DynamoDB, expressions and Go

Recently I maintained Go code that handles various DynamoDB operations. The code was full of manually defined ExpressionAttributeValues and ExpressionAttributeNames maps. It looked cumbersome. After a quick research, I found out that AWS SDK for Go provides features that enable writing cleaner code.

In this article, I would like to share how I work with DynamoDB using AWS SDK for Go. The code snippets provided below are parts of a sample project I created to complement the article.

DynamoDB — a shift from the relational data model to a single table design concept

Before jumping to Go code, I would like to talk about DynamoDB tables design. As an experienced developer in designing relational databases, I had misconceptions about building data models for DynamoDB. I applied the same principles of normalisation when planning models for DynamoDB. As a result, I had several normalised tables without the support of JOIN.

DynamoDB delivers single-digit millisecond performance at any scale. But to retrieve data, a network request required. Usually, network I/O is one of the application’s performances bottleneck. Having multiple requests to a database in a waterfall fashion only degrades performance. To fully utilise DynamoDB potential, reducing the number of requests to the database required, ideally to one request. It means a DynamoDB application should work with as few tables as possible. Therefore a single table design concept created.

The idea is to flatten application data. Sometimes data item accompanied by metadata items. For me, the shift to a single table design was challenging, partially because of the confusion in terminology. In DynamoDB core components: tables, items, and attributes. But DynamoDB table does not equal a relational database table. It is more a view in the relational database where multiple tables joined together.

Figure 1. Mapping relational and DynamoDB structures

In my opinion, MongoDB terminology is better. As the documentation says, MongoDB stores data records as documents that are gathered together in collections. A database stores one or more documents collections. Using words document and collection removes cognitive associations with a table in a relational database.

DynamoDB table keys

It is hard to imagine efficient database architecture without keys and indexes. Here I would like to focus only on primary, partition and sort keys — the minimum set of components required to build a table and execute DynamoDB operations.

The primary key must be specified when creating a table. The primary key uniquely identifies each item in the table. The primary key is either the partition key or the combination of the partition and sort key.

DynamoDB uses the partition key’s value as input to an internal hash function. The output of the hash function determines the partition in which the record stored. The items with the same partition key located together.

Essential to know and understand:

  • what type of primary key defined in a table
  • what is the partition key
  • what is the sort key

These keys play a central role in building queries.

DynamoDB API — data access methods

Read methods

  • BatchGetItem — retrieves up to 100 items from one or more tables.
  • GetItem— retrieves a single item from a table with the given primary key.
  • Query — retrieves all items that have a specific partition key.
  • Scan — retrieves all items in the specified table or index.
  • TransactGetItems — atomically retrieves multiple items from one or more tables.

Note: You can use a filter in scan and query operations to reduce the number of records returned to the client. Filter applied after data read from the DynamoDB. The items that do not satisfy the filter condition not returned to the client.

Write methods

  • BatchWriteItem — puts or deletes multiple items in one or more tables.
  • DeleteItem — deletes a single record in a table by primary key.
  • PutItem—creates or replaces an old item with a new one.
  • TransactWriteItems — synchronous write operation on items from one or more tables (no two actions can target the same record).
  • UpdateItem— edits an existing item’s attributes or adds a new item to the table if it does not already exist.

Put vs Update

There is no difference when an item does not exist. Both methods create a new item. When an existing item found, Put replaces it with the new one, Update alters the item’s attributes.

From DynamoDB API to SDK

DynamoDB is one of many services provided by AWS. Every service has API — a set of methods to call service — exposed to clients via HTTP endpoints. So, what’s the AWS SDK? It is a set of types and functions to build and run HTTP requests to AWS services.

Figure 2. Using AWS SDK in application

AWS SDK is available in multiple programming languages. Its functionality defined by AWS services APIs.

Expression package

Go AWS SDK provides methods to read and write data in DynamoDB. The structures that describe methods inputs contain filters, conditions and expressions’ attributes maps (names and values maps). Following is the example of building the QueryInput.

Snippet 1. QueryInput with manually defined expressions

This code works, but it has drawbacks. Building ExpressionAttributeValues for KeyConditionExpression manually is a labour intensive and error-prone process. Also, it contains information about the internal implementation of query processing.

The expression package provides types and functions to create expression strings (to describe filters and conditions) and attributes maps. The following code uses a declarative way to build QueryInput without exposing implementation details.

Snippet 2. Using expression package to define QueryInput

The main component of the package is Builder. It provides methods to build the Expression structure. The getter methods of the structure return the formatted DynamoDB expressions, ExpressionAttributeNames and ExpressionAttributeValues maps.

