve previously explored using stock SQL engines to power a datalog in these posts:

But I think this is the cleanest encoding yet. Part of the trick is a strategic retreat on the definition of datalog.

There are a few impedance mismatches between SQL and datalog. These are the crucial features we cannot retreat on:

  • Recursion/Fixpoint support. This is part of the point of datalog. SQL has a feature recursive common table expressons which is clunky and limited. An important part of supporting the fixpoint is supporting the seminaive optimization, where highly redundant work is not done.
  • Set vs Bag (multiset) semantics. As noted in previous posts, the clean way to fix this in SQLite is to declare a table with all columns as primary keys CREATE TABLE edge(x,y, PRIMARY KEY (x,y)); and use INSERT INTO OR IGNORE

These differences are less crucial:

  • Nonlinear vs Linear patterns. Datalog allows us to bind variables twice as an implicit equality constraint like in edge(x,y),path(y,z). SQL does not.
  • Named vs Unnamed style (See section 3.2 of the Alice book). SQL allows you to bind variables to rows (FROM mytable AS myrow) and refers to columns by label ( Datalog conventionally binds variables to entries mytable(foo_entry,bar_entry) and refers to columns by order.

Transforming Datalog to SQLog

So let’s first take a datalog program and show how to rewrite it to strip out the less crucial differences such that it is easier to translate to SQL.

Transitivity Query

To talk concretely, here is the (yawn. I kid. I love it.) transitive closure program for souffle datalog expressing reachability in a graph.

.decl edge(a : number, b : number)
.decl path(a : number, b : number)
edge(1,2). edge(2,3). edge(3,4).
path(x,y) :- edge(x,y).
path(x,z) :- edge(x,y), path(y,z).
.output path(IO=stdout)

/* Output:
a       b
1       2
1       3
1       4
2       3
2       4
3       4

Step 1: Linearize the Pattern Variables

A useful datalog normal form is to make sure every variable is bound only once and use explicit = to create constraints instead. Let’s call this linear normal form.

In the above, path(x,z) :- edge(x,y), path(y,z). becomes path(x,z) :- edge(x,y), path(y1,z), y = y1.

This transformation is useful because many languages do not offer nonlinear patterns. For example, this transformation is needed in the for-loop interpretation of rules.

for (x,y) in edge:
    for (y1,z) in path:
        if y == y1:
            yield (x,z)

If we used the variable y twice, we shadow it instead of filter on it. This is not what is intended.

for (x,y) in edge:
    for (y,z) in path:
        yield (x,z)

I can’t help but mention here the cute generator form which really syntactically looks like a rule

edge = {(1,2), (2,3)}
path = set()
for i in range(10):
    path |= {(x,y) for x,y in edge} # path(x,y) :- edge(x,y).
    path |= {(x,z) for x,y in edge for y1, z in path if y == y1} #path(y,z) :- edge(x,y), path(y,z).

Step 2: Recordifying

Now that we’ve normalized out the nonlinear patterns, the next transformation is to replace binding variables to entries with instead binding variables to rows.

We can show this record convention in souffle. We make a record type to encode the full row and now we bind variables edge0 and path0 to this full row record and extract its fields.

.type row = [a : number, b : number]

.decl edge(r : row)
.decl path(r : row)
edge([1,2]). edge([2,3]). edge([3,4]).
path(r) :- edge(r).
path([x,z]) :- edge(edge0), path(path0), edge0 = [x,y], path0 = [y1,z], y = y1.
.output path(stdout=IO)

This is a very bad thing to do in Souffle, because it completely subverts Souffle’s indexing mechanisms. There is no conceptual issue however.

Souffle so happens to not have field accessor notation, but does have structural pattern matching. This is not fundamental. If Souffle had dot accessor notation the interesting rule would look like

path([edge0.a,path0.b]) :- edge(edge0), path(path0), edge0.b = path0.a.

It’s SQL time

Ok, so Judo move #1: just write your datalog program in the above form in the first place.

“Standard” Datalog is not god given really. The design point we are at is a perfectly reasonable (interesting even), record-centric, column-named, linear patterned datalog.

This SQLog isn’t that much worse than regular datalog and the compilation burden of doing these translations is not worth it unless you’re writing a lot of datalog and willing to maintain a significant library.

