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Matt Layman
Matt Layman

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Understand Django: Store Data With Models

In the previous Understand Django article, we encountered forms and how forms allow your application to receive data from users who use your site. In this article, you'll see how to take that data and store it into a database so that your application can use that data or display it later.

Setting Up

Let's figure out where your data goes before getting deep into how to work with it. Django uses databases to store data. More specifically, Django uses relational databases. Covering relational databases would be a gigantic topic so you'll have to settle for a very abridged version.

A relational database is like a collection of spreadsheets. Each spreadsheet is actually called a table. A table has a set of columns to track different pieces of data. Each row in the table would represent a related group. For instance, imagine we have an employee table for a company. The columns for an employee table might include a first name, last name, and job title. Each row would represent an individual employee.

First name | Last name | Job title
John       | Smith     | Software Engineer
Peggy      | Jones     | Software Engineer

The "relational" part of a relational database comes into play because multiple tables can relate to each other. In our company example, the database could have a table of phone numbers that it uses to store the phone number of each employee.

Why not put the phone number in the same employee table? Well, what would happen if a company needed a cell phone number and home phone number? By having separate tables, we could support tracking multiple phone number types. There is a lot of power that comes from being able to separate these different kinds of data. We'll see the power of relational databases as we explore how Django exposes that power.

Django uses a relational database so the framework must have some ability to set up that database. The database configuration is in the DATABASES setting in your file. After running startproject, you'll find:

    'default': {
        'ENGINE': 'django.db.backends.sqlite3',
        'NAME': os.path.join(BASE_DIR, 'db.sqlite3'),

Like we saw with the templates system, Django supports multiple databases. Unlike the template system, the database settings refer to each supported backend as an "engine" instead of "backend." The default database engine from startproject is set to use SQLite. SQLite is a great starting choice because it fits an entire relational database into a single file which the settings name db.sqlite3. This choice of engine really lowers the barrier to starting with Django since new Django developers don't have to go download additional tools to try Django out.

SQLite is an amazing little database and probably the mostly widely used database in the world. The database exists in every smartphone you could think of. Even though SQLite is amazing, it's not a good fit for many scenarios where you'd want to use Django. For starters, the database only permits one user to write to it at a time. That's a huge problem if you're planning to make a site that serves many people simultaneously.

Because SQLite is not the best fit for an application on the web, you'll likely need to switch to a different relational database. I'd recommend PostgreSQL. Postgres (as it is often "abbreviated" to) is a wildly popular, open source database that is very well supported. Combined with psycopg2 as the Django engine, you'll find that many places that can host your Django app will work well with Postgres.

We can explore more database configuration in a future article on deployment. For now, while you're learning, SQLite is perfectly well suited for the task.

Modeling Your Data

Now that you have an idea of where Django will store your data, let's focus on how Django will store data.

Django represents data for a database in Python classes called models. Django models are similar to the form classes that we saw in the last article. A Django model declares the data that you want to store in the database as class level attributes, just like a form class. In fact, the types of fields are extremely similar to their form counterparts, and for good reason! We often want to save form data and store it so it makes sense for models to be similar to forms in structure. Let's look at an example.

# application/
from django.db import models

class Employee(models.Model):
    first_name = models.CharField(max_length=100)
    last_name = models.CharField(max_length=100)
    job_title = models.CharField(max_length=200)

This model class describes the pieces that we want to include in a database table. Each model class represents one database table. If we wanted the phone numbers that I mentioned earlier, we'd create a separate PhoneNumber class. Conventionally, we use a singular name instead of a plural when naming the class. We do that because each row in the table is represented as an object instance.

>>> from application.models import Employee
>>> employee = Employee(
...     first_name='Tom',
...     last_name='Bombadil',
...     job_title='Old Forest keeper')
>>> employee.first_name

This example appears to create a new employee, but it's missing a key element. We haven't saved the employee instance to the database. We can do that with, but, if you are following along and tried to call that right now, it will fail with an error that says that the employee table doesn't exist.

Since the database is a tool that is external to Django, the database needs a bit of preparation before it can receive data from Django.

Preparing A Database With Migrations

We now know that Django models are Python classes that map to database tables. Database tables don't magically appear. We need the ability to set up tables so that they will match the structure defined in the Python class. The tool Django provides to make Django models and a database sync up is called the migrations system.

Migrations are Python files that describe the sequence of database operations that are needed to make a database match any model definitions that you have in your project.