Builder uses four concrete implementations:

  • ConditionBuilder — builds FilterExpression and ConditionExpression
  • KeyConditionBuilder — builds KeyConditionExpression
  • ProjectionBuilder — builds ProjectionExpression
  • UpdateBuilder — builds UpdateExpression

Each of these builders can be involved in the building of the Expression structure using corresponding methods of Builder: WithCondition, WithFilter, WithKeyCondition, WithProjection, WithUpdate.

FilterExpression supports all the same functions and formats as ConditionExpression. Therefore ConditionBuilder represents both types of
expressions. As a result, WithCondition and WithFilter both accept an instance of ConditionBuilder.

Expressions and builders usage

The following table shows what expressions and builders used in different DynamoDB operations.

Table 1. Using expression and builders in DynamoDB operations

BatchGetItem requires a RequestItems map, where the key is a table name and the value is an item definition to get from the table. Expression and builders, provided in the table, used in the item definition.

TransactGetItems accepts a list of Get items. Each of the Get items described using expressions and a corresponding builder.

TransactWriteItems accepts a list of items each of type ConditionCheck, Delete, Put, and Update.

PutItem and Put require an instance of Item structure that must contain at least a primary key. Condition expressions are optional for Put operation.

As you can see, the expression package meets most of the requirements to prepare input for the DynamoDB operations. But there’s a missing feature — expression for a primary key. When defining an operation input that requires a primary key, the key built manually (actual at the moment of writing). Following is the list of operations that require primary key:

  • GetItem
  • DeleteItem
  • UpdateItem
  • BatchGetItem, BatchWriteItem, TransactGetItems, TransactWriteItems — every request item must define a primary key


For this article, I created a DynamoDB table that stores invoice information. Every invoice consists of one header and zero-to-many line items. I’m using one partition key for all documents related to the same invoice. It guarantees that invoice data stored in one physical location on the server in the data centre. That reduces operations latency. I’m using a sorting key to differentiate between invoice header and line items.

Snippet 3. CloudFormation template for Invoices DynamoDB table
Snippet 4. Go structures of invoice header, items and product

Create record

Snippet 5. Using PutItem to create a new invoice item

The snippet above consists of the following parts:

  • convert invoice item structure to DynamoDB attributes map (L3)
  • define PutItemInput (L8)
  • execute put item operation (L13)

Create multiple records in one transaction

Snippet 6. Using TransactWriteItems to create multiple records in one transaction

PutItem is suitable when you need to write only one item. But in some cases, writing of multiple records in one transaction is required. For example, it’s better to store invoice and all their items in one transaction.

The snippet above consists of the following parts:

  • convert invoice structure to DynamoDB attributes map (L3)
  • initiate transaction entries slice and add the invoice to it (L8–9)
  • convert invoice item structure to DynamoDB attributes map (L15)
  • add the item to transaction entries slice (L20)
  • define and validate transaction input (L26–27)
  • execute the transaction (L31)

Update record

Snippet 7. Using UpdateItem to update invoice item status

The snippet above consists of the following parts:

  • construct item’s primary key (L5–9)
  • define an expression for update (L14–17)
  • use the expression to build UpdateItemInput (L22)
  • execute update item operation (L30)

Update multiple records in one transaction

Snippet 8. Using TransactWriteItems to update invoice items in one transaction

The snippet above consists of the following parts:

  • define an expression for update (L9–12)
  • initiate transaction entries slice (L17)
  • construct item’s primary key (L19–23)
  • use the expression and item’s primary key to build Update entry (L28)
  • add Update entry to transaction slice (L35)
  • define and validate transaction input (L38–39)
  • execute the transaction (L43)

Get record

Snippet 9. Using GetItem to retrieve the invoice item

The snippet above consists of the following parts:

  • construct item’s primary key (L3–7)
  • prepare and build expression (L12-13)
  • use the expression to define GetItemInput (L18)
  • get the item (L25)
  • unmarshal results to product structure (L30)

In this example, an item retrieved by the primary key. Projection expression used to define operation output to match Product structure.

Get records (using Query)

Snippet 10. Using Query to retrieve invoice items

The snippet above consists of the following parts:

  • prepare and build expression containing a filter and key conditions (L5-12)
  • use the expression to define QueryInput (L20)
  • execute query (L28)
  • unmarshal query result to items slice (L37)

In this example, all items belonging to one invoice read from the table first, then filtered out by status and returned to a client.

Get records (using Scan)

Snippet 11. Using Scan to retrieve items

The snippet above consists of the following parts:

  • prepare and build filter expression (L3–8)
  • use filter expression when defining ScanInput (L13)
  • execute scan (L20)
  • unmarshal scan result to items slice (L29)

In this example, all items read from the table and then filtered out by status.

Delete record

Snippet 12. Using DeleteItem to delete invoice item

The snippet above consists of the following parts:

  • construct item’s primary key (L3–7)
  • define DeleteItemInput (L12)
  • call delete item operation (L17)

Software Engineer and chef @CloudRecipesIO

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