Python: SQLAlchemy ORM versus Raw SQL

I was reading this blog post [] about SQLAlchemy and how to run queries using its Object Relational Mapper (ORM). It is a very good intruduction to the pythonic ORM way of talking to databases, but I think I still prefer using raw SQL. In this post I will show you some reasons why I prefer raw SQL. I will use the same database and tables used in the original tutorial for these examples.

We will import sqlalchemy to connect to the Postgres database and pandas to execute the raw SQL statements.

import sqlalchemy as sqla
from sqlalchemy.orm import sessionmaker
import pandas as pd
from datetime import date

If you get any errors, please see the original blog post above for the requirements that need to be installed, such as sqlalchemy. I am using pandas later on in this blog, so you would need to have that installed too. The ‘psycopg2’ module is also used, and has been renamed, so I would recommend something like the following to install it:

# pip install psycopg2-binary

Again, the original blog post above creates the classes and data for the example tables. Once they are created, here is the code to import them.

from base import Session
from actor import Actor
from contact_details import ContactDetails
from movie import Movie

/Users/rjbos2/anaconda3/lib/python3.7/site-packages/psycopg2/ UserWarning: The psycopg2 wheel package will be renamed from release 2.8; in order to keep installing from binary please use "pip install psycopg2-binary" instead. For details see: <>.

The code below shows the connection string for a postgres database named roger with username ‘usr’ and password ‘pass’ running on (also knwon as localhost) port 5432 (the default port).

xf = sqla.create_engine('postgresql://usr:pass@localhost:5432/roger')
Session = sessionmaker(bind=xf)
session = Session()

Finally, we are able to run our first query. We are going to query all the movies defined by the Movie class and stored in the movies table.

movies = session.query(Movie).all()

The movies object is a class, so you can’t just its contents directly.

[<movie.Movie at 0x1177f5be0>,
 <movie.Movie at 0x1177f5c88>,
 <movie.Movie at 0x1177f5908>]

Instead you have to use a for loop to print out each row of data.

for movie in movies:
     print(f'{movie.title} was released on {movie.release_date}')
The Bourne Identity was released on 2002-10-11
Furious 7 was released on 2015-04-02
Pain & Gain was released on 2013-08-23

Whereas using the read_sql_query function from pandas with raw SQL gives use hte returned rows in a nice format that prints easily.

pd.read_sql_query('select * from movies', xf)
id title release_date
0 1 The Bourne Identity 2002-10-11
1 2 Furious 7 2015-04-02
2 3 Pain & Gain 2013-08-23

Using raw SQL is a quick way to remind yourself of the column names of each table you are using without having to refer back to the class object. These tables are very small, but with bigger tables you would want to limit the number of rows returned. For many databases you use the word ‘top’ to do so, but for Postgres (and MySQL) you use ‘limit’, as is done in the next few queries.

pd.read_sql_query('select * from actors limit 3', xf)

id name birthday
0 1 Matt Damon 1970-10-08
1 2 Dwayne Johnson 1972-05-02
2 3 Mark Wahlberg 1971-06-05
pd.read_sql_query('select * from movies_actors limit 4', xf)
movie_id actor_id
0 3 2
1 3 3
2 1 1
3 2 2

pd.read_sql_query('select * from contact_details limit 4', xf)
id phone_number address actor_id
0 1 415 555 2671 Burbank, CA 1
1 2 423 555 5623 Glendale, CA 2
2 3 421 444 2323 West Hollywood, CA 2
3 4 421 333 9428 Glendale, CA 3

SQLAlchemy also has an inspect method to list the names of all the tables in a database.

inspector = sqla.inspect(xf)
['returns', 'actors', 'contact_details', 'movies', 'movies_actors', 'stuntmen']

Now we will look at how to run some more complex queries. Say we want to find all the movies that have been released since 2015.

# get movies after 15-01-01
movies = session.query(Movie) \
     .filter(Movie.release_date >= date(2015, 1, 1)) \

for movie in movies:
     print(f'{movie.title} was released since 2015')

Furious 7 was released since 2015

This can be accomplished in raw SQL as follows

pd.read_sql_query("select * from movies \
where release_date >= '1/1/2015'", xf)
id title release_date
0 2 Furious 7 2015-04-02

Continuing with the examples, we can find all the movies featuring ‘Dwayne Johnson’

the_rock_movies = session.query(Movie) \
    .join(Actor, Movie.actors) \
    .filter( == 'Dwayne Johnson') \

for movie in the_rock_movies:
    print(f'The Rock starred in {movie.title}')

The Rock starred in Pain & Gain
The Rock starred in Furious 7

In the raw SQL version we have to use the movies_actors table to join the ids from the movies and actors tables. There is more than one way to do this join, but here is an easy and straightforward method.

pd.read_sql_query("select m.title as Movie, as Actor, m.release_date as Released \
                  from movies m, actors a, movies_actors ma \
                  where and and = 'Dwayne Johnson'", xf)
movie actor released
0 Pain & Gain Dwayne Johnson 2013-08-23
1 Furious 7 Dwayne Johnson 2015-04-02