Because Django works with many databases, these database operation are defined in Python files so that the operations can be abstract. By using abstract operations, the Django migration system can plug in the specific database commands for whatever database you're using. If you're starting out with SQLite, then moving to PostgreSQL when you're ready to put your application on the internet, then the migration system will do its best to smooth over the differences to minimize the amount of work you would need while making the transition.

Initially, you can get pretty far without understanding the internals of how migration files work. At the core level, you need to learn a couple of Django commands: makemigrations and migrate.


The makemigrations command will create any migration files if there are any pending model changes. To create our migration file for the Employee model, we can run:

(venv) $ ./ makemigrations
Migrations for 'application':
    - Create model Employee

The important thing to note is that we require a new migration when we make model changes that update any model fields. This includes:

  • Adding new models or new fields
  • Modifying existing fields
  • Deleting existing fields
  • Changing some model metadata and a few other edge cases

If you do not make a migration, you will likely encounter errors when fetching data from the database. This is because Django only builds queries based on what is defined in the Python code. The system assumes that the database is in the proper state. Django will try to query on database tables even if those tables don't exist yet!


The other command, migrate, takes migration files and applies them to a database. For example:

(venv) $ ./ migrate
Operations to perform:
  Apply all migrations: admin, application, auth, contenttypes, sessions
Running migrations:
  Applying contenttypes.0001_initial... OK
  Applying auth.0001_initial... OK
  Applying admin.0001_initial... OK
  Applying admin.0002_logentry_remove_auto_add... OK
  Applying admin.0003_logentry_add_action_flag_choices... OK
  Applying application.0001_initial... OK
  Applying contenttypes.0002_remove_content_type_name... OK
  Applying auth.0002_alter_permission_name_max_length... OK
  Applying auth.0003_alter_user_email_max_length... OK
  Applying auth.0004_alter_user_username_opts... OK
  Applying auth.0005_alter_user_last_login_null... OK
  Applying auth.0006_require_contenttypes_0002... OK
  Applying auth.0007_alter_validators_add_error_messages... OK
  Applying auth.0008_alter_user_username_max_length... OK
  Applying auth.0009_alter_user_last_name_max_length... OK
  Applying auth.0010_alter_group_name_max_length... OK
  Applying auth.0011_update_proxy_permissions... OK
  Applying sessions.0001_initial... OK

This is the output that happens when applying our new migration. What is all this stuff!?

The migration system is also used by built-in Django applications. In my sample project, I used startproject which includes a set of included applications in the INSTALLED_APPS list. We can observe that our sample application applied its migration, and the migrations from the other Django applications that we included are also applied.

Those are the fundamentals of migrations. You can also use migrations to apply more complex operations like actions that are specific to your selected database. You can learn more about what Django migrations can do in the Migrations documentation.

Working With Models

After running migrations, your database will be prepared to communicate properly with Django.

To create new rows in our new database tables, we can use a model's save method. When you save a model instance, Django will send a message to the database that effectively says "add this new data to this database table." These database "messages" are actually called queries.

As I mentioned in the settings section, Django communicates with the database via a database engine. The database engine uses Structured Query Language (SQL) to communicate with the actual database. SQL is the common standard that Django's supported databases all "speak." Since Django uses SQL, that's why messages are named "query."

What does an SQL query look like? If we save our model example from earlier, it would look something like:

INSERT INTO "application_employee" ("first_name", "last_name", "job_title")
    VALUES ('Tom', 'Bombadil', 'Old Forest keeper')

Note that this example is an INSERT query when using the SQLite engine. Like natural languages, SQL has a variety of dialects depending on the database that you select. The databases do their best to adhere to some standards, but each database has its quirks, and the job of the database engine is to even out those differences where possible.

This is another area where Django does a ton of hard work on your behalf. The database engine translates your save call into the proper SQL query. SQL is a deep topic that we can't possibly cover fully in this article. Thankfully, we don't have to because of Django's ORM!

ORM stands for Object Relational Mapper. The job of an ORM is to map (or translate) from Python objects to a relational database. This means that we spend our time working in Python code, and we let Django figure out how to get and put data into the database.

Using save on a model record is such a small example of the Django ORM. What else can we do? We can do things like:

  • Get all rows from the database.
  • Get a filtered set of rows based on some filtering criteria.
  • Update a set of rows at the same time.
  • Delete rows from the database.

