5 Ways to Write a Go Database Model

A gopher and a database.
When I interview software developers, one of my go-to icebreakers is, “How did you get started in programming?” Sometimes the answer is that the candidate just had to declare a major. Which is fine–it’s just an icebreaker. But the responses I like most are about the candidate’s earliest project. The one that made them want to a programmer. The project varies, but it’s always fun–often a video game. So far, no one ever told me they became a programmer to write database models. And, yet, if you make web apps, you will spend more time on database models than the fun stuff that made you want to be a programmer.

If your app were a meal, the database models are like a bland carb that fills your belly but never satisfies. They are, well, crud. So it’s no wonder that Go has so many tools to get this job out of the way. It’s great to have options, but there are so many options that it can be overwhelming. This post looks at a few categories of tools, with examples of each, so you can pick the right approach for your project.

The sample code is on GitHub. Each variant covered here has the same functionality, namely, CRUD operations for one table of a fan database for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I’m also sticking to relational databases.


We’ll get to fancy tools in a moment, but first, we need a baseline. Since all you need is a database driver and the standard library, that’s all that the first example uses.

I opted to make the model itself a plain data struct and wrote a CharacterStore struct to perform the CRUD operations:

type Character struct {
	ID      int64
	ActorID int64
	Name    string

type CharacterStore struct {
	db *sql.DB

The methods on CharacterStore are probably what you expect:

func (cs *CharacterStore) Get(ctx context.Context, id int64) (*Character, error) {
	row := cs.db.QueryRowContext(ctx, `SELECT id, actor_id, name FROM characters WHERE id = $1`, id)

	var c Character
	err := row.Scan(&c.ID, &c.ActorID, &c.Name)
	if errors.Is(err, sql.ErrNoRows) {
		return nil, nil

	return &c, err

The only method that’s a bit different is List, which searches by various criteria. Here’s the interface:

type CharacterFilters struct {
	// ActorID matches on the actor's ID.
	ActorID int64

	// ActorName does a case-insensitive partial match on the actor name.
	ActorName string

	// Name does a case-insensitive partial match on the character name.
	Name string

	// SceneNumber filters by the scene that the character appears in.
	SceneNumber int64

func (cs *CharacterStore) List(ctx context.Context, filters *CharacterFilters) ([]*Character, error) {

The implementation builds the SQL query in a string, and it’s a bit of a mess.

This approach has the obvious downside that the code is tedious to write. It can also be error prone (for instance, matching the columns in your query to the order in Scan). But you have absolute control over every aspect.

Struct Mappers

Sometimes you may want just a bit more than the standard library offers. This is where a package that can map between SQL and a struct comes in. There are a few similar packages (1 2, 3), but I’ve used sqlx for an example. Most of these tools, and sqlx in particular, use reflection to automate the most tedious parts of the vanilla approach.

Our Character struct gets a few db tags:

type Character struct {
	ID      int64  `db:"id"`
	ActorID int64  `db:"actor_id"`
	Name    string `db:"name"`

And that allows us to use sqlx’s methods to load data directly into the struct:

	var c Character
	err := cs.dbx.GetContext(ctx, &c, `SELECT id, actor_id, name FROM characters WHERE id = $1`, id)

You can use the field’s tag name in queries too:

	res, err := cs.dbx.NamedExecContext(ctx, `UPDATE characters SET actor_id = :actor_id, name = :name WHERE id = :id`, c)

This is good when you want to keep most of the control, but you would like to avoid writing yet another for rows.Scan() loop.

The only drawback I’ve found is that the fields in your data structs frequently need to implement Scanner and Valuer. It’s avoidable, but this commonly means exposing sql.NullString or pq.StringArray to parts of the codebase that are otherwise ignorant of the database.

SQL Builders

If you’re tired of handwriting SQL queries, try a SQL generator. I’m using squirrel for this post, but there are a few similar packages (such as squirrel’s cousin sqrl). Here’s the example code: builder/characters.go.

If you recall the Get method from the vanilla example, it has been simplified to:

func (cs *CharacterStore) Get(ctx context.Context, id int64) (*Character, error) {
	var c Character
	err := squirrel.
		Select("id", "actor_id", "name").
		Where("id = ?", id).
		Scan(&c.ID, &c.ActorID, &c.Name)

	if errors.Is(err, sql.ErrNoRows) {
		return nil, nil

	return &c, err

A small improvement, perhaps, but the real advantage is for more complicated queries, such as the List method:

func (cs *CharacterStore) List(ctx context.Context, filters *CharacterFilters) ([]*Character, error) {
	q := squirrel.
		Select("c.id", "c.actor_id", "c.name").
		From("characters c").

	if filters != nil {
		if filters.ActorID != 0 {
			q = q.Where("actor_id = ?", filters.ActorID)
		} else if filters.ActorName != "" {
			q = q.
				Join("actors a ON a.id = c.actor_id").
				Where("LOWER(a.name) LIKE ?", "%"+strings.ToLower(filters.ActorName)+"%")

		if filters.Name != "" {
			q = q.Where("LOWER(name) LIKE ?", "%"+strings.ToLower(filters.Name)+"%")

		if filters.SceneNumber != 0 {
			q = q.
				Join("scene_characters sc ON sc.character_id = c.id").
				Where("sc.scene_id = ?", filters.SceneNumber)

	rows, err := q.QueryContext(ctx)
	// ... same as before from here ...

