Thursday, April 06, 2023

The Mystery of the NULL Values in a NOT NULL DATETIME MySQL Database Column

My development team at work yesterday picked up a task to investigate a error that was periodically showing up in our production logs:

NoMethodError: undefined method `>' for nil:NilClass

This is a common Ruby error that occurs when you try to call a method on a variable with a value of nil. In this case, the "method" in question was the greater-than operator, ">". 

The line of code associated with the error in question was actually a conditional evaluation that involved 3 separate ">" evaluations, which obscured the exact variable that was the source of the error a bit. 

Two of the three variables in question were attributes of an ActiveRecord model object whose associated database column was defined as NOT NULL. Those attributes were not being re-assigned after being read from the database, so we initially ruled them out as being the possible cause of the error.

However, further investigation revealed that none of the three variables on the problematic line of code could -- in theory -- possibly ever be null. Faced with this, I decided to take a closer look at the actual data in the database.

Our production environment is split into multiple MySQL databases. For purposes of conveniently being able to query customer data across databases all at once, we have an ETL process which extracts (non-sensitive) customer data from the source databases, and populates it all into a single central Snowflake SQL database. 

The database structure of the relevant table (Users) was similar to this (simplified for brevity):

  • id: INT, primary key
  • first_name: VARCHAR(255)
  • last_name: VARCHAR(255)
  • updated_at: DATETIME, NOT NULL

Temporarily putting common sense aside, I queried the snowflake database to see if any of the NOT NULL updated_at values were nevertheless null:

SELECT * FROM Users WHERE updated_at IS null

This returned 0 results, as expected. 

Acting on a hunch, I tried searching for unexpectedly old records; this database has been in service since about 2009:

SELECT * FROM Users WHERE updated_at < '2005-01-01'

This query did produce some results! Out of the tens of thousands of records in the Users table, a few hundred records were returned whose updated_at date was '1970-01-01 00:00' -- a value equal to the start of the epoch in Unix time

At this point I questioned: Does Ruby on Rails and/or ActiveRecord somehow treat start-of-epoch date values of '1970-01-01 00:00' at nil? This seemed unlikely, but I tested it anyway, setting the updated_at value for an existing record in my local machine's copy of the database to that start-of-epoch value; and then reading the record into the corresponding ActiveRecord model object. Not unexpectedly, the updated_at attribute on the model did not end up with a nil value; it had the expected value of midnight on January 1, 1970.

I still felt like I might be onto something here, though. At this point, I wanted to inspect the data in the actual MySQL customer database. I don't have access to the live database, but I was able to access a read-only replica of the database.

Having connected to that MySQL database, I verified that the updated_at column was still defined at NOT NULL; it was. I then ran the same query to look for old values:

SELECT * FROM Users WHERE updated_at < '2005-01-01'

As before, this returned a few records -- about 300. However, I noticed that the actual updated_at values were different. This time, they were returned as '0000-00-00 00:00'. 

Year "0", month "0", day "0" -- all nonexistent values. Feeling a bit of a chill, I re-ran my earlier query to look for records with null values:

SELECT * FROM Users WHERE updated_at IS null

MySQL returned the same 300 records

Cool, cool, coolcoolcool. The evidence indicated that (1) MySQL was allowing values of '0000-00-00 00:00' to be set on a DATETIME, NOT NULL column; and (2) despite the aforementioned NOT NULL restriction on the column, was evaluating such values as being null.

To close the loop, back on my local development machine's database, I set an existing record to the '0000-00-00 00:00' value -- which MySQL happily allowed -- and then, in the Rails console, populated a model object from the record. Sure enough: The updated_at attribute on the record had been assigned a value of nil.

Summary of findings

(1) In a Rails application (and possibly in other languages / frameworks as well), it may not be safe to assume that a value read from a DATETIME, NOT NULL column on a MySQL database is actually guaranteed not to be null. MySQL allows a value of '0000-00-00 00:00' to be set in such columns (despite the NOT NULL restriction); such values are treated as null both my MySQL itself, and by Rails / ActiveRecord.

(2) Although I'm not familiar with its inner workings, that the ETL process from the multiple production MySQL databases to consolidate data into a single Snowflake database couldn't 100.0% be trusted not to change data values. In this case, it silently converted MySQL DATETIME values of '0000-00-00 00:00' to values of '1970-01-01 00:00' 


Doing a bit of additional reading after the fact, I found a StackOverflow post that references a MySQL configuration mode of "NO_ZERO_DATE," which when set, prevents such "zero date values" from being set. 

According to the MySQL documentation, not setting that option may be "more convenient" and/or consume less space. Based on my team's experience here, though, I'd certainly be inclined to take advantage of that NO_ZERO_DATE setting whenever feasible!