Most of the these operations with the Django ORM work through a Manager class. Where our previous example showed how to manipulate a single row, a model manager has methods designed for interacting with multiple rows.

We can analyze our fictitious employee table. The manager for a model is attached to the model class as an attribute named objects. Let's see some code:

>>> from application.models import Employee
>>> bobs = Employee.objects.filter(first_name='Bob')
>>> for bob in bobs:
...     print(f"{bob.first_name} {bob.last_name}")
Bob Ross
Bob Barker
Bob Marley
Bob Dylan
>>> print(bobs.query)
SELECT "application_employee"."id",
    FROM "application_employee"
    WHERE "application_employee"."first_name" = Bob

In this example, we're using the manager to filter to a subset of employees within the table. The bobs variable returned by the filter method is a QuerySet. As you might guess, it represents a set of rows that an SQL query will return. Whenever you have a queryset, you can print the query to see the exact SQL statement that Django will run on your behalf.

What if you want to delete an employee record?

>>> from application.models import Employee
>>> # The price is wrong, Bob!
>>> Employee.objects.filter(first_name='Bob', last_name='Barker').delete()
(1, {'application.Employee': 1})

A queryset can apply operations in bulk. In this case, the filter is sufficiently narrow that only one record was deleted, but it could have included more if the SQL query matched more database table rows.

The QuerySet class has a variety of methods that are useful when working with tables. Some of the methods also have the interesting property of returning a new queryset. This is a beneficial capability when you need to apply additional logic for your query.

from application.models import Employee

employees = Employee.objects.all()  # employees is a QuerySet of all rows!

if should_find_the_bobs:
    employees = employees.filter(first_name='Bob')  # New queryset!

Here's are some other QuerySet methods
that I use constantly:

  • create - As an alternative to creating a record instance and calling save, the manager can create a record directly.
Employee.objects.create(first_name='Bobby', last_name='Tables')
  • get - Use this method when you want one and exactly one record. If your query doesn't match or will return multiple records, you'll get an exception.
the_bob = Employee.objects.get(first_name='Bob', last_name='Marley')

# Raises application.models.Employee.MultipleObjectsReturned

Employee.objects.get(first_name='Bob', last_name='Sagat')
# Raises application.models.Employee.DoesNotExist
  • exclude - This method lets you exclude rows that may be part of your existing queryset.
the_other_bobs = (
  • update - With this method, you can update a group of rows in a single operation.
  • exists - Use this method if you want to check if rows exist in the database that match the condition you want to check.
has_bobs = Employee.objects.filter(first_name='Bob').exists()
  • count - Check how many rows match a condition. Because of how SQL works, note that this is more efficient than trying to use len on a queryset.
how_many_bobs = Employee.objects.filter(first_name='Bob').count()
  • none - This returns an empty queryset for the model. How could this be useful? I use this when I need to protect certain data access.
employees = Employee.objects.all()

if not is_hr:
    employees = Employee.objects.none()
  • first / last - These methods will return an individual model instance if one matches. The methods use ordering on the models to get the desired result. We use order_by to tell how we want the results arranged.
>>> a_bob = Employee.objects.filter(first_name='Bob').order_by(
...     'last_name').last()
>>> print(a_bob.last_name)

With the knowledge of how you can interact with models, we can focus more closely on what data can be stored in models (and, thus, in your database).

Types Of Model Data

The Employee table that I've used as the example for this article only has three CharField fields on the model. The choice was deliberate because I wanted you to have a chance to absorb a bit about the Django ORM and working with querysets before seeing other data types.

We saw in the forms article that Django's form system includes a wide variety of form fields. If you look at the Form fields reference and compare the list of types to those in the Model field reference, you can observe a lot of overlap.

Like their form counterparts, models have CharField, BooleanField, DateField, DateTimeField, and many other similar types. The field types share many common attributes. Most commonly, I think you will use or encounter the following attributes.

