Using the database API#

Safir-based applications that use a SQL database can use Safir to initialize that database and acquire a database session. Safir-based applications that use FastAPI can also use the Safir-provided FastAPI dependency to manage per-request database sessions. The Safir database support is based on SQLAlchemy and assumes use of PostgreSQL (possibly via Cloud SQL) as the underlying database.

Safir is an asyncio framework and thus encourages use of the asyncio support in SQLAlchemy. This requires using the SQLAlchemy 2.0 API, which is somewhat different than the older API. Safir uses the asyncpg PostgreSQL database driver.

Database support in Safir is optional. To use it, depend on safir[db] in your pip requirements.

Initializing a database#

Safir supports simple initialization of a database with a schema provided by the application. By default, this only adds any declared but missing tables, indices, or other objects, and thus does nothing if the database is already initialized. The application may also request a database reset, which will drop and recreate all of the tables in the schema.

More complex database schema upgrades are not supported by Safir. If those are required, consider using Alembic.

Database initialization in Safir assumes that the application has defined the database schema via the SQLAlchemy ORM. The recommended way to do this is to add a schema directory to the application containing the table definitions. In the file schema/, define the SQLAlchemy declarative base:

from sqlalchemy.orm import declarative_base

Base = declarative_base()

In other files in that directory, define the database tables using the normal SQLAlchemy ORM syntax, one table per file. Each database table definition must inherit from Base, imported from .base. In schema/, import the table definitions from all of the files in the directory, as well as the Base variable, and export them using __all__.

The recommended approach to add database initialization to an application is to add an init command to the command-line interface that runs the database initialization code. For applications using Click (the recommended way to implement a command-line interface), this can be done with code like:

import click
import structlog
from safir.asyncio import run_with_asyncio
from safir.database import create_database_engine, initialize_database

from .config import config
from .schema import Base

# Definition of main omitted.

    "--reset", is_flag=True, help="Delete all existing database data."
async def init(reset: bool) -> None:
    logger = structlog.get_logger(config.logger_name)
    engine = create_database_engine(
        config.database_url, config.database_password
    await initialize_database(
        engine, logger, schema=Base.metadata, reset=reset
    await engine.dispose()

This code assumes that main is the Click entry point and .config provides a config object that contains the settings for the application, including the database URL and password as well as the normal Safir configuration settings.

If it receives a connection error from the database, Safir will attempt the initialization five times, two seconds apart, to allow time for networking or a database proxy to start.

To drop and recreate all of the tables, pass the reset=True option to initialize_database.

Note that initialize_database returns a AsyncEngine object for the newly-initialized database. This can be used to perform any further application-specific database initialization that is required, such as adding default table entries. Put any such code before the await engine.dispose() call.

Running database initialization on pod startup#

The recommended pattern for Safir-based applications that use a database is to initialize the database every time the pod has been restarted. Since initialization does nothing if the schema already exists, this is safe to do. It only wastes a bit of time during normal startup. This allows the application to be deployed on a new cluster without any special initialization step.

The easiest way to do this is to add a script (conventionally located in scripts/ that runs the init command and then starts the application with Uvicorn:


set -eu

application init
uvicorn application.main:app --host --port 8080

Replace application with the application entry point (the first line) and Python module (the second line). (These may be different if the application name contains dashes.)

Then, use this as the default command for the Docker image:

COPY scripts/ /
CMD ["/"]

As a side effect, this will test database connectivity during pod startup and wait for network or a database proxy to be ready if needed, which avoids the need for testing database connectivity during the application startup.

Using a database session in request handlers#

For FastAPI applications, Safir provides a FastAPI dependency that creates a database session for each request. This uses the SQLAlchemy async_scoped_session to transparently manage a separate session per running task.

To use the database session dependency, it must first be initialized during application startup. Generally this is done inside the application startup event:

from safir.dependencies.db_session import db_session_dependency

from .config import config

async def startup_event() -> None:
    await db_session_dependency.initialize(
        config.database_url, config.database_password

As with some of the examples above, this assumes the application has a config object with the application settings, including the database URL and password.

You must also close the dependency during application shutdown:

async def shutdown_event() -> None:
    await db_session_dependency.aclose()

Then, any handler that needs a database session can depend on the db_session_dependency:

from fastapi import Depends
from safir.dependencies.db_session import db_session_dependency
from sqlalchemy.ext.asyncio import async_scoped_session

async def get_index(
    session: async_scoped_session = Depends(db_session_dependency),
) -> Dict[str, str]:
    async with session.begin():
        # ... do something with session here ...
        return {}

Transaction management#

The application must manage transactions when using the Safir database dependency. SQLAlchemy will automatically start a transaction if you perform any database operation using a session (including read-only operations). If that transaction is not explicitly ended, asyncpg may leave it open, which will cause database deadlocks and other problems.