As another example of joining and filtering, we can also find all the actors that live in Glendale. SQL uses the ‘%’ sign to indicate a wildcard, so there can be any number of characters before and after ‘glendale’ and the ‘like’ parameter will find a match. If you knew all the addresses started (or ended) with ‘glendale’, you could use ‘%glendale’ (or ‘glendale%’).

glendale_stars = session.query(Actor) \
    .join(ContactDetails) \
    .filter(ContactDetails.address.ilike('%glendale%')) \

for actor in glendale_stars:
    print(f'{} has a house in Glendale')
Dwayne Johnson has a house in Glendale
Mark Wahlberg has a house in Glendale

The following raw SQL query does not work. Can you spot the problem? (hint: There are actually two problems.)

pd.read_sql_query("select \
                  from actors a, contact_details c \
                  where and c.address like '%glendale%'", xf)


TypeError                                 Traceback (most recent call last)

<ipython-input-17-603009ecee61> in <module>
      1 pd.read_sql_query("select \
      2                   from actors a, contact_details c \
----> 3                   where and c.address like '%glendale%'", xf)

~/anaconda3/lib/python3.7/site-packages/pandas/io/ in read_sql_query(sql, con, index_col, coerce_float, params, parse_dates, chunksize)
    312     return pandas_sql.read_query(
    313         sql, index_col=index_col, params=params, coerce_float=coerce_float,
--> 314         parse_dates=parse_dates, chunksize=chunksize)

~/anaconda3/lib/python3.7/site-packages/pandas/io/ in read_query(self, sql, index_col, coerce_float, parse_dates, params, chunksize)
   1061         args = _convert_params(sql, params)
-> 1063         result = self.execute(*args)
   1064         columns = result.keys()

~/anaconda3/lib/python3.7/site-packages/pandas/io/ in execute(self, *args, **kwargs)
    952     def execute(self, *args, **kwargs):
    953         """Simple passthrough to SQLAlchemy connectable"""
--> 954         return self.connectable.execute(*args, **kwargs)
    956     def read_table(self, table_name, index_col=None, coerce_float=True,

~/anaconda3/lib/python3.7/site-packages/sqlalchemy/engine/ in execute(self, statement, *multiparams, **params)
   2074         connection = self.contextual_connect(close_with_result=True)
-> 2075         return connection.execute(statement, *multiparams, **params)
   2077     def scalar(self, statement, *multiparams, **params):

~/anaconda3/lib/python3.7/site-packages/sqlalchemy/engine/ in execute(self, object, *multiparams, **params)
    940         """
    941         if isinstance(object, util.string_types[0]):
--> 942             return self._execute_text(object, multiparams, params)
    943         try:
    944             meth = object._execute_on_connection

~/anaconda3/lib/python3.7/site-packages/sqlalchemy/engine/ in _execute_text(self, statement, multiparams, params)
   1102             statement,
   1103             parameters,
-> 1104             statement, parameters
   1105         )
   1106         if self._has_events or self.engine._has_events:

~/anaconda3/lib/python3.7/site-packages/sqlalchemy/engine/ in _execute_context(self, dialect, constructor, statement, parameters, *args)
   1198                 parameters,
   1199                 cursor,
-> 1200                 context)
   1202         if self._has_events or self.engine._has_events:

~/anaconda3/lib/python3.7/site-packages/sqlalchemy/engine/ in _handle_dbapi_exception(self, e, statement, parameters, cursor, context)
   1414                 )
   1415             else:
-> 1416                 util.reraise(*exc_info)
   1418         finally:

~/anaconda3/lib/python3.7/site-packages/sqlalchemy/util/ in reraise(tp, value, tb, cause)
    247         if value.__traceback__ is not tb:
    248             raise value.with_traceback(tb)
--> 249         raise value
    251 else:

~/anaconda3/lib/python3.7/site-packages/sqlalchemy/engine/ in _execute_context(self, dialect, constructor, statement, parameters, *args)
   1191                         statement,
   1192                         parameters,
-> 1193                         context)
   1194         except BaseException as e:
   1195             self._handle_dbapi_exception(

~/anaconda3/lib/python3.7/site-packages/sqlalchemy/engine/ in do_execute(self, cursor, statement, parameters, context)
    508     def do_execute(self, cursor, statement, parameters, context=None):
--> 509         cursor.execute(statement, parameters)
    511     def do_execute_no_params(self, cursor, statement, context=None):

TypeError: 'dict' object does not support indexing

The interpreter throws a really long error with absolutely no clue as to the actual problem, which is that Python treats ‘%’ as a special character. So if you want to use the ‘%’ character in a string, you need to double it, like so…

pd.read_sql_query("select \
                  from actors a, contact_details c \
                  where and c.address like '%%glendale%%'", xf)


NameError                                 Traceback (most recent call last)

<ipython-input-2-f4457efd86c0> in <module>
----> 1 pd.read_sql_query("select \
      2                   from actors a, contact_details c \
      3                   where and c.address like '%%glendale%%'", xf)