It’s admittedly a little ugly and brings us further from looking like conventional first order logic. If you really insist on the features of standard datalog, you can add them one by one. I have shown how to do so in the previous blog posts.

Now it is easy to translate to SQL mechanically as a lightweight design pattern or library and to retain the essential points of set semantics, fixpoint calculation, and the seminaive optimization.

Naive SQL translation

It is simple to translate a single application of a rule to a SQL statement.

  • The head of a rule path(edge0.a,path0.b) becomes INSERT OR IGNORE INTO path SELECT edge0.a, path0.b
  • The body of the rule gets split into a binding part and a filtering part. path(path0), edge(edge0) becomes FROM path AS path0, edge AS edge0 and edge0.b = path0.a goes into a WHERE edge0.b = path0.a clause.

The SQLite UPSERT semantics give us the set semantics of datalog without explicit deduplication statements. We enable it by defining tables with every column as a primary key CREATE TABLE edge(a INTEGER, b INTEGER, PRIMARY KEY (a,b)); and by using INSERT OR IGNORE INTO which will not insert new tuples if they violate the primary key constraint.

Here is a SQL program to runs each rule once.

CREATE TABLE edge(a INTEGER, b INTEGER, PRIMARY KEY (a,b)); -- .decl edge(x : number, y : number)
CREATE TABLE path(a INTEGER, b INTEGER, PRIMARY KEY (a,b)); -- .decl path(x : number, y : number)

VALUES (1,2),(2,3),(3,4); -- edge(1,2). edge(2,3). edge(3,4).

-- path(X,Y) :- edge(X,Y).
INSERT OR IGNORE INTO path SELECT DISTINCT edge0.a, edge0.b   -- the head of the rule gives the insert and select fields  
FROM edge as edge0; -- The body of the rule gives FROM and WHERE  

-- path(x,z) :- edge(x,y), path(y,z).
INSERT OR IGNORE INTO path SELECT DISTINCT edge0.a, path0.b   -- the head of the rule gives the insert and select fields  
FROM edge as edge0, path as path0
WHERE edge0.b = path0.a; -- The body of the rule gives FROM and WHERE  

Embedding Naive Evaluation in SQLite Python

In order to actually compute the fixpoint, we need to repeatedly apply these queries. It is convenient to do the outer loop in a normal programming language. Python is not an essential choice, but it is familiar and convenient. SQLite ships in the standard library of python for example. The same thing can easily be done in the language of your choosing.

import sqlite3

class Rule():
  def __init__(self, head, selects, froms , where="TRUE"):
    from_str = ", ".join(f"{table} AS {row}" for table,row in froms)
    self.sql = f"""
    INSERT OR IGNORE INTO {head} SELECT DISTINCT {selects}  -- head
    FROM {from_str}  -- body
    WHERE ({where})  -- body
  def execute(self,cur):

# Convenience function for creating set semantics tables.
def create_rel(cur, name, *fields):
  fields = ", ".join(fields)
  sql = f"CREATE TABLE {name}({fields}, PRIMARY KEY ({fields}))" # set semantics

con = sqlite3.connect(":memory:") # in memory database. Faster maybe?
cur = con.cursor()
create_rel(cur, "edge", "a", "b")
create_rel(cur, "path", "a", "b")

base = Rule("path", "edge0.a, edge0.b",
                     [("edge", "edge0")])
trans = Rule("path", "edge0.a, path0.b",
                     [("path", "path0"), ("edge", "edge0")],
                     where="edge0.b = path0.a")

ruleset = [base, trans]
cur.executemany("insert into edge values (?, ?)", [(1,2), (2,3), (3,4)])
# The "fixpoint"
# punt on actually performing fixpoint until the next section
for i in range(10):
    for rule in ruleset:
print("path", cur.execute("select * from path").fetchall())
print("edge", cur.execute("select * from edge").fetchall())

Basically the complicated looking format strings are just constructing the SQL queries above for you. I made the choice that the selects and where parameters are just pasted in SQL expressions, since their interiors are not important. This is a slightly odd thing to do to some people’s taste, so perhaps you’d prefer to take in a python list of expressions and join them on , and AND. To each their own.

Also note that SQL string pasting is not safe to expose to external users on say a web endpoint. That’s how you get SQL injection attacks.