Generally it’s best to manage the transaction in the handler function (see the get_index example, above). Wrap all code that may make database calls in an async with session.begin() block. This will open a transaction, commit the transaction at the end of the block, and roll back the transaction if the block raises an exception.


Due to an as-yet-unexplained interaction with FastAPI 0.74 and later, managing the transaction inside the database session dependency does not work. Calling await session.commit() there, either explicitly or implicitly via a context manager, immediately fails by raising asyncio.CancelledError and the transaction is not committed or closed.

Handling datetimes in database tables#

When a database column is defined using the SQLAlchemy ORM using the DateTime generic type, it cannot store a timezone. The SQL standard type DATETIME may include a timezone with some database backends, but it is database-specific. It is therefore normally easier to store times in the database in UTC without timezone information.

However, datetime objects in regular Python code should always be timezone-aware and use the UTC timezone. Timezone-naive datetime objects are often interpreted as being in the local timezone, whatever that happens to be. Keeping all datetime objects as timezone-aware in the UTC timezone will minimize surprises from unexpected timezone conversions.

This unfortunately means that the code for storing and retrieving datetime objects from the database needs a conversion layer. asyncpg wisely declines to convert datetime objects and therefore returns timezone-naive objects from the database and raises an exception if a timezone-aware datetime object is stored in a DateTime field. The conversion must therefore be done in the code making SQLAlchemy calls.

Safir provides datetime_to_db and datetime_from_db helper functions to convert from a timezone-aware datetime to a timezone-naive datetime suitable for storing in a DateTime column, and vice versa. These helper functions should be used wherever DateTime columns are read or updated. datetime_to_db ensures the provided datetime object is timezone-aware and in UTC and converts it to a timezone-naive UTC datetime for database storage. datetime_from_db ensures the provided datetime object is either timezone-naive or in UTC and returns a timezone-aware UTC datetime object. Both raise ValueError if passed datetime objects in some other timezone. datetime_to_db also raises ValueError if passed a timezone-naive datetime object. Both return None if passed None.

Here is example of reading an object from the database that includes DateTime columns:

from safir.database import datetime_from_db

stmt = select(SQLJob).where( == job_id)
result = (await session.execute(stmt)).scalar_one()
job = Job(,
    # ...
    # ...

Here is an example of updating a DateTime field in the database:

from safir.database import datetime_to_db

async with session.begin():
    stmt = select(SQLJob).where( == job_id)
    job = (await session.execute(stmt)).scalar_one()
    job.destruction_time = datetime_to_db(destruction_time)

Testing applications that use a database#

The Safir database layer only supports PostgreSQL at present. While support for SQLite could be added, testing against the database that will be used for production is usually a better strategy, since some bugs (particularly around transaction management) are sensitive to the choice of backend. The recommended strategy for testing applications that use a database is to start a real PostgreSQL server for the tests.

To do this, modify the init target in Makefile to install tox-docker at the same time tox is installed. Then, add the following to tox.ini to define a database container:

image = postgres:latest
ports =
environment =
    POSTGRES_USER = safir
    POSTGRES_DB = safir
    PGPORT = 5432
# The healthcheck ensures that tox-docker won't run tests until the
# container is up and the command finishes with exit code 0 (success)
healthcheck_cmd = PGPASSWORD=$POSTGRES_PASSWORD psql  \
    --user=$POSTGRES_USER --dbname=$POSTGRES_DB       \
    --host= --quiet --no-align --tuples-only \
    -1 --command="SELECT 1"
healthcheck_timeout = 1
healthcheck_retries = 30
healthcheck_interval = 1
healthcheck_start_period = 1

Change POSTGRES_USER and POSTGRES_DB to match the name of your application.

Add a dependency on this container to your py test environment (and any other tox environments that will run pytest):

# ...
docker =

You may want to also add this to any run test environment you have defined so that a PostgreSQL container will be started for the local development environment.

Assuming that your application uses environment variables to configure the database URL and password (the recommended approach), set those environment variables in the py test environment (and any other relevant test environments, such as run):

# ...
setenv =
    APP_DATABASE_URL = postgresql://safir@

Change the names of the environment variables to match those used by your application, and change the database user and database name to match your application if you did so in the [docker:postgres] section.