NameError: name 'pd' is not defined

Now the query runs without error, but it does not return us the two rows we are expecting. That leads us to the second problem, which is that ‘like’ is case sensitive.

pd.read_sql_query("select \
                  from actors a, contact_details c \
                  where and c.address like '%%Glendale%%'", xf)

NameError                                 Traceback (most recent call last)

<ipython-input-3-ffcd70fef1da> in <module>
----> 1 pd.read_sql_query("select \
      2                   from actors a, contact_details c \
      3                   where and c.address like '%%Glendale%%'", xf)

NameError: name 'pd' is not defined

The problem now is that if some of the city names were capitalized and some were not, the query would not be accurate. A better fix is to use ilike which is not case sensitive.

pd.read_sql_query("select \
                  from actors a, contact_details c \
                  where and c.address ilike '%%glendale%%'", xf)

NameError                                 Traceback (most recent call last)

<ipython-input-4-05f49a1119e1> in <module>
----> 1 pd.read_sql_query("select \
      2                   from actors a, contact_details c \
      3                   where and c.address ilike '%%glendale%%'", xf)

NameError: name 'pd' is not defined

That’s all I wanted to show you based on the small Movies database. We have spent a lot of time disecting that last query, but I hope it will be helpful in your future SQL debugging efforts. Debugging skills are important whether you decide to use ORM or raw SQL.

To show some more examples of raw SQL, we will build a small table of stock prices for stock symbol GE.

A Stock Example

The pandas module has a nice function to read in stock prices from Yahoo!

from pandas_datareader import data as wb  
ticker = 'GE' 
GE = wb.DataReader(ticker, data_source='yahoo', start='2007-1-1')['Adj Close']
ret = pd.DataFrame(data = GE)

Lets say we wanted to save this price history into a database. Using the ORM method, we would have to create a class for the table, but using pandas and raw SQL we can just save the DataFrame to a table and use it right away. In the first line I drop the table in case it already exists and in the second line the DataFrame ‘ret’ is saved to a table named ‘returns’ in the ‘xf’ database.

xf.execute("drop table returns")
ret.to_sql('returns', xf)

To see if the save worked, we can query the table, as we do below.

pd.read_sql_query("select * from returns limit 4", xf)

You can see the table output and everything looks fine. If I ended the post here everything would seem pretty simple and straightforward, but there are many problems which would make it hard for someone new to Python and SQL to work with this table.

In the above query everything worked smoothly because I used the ‘*’ wildcard and didn’t specify the column names. What problems would I encounter if I tried to use the actual column names? I can predict that Adj Close will be a problem because of the space, so I will quote it.

pd.read_sql_query("select Date, 'Adj Close' from returns limit 4", xf)

Python doesn’t like the column “Date” either. It turns out that Postgres SQL doesn’t like any column names that are capitalized. Maybe that’s one reason to use ORM, but a simple fix is just to adjust the column names before you save the table.

ret = ret.rename(index=str, columns={"Adj Close": "adj_close"}) = "date"

The above code shows two different methods for modifying column names. For regular columns you just use the rename function in pandas. For the index of the dataframe, you have to do something different. ‘Date’ is an index rather than a column, so we had to use the ‘name’ function change its name. Now both column are lower case and do not contain spaces. We are making everyone happy. Now lets add a column with the return.

ret['return'] = ret['adj_close'].pct_change()

The DataFrame looks good now. Lets save this new DataFrame to a table so I can show you what I really want to show you.

xf.execute("drop table returns")
ret.to_sql('returns', xf)

Then test out the save and make sure it worked.

out = pd.read_sql_query("select * from returns limit 10", xf)

Just to verify, we can now specify the column names without a problem.

pd.read_sql_query("select date, adj_close, return from returns limit 10", xf)

We can condition on date to get the daily returns for January.

pd.read_sql_query("select date, returns from returns \
                  where date between '2019-01-01' and '2019-02-01'", xf)

Now I can finally show you a good example of something you can do in raw SQL. If you have a table of daily returns, you can calculate cumulative returns for any time period within SQL. SQL does not have a product function, but you can sum the log returns and then exponentiate them to accomplish the same thing.

pd.read_sql_query("select EXP(SUM(LOG(1+return))) - 1 as cumret from returns \
                  where date between '2019-01-01' and '2019-02-01'", xf)

0 0.136323

We can also calculate the standard deviation of daily returns in the same query as below. Let’s expand the window to six months.

pd.read_sql_query("select EXP(SUM(LOG(1 + return))) - 1 as cumret, \
                  SQRT(21 * SUM(return * return) / 126) as volatility \
                  from returns \
                  where date between '2018-06-30' and '2018-12-31'", xf)
cumret volatility
0 -0.223921 0.12785

I hope this tutorial has been helpful. We looked at a number of queries using with ORM and raw SQL and reviewed some of the pitfalls you may encounter when working with databases in Python. The ORM approach is probably a good one for large applications with fixed database structions, but raw SQL is a good approach for smaller projects and ad-hoc analysis.