History and provenance tracking

CATMAID keeps track of all changes to its database tables. If a database row is changed, all old values will be stored in a so called history table together with a time range representing the datas validity. This time period is represented by the half-open interval [start, end) for which a row is valid starting from time point start and is valid until (but not including!) end. Keeping track of changes is managed entirely by the database. Besides disabling or enabling history tracking, the only thing Django can change, is providing a label for the current transaction, which is useful to give some semantics to a set of database changes. Currently, all CATMAID tables except treenode_edge and a few others are versioned, which can typically be regenerated. CATMAID also keeps track of changes in most non-CATMAID tables, that is the tables used by Django and Django applications we use, except for asynchronous task related Celery and Kombu.

History tables

Each versioned table has a so called history table associated, indicated by the __history suffix (e.g. project and project__history). A convenient view that includes live and history data, is available with the __with_history suffix. This is simply a union between both tables. A double underscore is used to minimize collisions with existing names. This history table is populated automatically through database triggers: whenever data in a live table is updated or deleted, the history table will be be updated. It contains a complete copy of every historic version of each row and specifies a time period for its validity. This time period is called “system time” and is represented through the additional sys_period column in each history table. This time range spans typically the time of the last edition (or creation) to the time of change. If a live table doesn’t store such a start time stamp, a separate 1:1 tracking table, which keeps track of editions, is created and managed. Such tracking tables are named like the original table plus the suffix __tracking.

CATMAID’s history system has one requirement for tables it keeps track of: a single column primary key has to be used. Extending it to support multi-column primary keys is possible, not needed at the moment.

By default, all tables of CATMAID itself plus the user table (a Django table) are set up to track history. To enable this for other tables (e.g. if new tables are added), the database function create_history_table( live_table ) can be used. This will create the history table and sets up all required triggers. Likewise, there is a drop_history_table( live_table ) function, which makes sure a history table and triggers are removed cleanly if this is wanted. The table catmaid_history_table keeps track of all currently active history tables.

Transaction log

Each endpoint of the CATMAID API that changes data is supposed to leave a log entry in the transaction log. This way, database changes can be associated with a particular back-end operation. Like explained in the contributor documentation, data changing endpoints in urls.py are wrapped in a record_view decorator, which is parameterized with a label. This label is used by the back-end to find affected tables of a change.

Disabling history tracking

While history tracking is important and in most situations desirable, there are a few situations where it would beneficial to disable it (e.g. some database maintenance tasks, potentially more performance). To do this the setting HISTORY_TRACKING can be set to False, i.e. add the following line to the settings.py file:


With the next restart of CATMAID, history tracking will be disabled. Likewise, it can be enabled again by setting HISTORY_TRACKING = True (or removing the line). If the history system is enabled after it was disabled (i.e. database triggers have to be created), all tracking tables are updated to match the live data again.

Schema migration

In case there are schema changes to any of the tracked live tables, the history tables have to be changed as well and triggers have to be regenerated. Every column change of a table has to be reflected in the history triggers and tables. Ideally, this would be implemented with DDL triggers in Postgres, which is currentl only possible using a custom C extension. Because this would make CATMAID harder to install, this history table update involves some manual work when creating database migrations that change table columns. Before the actual migration can happen, the history system has to be disabled:

SELECT disable_history_tracking_for_table('<table-name>'::regclass,
SELECT drop_history_view_for_table('<table-name>'::regclass);

Depending on how the columns are changed, different scenarios are expected to happen:

  • If a column is added, a new history table column is added.

  • If a column is removed, the equivalent history table column is removed as well.

  • If a column is renamed, no copy is performed and the renaming is applied directly to the history table.

  • If the data type of a column changes, the history table column data should be updated to the new data type as well, if possible. If the original data needs to be preserved, the original history column is renamed (append first free “_n” suffix) and the new column is added. If no information loss is present (e.g. float to double), the original history column should however just be changed without backup to save storage space.

After both the live table and the history table have been updated, history tracking has to be enabled again:

SELECT create_history_view_for_table('<table-name>'::regclass);
SELECT enable_history_tracking_for_table('<table-name>'::regclass,
        get_history_table_name('<table-name>'::regclass), FALSE);

In addition to column changes on existing tables, operations on whole tables are handled like this:

  • If a table is removed, the history table and history triggers need to be removed as well:

    SELECT disable_history_tracking_for_table('<table-name>'::regclass,
    SELECT drop_history_view_for_table('<table-name>'::regclass);
    SELECT drop_history_table('<table-name>'::regclass);
  • If a table is added and its history should be tracked, history tracking has to be enabled for it. To do this, call SELECT create_history_table( <tablename>::regclass,  <timecolumn>, <txidcolumn> );, with <timecolumn> being an edit reference time and <txidcolumn> being a column tracking a row’s transaction ID. For most CATMAID tables those parameters are 'edition_time' and 'txid', respectively. If both <timecolumn> and <txid> are NULL, a tracking table will be created automatically. Only providing one of the two is currently not supported. To let CATMAID know if you expect this table to have a history table, add the table to the appropriate list in the HistoryTableTest class. This way you can also mark a table as not versioned.

  • If a live table is renamed, the history table is not renamed automatically, use the function history_table_name(<tablename>::regclass) to create the new name.