This code is still probably too complex, but squirrel simplified the original a lot.

Query generators fit nicely in a mostly vanilla database/sql codebase. I have found few downsides, mostly because it’s easy to fall back to hand-written SQL.


You’ve seen Go generate SQL, but have you seen SQL generate Go? If not, look at sqlc. You write a SQL file with some minimal annotation:

-- name: GetCharacter :one
-- GetCharacter loads a character from the database by ID.
SELECT * FROM characters WHERE id = ?;

And sqlc generates Go code:

// models.go
type Character struct {
	ID      int64
	Name    string
	ActorID int64

// characters.sql.go
const getCharacter = `-- name: GetCharacter :one
SELECT id, name, actor_id FROM characters WHERE id = ?

// GetCharacter loads a character from the database by ID.
func (q *Queries) GetCharacter(ctx context.Context, id int64) (Character, error) {
	row := q.db.QueryRowContext(ctx, getCharacter, id)
	var i Character
	err := row.Scan(&i.ID, &i.Name, &i.ActorID)
	return i, err

Full example.

sqlc removes a lot of tedious code without taking any of your control over the SQL. And, unlike every other option in this post, there’s no runtime penalty for using it. It takes a bit of configuration to get started (it needs to know your schema, for instance), but after that, you can regenerate the models as often as you want.

The major downside of sqlc is that you lose direct control of the interface on the generated code. The code it makes isn’t terrible, but it feels a bit mechanical sometimes. Of course, if you really don’t like it, you can generate private methods with sqlc and wrap them as you want. That’s what I did with the StoreCharacter method:

func (q *Queries) StoreCharacter(ctx context.Context, c *Character) error {
	if c.ID == 0 {
		id, err := q.insertCharacter(ctx, insertCharacterParams{
			ActorID: c.ActorID,
			Name:    c.Name,
		if err != nil {
			return err

		c.ID = id
		return nil

	return q.updateCharacter(ctx, updateCharacterParams{
		ID:      c.ID,
		ActorID: c.ActorID,
		Name:    c.Name,

insertCharacter and updateCharacter are from sqlc.

The other problem is that you’re restricted to what you can express in SQL. If you want to build a query based on some optional criteria, like my List example, you can’t do it. I had to settle for this:

func (q *Queries) ListCharacters(ctx context.Context, filters *CharacterFilters) ([]Character, error) {
	switch {
	case filters.ActorID != 0:
		return q.listCharactersByActor(ctx, filters.ActorID)
	case filters.ActorName != "":
		return q.listCharactersByActorName(ctx, filters.ActorName)
	case filters.Name != "":
		return q.listCharactersByName(ctx, filters.Name)
	case filters.SceneNumber != 0:
		return q.listCharactersByScene(ctx, filters.SceneNumber)
		return q.listAllCharacters(ctx)

Unlike every other implementation of this method, this version can’t filter by more than one filter param. It could be done by writing a SQL query for each permutation. I frequently augment what sqlc generates, so you’re free to use it where it helps and ignore it when it doesn’t.


Go has a few ORMs to choose from, though GORM is pretty popular, and what I’ve used for this example. Like any full-featured ORM, you only have to define the object. Here’s the definition for the Character struct:

type Character struct {
	ID      int64  `gorm:"id,primaryKey"`
	ActorID int64  `gorm:"actor_id"`
	Name    string `gorm:"name"`

	Actor Actor

That’s enough for GORM to handle all the CRUD operations, for example to create a new Character:

	err := db.Create(&Character{
		Name:    "Sir Not-Appearing-in-this-Film",
		ActorID: 1,

The List method (well, now it’s the ListCharacters function) looks like the squirrel version, except it’s a little simpler because GORM handles the Scan.

GORM has given us quite a lot for such a small amount of code. But, in exchange, we had to cede control over the interface and the SQL queries. It’s a devil’s bargain. I avoid ORMs, but if fast development is your primary concern, GORM may be the right choice.

Wrapping up

I have presented these options as if they exist in a world all their own, but as long as you can get a sql.DB, you can mix and match anything. My preferred approach lately has been sqlc with squirrel where it makes sense. Ultimately, you have to pick the approach that works for your project. And, of course, if you’re still overwhelmed, I do consulting :-)

I have barely scratched the surface of database tools in Go. If you want more, try the Awesome Go list (specifically, the database and ORM sections).

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