Then, initialize the database in a test fixture. The simplest way to do this is to add a call to initialize_database to the app fixture. For example:

from typing import AsyncIterator

import pytest_asyncio
from asgi_lifespan import LifespanManager
from fastapi import FastAPI
from safir.database import create_database_engine, initialize_database

from application import main
from application.config import config
from application.schema import Base

async def app() -> AsyncIterator[FastAPI]:
    logger = structlog.get_logger(config.logger_name)
    engine = create_database_engine(
        config.database_url, config.database_password
    await initialize_database(engine, logger, schema=Base.metadata, reset=True)
    await engine.dispose()
    async with LifespanManager(

This uses the reset flag to drop and recreate all database tables between each test, which ensures no test records leak from one test to the next. If you need to preload test data into the database, do that after the call to initialize_database and before await engine.dispose(), using the provided engine object.


Because the tests use a single external PostgreSQL instance with a single database, tests cannot be run in parallel, or a test may see database changes from another test. This in turn means that plugins like pytest-xdist unfortunately cannot be used to speed up tests.

Less-used database operations#

Safir provides support for some other database operations that most applications will not need, but which are helpful in some complex use cases.

Creating an async database session#


This section describes how to get a database session outside of a FastAPI route handler, such as for cron jobs, background processing, or other non-web-application uses. Most applications will use database sessions in the context of a FastAPI handler and should instead use the corresponding FastAPI dependency instead of the code below. See Using a database session in request handlers for more details.

To get a new async database connection, use code like the following:

import structlog
from safir.database import create_async_session, create_database_engine

from .config import config

engine = create_database_engine(config.database_url, config.database_password)
session = await create_async_session(engine)

# ... use the session here ...

await session.remove()
await engine.dispose()

Creating the engine is separate from creating the session so that the engine can be disposed of properly, which ensures the connection pool is closed.

Probing the database connection#

create_async_session supports probing the database to ensure that it is accessible and the schema is set up correctly. To do this, pass a SQL statement to execute as the statement argument to create_async_session. This will be called with .limit(1) to test the resulting session. When statement is provided, a structlog logger must also be provided to log any errors when trying to run the statement.

For example:

import structlog
from sqlalchemy.future import select

from .schema import User

logger = structlog.get_logger(config.logger_name)
stmt = select(User)
session = await create_async_session(engine, logger, statement=stmt)

If the statement fails, it will be retried up to five times, waiting two seconds between attempts, before raising the underlying exception. This is particularly useful for waiting for network or a database proxy to come up when a process has first started.

Creating a sync database session#

Although Safir is primarily intended to support asyncio applications, it may sometimes be necessary to write sync code that performs database operations. One example would be Dramatiq workers. This can be done with create_sync_session.

from safir.database import create_sync_session

from .config import config

session = create_sync_session(config.database_url, config.database_password)
with session.begin():
    # ... do something with the session ...

Unlike create_async_session, create_sync_session handles creating the engine internally, since sync engines do not require any special shutdown measures.

As with async database sessions, you can pass a structlog logger and a statement to perform a connection check on the database before returning the session:

import structlog
from safir.database import create_sync_session
from sqlalchemy.future import select

from .config import config
from .schema import User

logger = structlog.get_logger(config.logger_name)
stmt = select(User)
session = create_sync_session(
    config.database_url, config.database_password, logger, statement=stmt

Applications that use create_sync_session must declare a dependency on psycopg2 in their pip dependencies. Safir itself does not depend on psycopg2, even with the db extra, since most applications that use Safir for database support will only need async sessions.

Setting an isolation level#

create_database_engine, create_sync_session, and the initialize method of db_session_dependency take an optional isolation_level argument that can be used to set a non-default isolation level. If given, this parameter is passed through to the underlying SQLAlchemy engine. See the SQLAlchemy isolation level documentation for more information.

You may have to set a custom isolation level, such as REPEATABLE READ, if you have multiple simultaneous database writers and need to coordinate their writes to ensure consistent results.

Be aware that most situations in which you need to set a custom isolation level will also result in valid transactions raising exceptions indicating that they need to be retried, because another writer changed the database while the transaction was in progress. You therefore will probably need to disable transaction management for the db_session_dependency by passing manage_transactions=False to the initialize method and then manage transactions directly in the code (usually inside retry loops).