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Single Table Inheritance

Joist supports Single Table Inheritance, which allows inheritance/subtyping of entities (like class Dog extends Animal), by automatically mapping multiple logical polymorphic entities (Dog, Cat, and Animal) into a single physical SQL table (animals).

Database Representation

For example, lets say we have a Dog entity and a Cat entity, and we want them to both extend the Animal entity.

For single table inheritance, we represent this in Postgres by having a single table: animals.

  • The animals table has all columns for Animals, Dogs, or Cats
  • A discriminator column, i.e. type_id, tells Joist whether a given row is a Dog or a Cat
    • We currently require the discriminator field to be an enum column
  • Any Dog-only columns are configured in joist-config.json
  • Any Cat-only columns are configured in joist-config.json
  • Any Dog- or Cat-only columns must be nullable

Thejoist-config.json might look like:

"entities": {
"Animal": {
"fields": {
"type": { "stiDiscriminator": { "DOG": "Dog", "CAT": "Cat" } },
"canBark": { "stiType": "Dog" },
"canMeow": { "stiType": "Cat", "stiNotNull": true }
"tag": "a"
"DogPack": {
"relations": {
"leader": { "stiType": "Dog" }
"tag": "dp"

Entity Representation

When joist-codegen sees the above joist-config.json setup, Joist will ensure that the Dog model extends the Animal model.

Note that because of the codegen entities, it will actually end up looking like:

// in Dog.ts
class Dog extends DogCodegen {
// any custom logic

// in DogCodegen.ts
abstract class DogCodegen extends Animal {
can_bark: boolean;

// in Animal.ts
class Animal extends AnimalCodegen {
// any custom logic

// in AnimalCodegen.ts
abstract class AnimalCodegen extends BaseEntity {
name: string;

And when you load several Animals, Joist will automatically read the type_id column and create the respective subtype:

const [a1, a2] = await em.loadAll(Animal, ["a:1", "a:2"]);
// If a1 was saved as a dog, it will be a Dog
// if a2 was saved as a cat, it will be a Cat

SubType Configuration

Due to STI's lack of schema-based encoding (see Pros/Cons section below), you may often need to manually configure the joist-config.json to give Joist hints about "which subtype" a given relation should be.

For example, instead of the DogPack.leader relation (from the dog_packers.leader_id FK) being typed as Animal (which is the animals table that the leader_id FK points to in the database schema), you want it to be typed as Dog because you know all DogPack leader's should be Dogs.

These hints in joist-config.json generally look like:

  1. Adding an stiDiscriminator mapping to the type field that Joist will use to know "which subtype is this?"
  2. Adding stiType: "Dog" or stiType: "Cat" to any field (like canBark or canMeow) in the animals table that should be limited to a specific subtype
    • The value of "Dog" or "Cat" should match a name in the stiDiscriminator mapping
    • Currently, we only support a field being in a single subtype
  3. Adding stiNotNull: true to any fields that you want Joist to enforce as not null
    • For example, if you want canMewo to be required for all Cats, you can add stiNotNull: true to the canMeow field
    • Without an explicit stiNotNull set, we assume subtype fields are nullable, which is how they're represented in the database
    • See the "Pros/Cons" section later for why this can't be encoded in the database
  4. On any FKs that point to your base type, add stiType: "SubType" to indicate that the FK is only valid for the given subtype.
    • See the DogPack example in the above example config

Tagged Ids

Currently, subtypes share the same tagged id as the base type.

For example, returns a:1 because the Dog's base type is Animal, and all Animals (regardless of whether they're Dogs or Cats) use the a tag.

Abstract Base Types

If you'd like to enforce that base type is abstract, i.e. that users cannot instantiate Animal, they must instantiate either a Dog or Cat, then you can mark Animal as abstract in the joist-config.json file:

"entities": {
"Animal": {
"tag": "a",
"abstract": true

You also need to manually update the Animal.ts file to make the class abstract:

export abstract class Animal extends AnimalCodegen {}

After this, Joist will enforce that all Animals must be either Dogs or Cats.

For example, if an em.load(Animal, "a:1") finds a row only in the animals table, and no matching row in the dogs or cats table, then the em.load method will fail with an error message.

Pros/Cons to Single Table Inheritance

Between Single Table Inheritance (STI) and Class Table Inheritance (CTI), Joist generally recommends using CTI over STI for the following reasons:

  1. With CTI, the database schema makes it obvious what the class hierarchy should be.

    Given the schema itself already has the per-type fields split out (into separate tables), there is very little configuration for CTI, and instead the generated entities are basically "automatically correct".

    With STI, this schema-based encoding does not exist, so we have to configure items like the discriminator value, and which fields belong to which subtype, in the joist-config.json. This is doable, but tedious.

  2. With CTI, the schema is safer, because the subtype-only columns can have not-null constraints.

    With STI, if we want can_bark to be required for all Dogs, we cannot use a can_bark boolean NOT NULL in the schema, because the animals table will also have Cat rows that fundamentally don't have can_bark values.

    Instead, we have to indicate in joist-config.json that Joist should enforce model-level not-null constraints, which is okay, but not as good as database-level enforcement.

  3. With CTI, we can have foreign keys point directly to subtypes.

    For example, we could have a DogPack entity with a dog_packs.leader_id foreign key that references the dogs subtype table, and so points only to Dogs, and is fundamentally unable to point to Cats (even at the database level, this is enforced b/c the dogs table will not have any ids of Cat entities).

    With STI, it's not possible in the database to represent/enforce that FKs are only valid for a specific subtype (dog_packs.leader_id can only point to the animals table).

That said, the pro of STI is that you don't need LEFT OUTER JOINs to load entities (see the CTI docs), b/c all data for all subtypes is a single table.

When to Choose STI/CTI

To application code, the STI and CTI approach can look near identical, because both approaches result in the same Dog, Cat, and Animal type hierarchy.

But, generally Joist recommends:

  • Use CTI when the polymorphism is an integral part of your domain model, i.e. you have "true" Cat and Dog entities as separate concepts you want to model in your domain
  • Use STI when the polymorphism is for a transient implementation detail, i.e. migrating your Cat model to a CatV2 model.

And, either way, use both approaches judiciously; in a system of 50-100 entities, you should probably be using CTI/STI only a handful of times.