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What Is Hibernate

by James Elliott, author of Hibernate: A Developer's Notebook
Hibernate is a free, open source Java package that makes it easy to work with relational databases. Hibernate makes it seem as if your database contains plain Java objects like you use every day, without having to worry about how to get them out of (or back into) mysterious database tables. It liberates you to focus on the objects and features of your application, without having to worry about how to store them or find them later.

This article discusses the following:

  1. History and Background
  2. How Hibernate Works
  3. When to Use Hibernate
  4. Learning More

History and Background

Most applications have some need to work with data. Java applications, when running, tend to encapsulate data as networks of interconnected objects, but those objects vanish in a puff of logic when the program ends, so there needs to be some way to store them. And sometimes the data is already "out there" before the application is even written, so there needs to be a way to read it in and represent it as objects. Writing code by hand to perform these tasks is tedious and error-prone, and can represent a major portion of the effort involved in the overall application.

As good object-oriented developers got tired of this repetitive work, their typical tendency towards enlightened laziness started to manifest itself in the creation of tools to help automate the process. When working with relational databases, the culmination of such efforts were object/relational mapping tools.

There have been a variety of such tools, ranging from expensive commercial offerings to the EJB standards built into J2EE. In many cases, however, the tools introduce their own complexity, force the developer to learn detailed rules for using them, and to modify the classes making up their applications to conform to the needs of the mapping system. As the tools evolved to handle ever more rigorous and complex enterprise requirements, the intricacies required to use them started to overwhelm the savings you could obtain by doing so in simpler, common cases. This has led to something of a revolution favoring more lightweight solutions, of which Hibernate is an example.

How Hibernate Works

Hibernate doesn't get in your way; nor does it force you to change the way your objects behave. They don't need to implement any magical interfaces in order to be blessed with the ability to persist. All you need to do is create an XML "mapping document" telling Hibernate the classes you want to be able to store in a database, and how they relate to the tables and columns in that database, and then you can ask it to fetch data as objects, or store objects as data for you. Compared to most of the alternatives, it's almost magical.

Related Reading

Hibernate: A Developer's Notebook
By James Elliott

There isn't room in an introductory article like this to work through a concrete example of building and using a Hibernate mapping document (that's what the first couple of chapters in my Hibernate: A Developer's Notebook are for, after all). And there are some good examples already on the Web and in the Hibernate online documentation; see "Learning More," on page 2. It really is straightforward, though. Properties in the application objects are associated with appropriate database structures in a simple, natural way.

At runtime, Hibernate reads the mapping document and dynamically builds Java classes to manage the translation between the database and Java worlds. There is a simple, intuitive API in Hibernate to perform queries against the objects represented by the database. To change those objects you just interact with them normally in the program, and then tell Hibernate to save the changes. Creating new objects is similarly simple; you just create them in the normal way and tell Hibernate about them so they can get stored to the database.

The Hibernate API is simple to learn and interacts quite naturally with the flow of your program. You invoke it in sensible places, and it does what you'd like it to. The benefits it brings in terms of automation and code savings greatly outweigh the short time it takes to learn. And you get an additional bonus in that your code doesn't care (or even have to know) what kind of database you're using. My company has had projects forced to change database vendors late in the development process. This can be a horrible mess, but with Hibernate it has required nothing more than a single change to the Hibernate configuration file.

This discussion has assumed that you already had a relational database set up, as well as Java classes to map, through the creation of the Hibernate mapping document. There is a Hibernate "toolset" that works at build time to support different workflows. For example, if you've got the Java classes and mapping document, Hibernate can create (or update) the necessary database tables for you. Or, starting with just the mapping document, Hibernate can generate the data classes for you, too. Or it can reverse engineer your database and classes to sketch out a mapping document for you. There are also some alpha plugins for Eclipse to provide intelligent editing support and graphical access to these tools right from within the IDE.

If you're in a Hibernate 2 environment, fewer of these tools are provided, but there are third-party options available.

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