Simple Seminaive with Rowid Timestamps

The essential idea of seminaive iteration is that in order to derive something new, a rule must select at least one new tuple to work on. Typically, you do this by maintaining a delta per relation of changes since the last iteration. One iteration is one application of all the rules.

One way of organizing an embedded datalog is to make a master database object db that remembers all the bits of metadata you may need, like delta relations, rules, and timestamps and organizes each iteration.

However, a nice way of separating concerns is to make rule objects that maintain their own timestamp state. Now rules do not need to know about the existence of other rules, nor of any relation they do not touch.

Generalized Seminaive

I was discussing wth Langston Barrett their sqlite/duckdb based datalog and they mentioned that they were using timestamps to achieve seminaive. Really that correspondance inspired writing this entire post.

It has come up before on egg-smol that there is a generalization of seminaive where you don’t need to structure your execution into iterations. This can can be done if you maintain timestamps. The timestamps are stored per rule. You can filter the rule’s query such that there must be at least one tuple since the last timestamp it was executed. Now you can run the rules in any order you want and maintain correctness.

Rowid Filtering Where Clauses

SQLite has a very cute feature of rowids. Every row has an implicit unique id unless you explicitly turn this feature off. And in fact these ids monotonically increase inside a single table. By using this feature for our timestamps rather than adding a custom timestamp field, the impedance mismatch between the SQL and datalog worlds is reduced.

While the most familiar timestamps we may be familiar with are a unix time, or an iteration number, timestamps with more structure are really interesting and useful. A vector timestamp of the SQLite database can be made that is a tuple of the maximum rowids of every table. In principle this timestamp is not totally ordered, but because SQLite is sequentialized, no incomparable timestamps will ever be produced (I think). As an aside, it is interesting to consider what might happen or how to deal with it if this is not the case.

Typically seminaive is treated by splitting each rule into many rules with a different instance of a body relation replaced with it’s delta version in each. For example a(x) :- b(x),c(x). gets split into two rules new_a(x) :- delta_b(x), c(x). & new_a(x) :- b(x), delta_c(x).. However, using rowids, we can place the constraint of having one new tuple instead in the WHERE clause, which is both simpler to write and possibly more efficient. The more we push into the database engine, the better off we are.

The clause is a giant OR of the different ways we might include a new tuple.

WHERE (row1.rowid > timestamp1 OR row2.rowid > timestamp2 OR row3.rowid > timestamp3 ...)


Here is an extension of the above python to record and filter on the timestamps. The rule object maintains the most recent timestamp upon which the rule was run.

class Rule():
  def __init__(self, head : str, selects, froms , where="TRUE"):
    from_str = ", ".join(f"{table} AS {row}" for table,row in froms)
    seminaive_filter_str = " OR ".join( f"{row}.rowid > ?" for _,row in froms ) 
    self.sql = f"""
    INSERT OR IGNORE INTO {head} SELECT DISTINCT {selects}  -- head
    FROM {from_str}  -- body
    WHERE ({where})  -- body
    AND ({seminaive_filter_str})  -- seminaive

    self.timestamp = tuple(-1 for _ in froms)
    select_str = ", ".join(f"MAX({row}.rowid)" for _,row in froms)

    # This query updates the timestamp vector to the latest frontier
    self.ts_query = f""" 
    SELECT {select_str} FROM {from_str} 

  def execute(self,cur):
    ts = self.timestamp # the last time this rule was run
    self.timestamp = cur.execute(self.ts_query).fetchone() # update timestamp
    cur.execute(self.sql, ts) 

def fixpoint(cur, ruleset):
  done = False
  while not done:
    done = True
    for rule in ruleset:
      old_ts = rule.timestamp 
      done &= old_ts == rule.timestamp # if timestamp has changed, we've got a new tuple.
def create_rel(cur, name, *fields):
  fields = ", ".join(fields)
  sql = f"CREATE TABLE {name}({fields}, PRIMARY KEY ({fields}))" # set semantics

import sqlite3
con = sqlite3.connect(":memory:")
cur = con.cursor()
create_rel(cur,"edge", "a", "b") #.decl edge
create_rel(cur,"path", "a", "b") #.decl path

# path(x,y) :- edge(x,y).
base = Rule("path", "edge0.a, edge0.b",
                     [("edge", "edge0")])
# path(x,z) :- edge(x,y), path(y,z).
trans = Rule("path", "edge0.a, path0.b",
                     [("path", "path0"), ("edge", "edge0")],
                     where="edge0.b = path0.a")
ruleset = [base, trans]

# edge(1,2). edge(2,3). edge(3,4).
cur.executemany("INSERT INTO edge VALUES (?, ?)", [(1,2), (2,3), (3,4)])

print("path", cur.execute("SELECT * FROM path").fetchall())
print("edge", cur.execute("SELECT * FROM edge").fetchall())

Bits and Bobbles

In addition, if we track the timestamps of the head before and after rule application and record them in a list, we get a lightweight provenance mechanism for free similae to the one explained here. This timestamp list get an explicit representation of which ranges of tuple were derived by this rule application (those with rowid between the timestamps occurring before and after the rule application) and when. When the time comes to figure out how a partcular tuple was derived, these breadcrumbs are enough to make the reconstruction search-free.

Swapping in duckdb. Duckdb recently gained upsert semantics .

Is running datalog on postgres interesting? The chase on postgres?

Model checking using SQL.

Another database trick I love is Tombstones. Is there a list of stuff like timestamps and tombstones somewhere?

Constraint Handling rules

C datalog. I was trying to reduce the compilation burden from datalog to SQL.

Compositional Sql statements with type semantics = select * from * where

Langston pointed out:

  • Dynamism in the ability of sqlite to make it’s query plan at runtime is one reason to be hopeful for perforamnce relative to souffle

Stratification of rulesets. You can avoid some unnecessary work… Wait… Is there even a point to this? The timestamps means that probably running a rule is negligible. Well, that was true in regular seminaive too. Hmm.

One really wants to reuse the engineering and ecosystem behind mature SQL engines but also clean and predictable interoperation of the Datalog world with SQL is really useful. Part of the point of this exercise is that sometimes one wants to break out of the rigid conventions of datalog to do something bespoke and interesting. SQL gives you a lot of less principled but powerful imperative control over the database.

It s desirable for the translation to SQL tables to not be confusing and weird. If I need to store extra metadata in the relations, then it can’t run over ordinary SQLite tables. They must be special tables and the abstraction is broken or I need a significant translation api between my datalog world and the regular SQL world.

I also want to full power of SQL available in the rules. This include for example interesting side conditions and subqueries, and built in functions. I tried to do this in the previous iteration In previous iterations

I also get very frustrated by deep embeddings. There is just so much bulk junk that mostly is unnecessary when you build and AST and interpret it away. A shallow embedding is lots of fun. You get to make fun little combinators and in future use one isn’t locked away.

The whole point of programming languages is what shallow embeddings they make possible. Everything is deep embeddeable in everything (turing complete). What is shallow is very different between languages. Different tools for different jobs.

We can either write a compiler to convert from regular datalog to spartan datalog or just write our programs in the spartan datalog to begin with. I’m a little inclined to the latter. It’s not that bad. The judo trick is to change what I mean by datalog. The essential point of datalog is the iterated fixpoint.

I did things the heavy handed obvious way. It isn’t that hard to do the appropriate unifications and carry the various compile time maps that connect datalog entities to SQL entities, and generate fresh symbols all over the place, but it was annoying and a little hacky and untrustworthy. It may be still worth doing as I think the niceties datalog offers are worth it if you’re going beyond just a handful of rules.

Arguably the above python is less clear than just writing out the SQL. But the subtle move is making Rule an object. Now the rule can track state. This is important when we go to treat seminaive.

Demonstrating the point of language independence, here is the same thing in ocaml.

#use "topfind";;
#require "sqlite3";;

(* Eh, you get the idea I hope. Maybe I'll finish this later. This is what bits and bobbles is for *)
let rule head select froms where = 
    let ts = ref ( (fun _ -> -1) body) in
    let sql = 
    fun cur ->
        let old_ts = !ts in
        Sqlite3.exec db sql
        ts := 
let create_rel name cols db = 
    Sqlite3.exec db "CREATE TABLE " ^ name ^ "()"

let () =
    let open Sqlite3 in
    let& db = Sqlite3.db_open ~memory:true ":memory:" in
    let () = Sqlite3.exec db "CREATE TABLE edge(a,b, PRIMARY KEY (a,b))" in
    let () = Sqlite3.exec db "CREATE TABLE path(a,b, PRIMARY KEY (a,b))" in