  • default - If you want to be able to create a model record without specifying certain values, then you can use default. The value can either be a literal value or callable function that produces a value.
# application/
import random

from django.db import models

def strength_generator():
    return random.randint(1, 20)

class DungeonsAndDragonsCharacter(models.Model):
    name = models.CharField(max_length=100, default='Conan')
    # Important to note: Pass the function, do not *call* the function!
    strength = models.IntegerField(default=strength_generator)
  • unique - When a field value must be unique for all the rows in the database table, use unique. This is a good attribute for identifiers where you don't expect duplicates.
class ImprobableHero(models.Model):
    name = models.CharField(max_length=100, unique=True)

# There can be only one.
ImprobableHero.objects.create(name='Connor MacLeod')
  • null - A relational database has the ability to store the absence of data. In the database, this value is thought of as NULL. Sometimes this is an important distinction versus a value that is empty. For instance, on a Person model, an integer field like number_of_children would mean very different things for a value of 0 versus a value of NULL. The former indicates that a person has no children while the latter indicates that the number of children is unknown. The presence of null conditions requires more checking in your code so Django defaults to making null be False. This means that a field does not allow NULL. Null values can be useful if needed, but I think its better to avoid them if you can and try to keep actual data about a field.
class Person(models.Model):
    # This field would always have a value since it can't be null.
    # Zero counts as a value and is not NULL.
    age = models.IntegerField()
    # This field could be unknown and contain NULL.
    # In Python, a NULL db value will appear as None.
    weight = models.IntegerField(null=True)
  • blank - The blank attribute is often used in conjunction with the null attribute. While the null attribute allows a database to store NULL for a field, blank allows form validation to permit an empty field. This is used by forms which are automatically generated by Django like in the Django administrator site which we'll talk about in the next article.
class Pet(models.Model):
    # Not all pets have tails so we want auto-generated forms
    # to allow no value.
    length_of_tail = models.IntegerField(null=True, blank=True)
  • choices - We saw choices in the forms article as a technique for helping users pick the right value from a constrained set. choices can be set on the model. Django can do validation on the model that will ensure that only particular values are stored in a database field.
class Car(models.Model):
        (1, 'Black'),
        (2, 'Red'),
        (3, 'Blue'),
        (4, 'Green'),
        (5, 'White'),
    color = models.IntegerField(choices=COLOR_CHOICES, default=1)
  • help_text - As applications get bigger or if you work on a large team with many people creating Django models, the need for documentation grows. Django permits help text that can be displayed with a field value in the Django administrator site. This help text is useful to remind your future self or educate a coworker.
class Policy(models.Model):
    is_section_987_123_compliant = models.BooleanField(
            'For policies that only apply on leap days'
            ' in accordance with Section 987.123'
            ' of the Silly Draconian Order'

Those are the attributes that I believe users are most likely to encounter. There are also a couple of important field types that require special attention: relational fields.

What Makes A Database "Relational?"

Relational databases have the ability to link different types of data together. We got a brief example of this earlier in this article when we considered an employee with multiple phone numbers.

An overly simplified model for an employee with multiple phone numbers might look like:

# application/
from django.db import models

class Employee(models.Model):
    first_name = models.CharField(max_length=100)
    last_name = models.CharField(max_length=100)
    job_title = models.CharField(max_length=200)
    phone_number_1 = models.CharField(max_length=32)
    phone_number_2 = models.CharField(max_length=32)

This single table could hold a couple of numbers, but this solution has some deficiencies.

  • What if an employee has more than two phone numbers? It's possible for a person to have multiple cell phones, a land line at their residence, a pager number, a fax number, and so on.
  • How can we know what type of phone number is in phone_number_1 and phone_number_2? If you pull the employee record to try to call the individual and dial a fax number instead, you'd have a hard time talking to them.

Instead, what if we had two separate models?

# application/
from django.db import models

class Employee(models.Model):
    first_name = models.CharField(max_length=100)
    last_name = models.CharField(max_length=100)
    job_title = models.CharField(max_length=200)

class PhoneNumber(models.Model):
    number = models.CharField(max_length=32)
        (1, 'Mobile'),
        (2, 'Home'),
        (3, 'Pager'),
        (4, 'Fax'),
    phone_type = models.IntegerField(choices=PHONE_TYPES, default=1)

We've got two separate tables. How can we link the tables so that an employee can have one, two, or two hundred phone numbers? For that, we can use the ForeignKey relational field type. Here is a slightly updated version of PhoneNumber.


class PhoneNumber(models.Model):
    number = models.CharField(max_length=32)
        (1, 'Mobile'),
        (2, 'Home'),
        (3, 'Pager'),
        (4, 'Fax'),
    phone_type = models.IntegerField(choices=PHONE_TYPES, default=1)
    employee = models.ForeignKey(Employee, on_delete=models.CASCADE)

This update says that every phone number must now be associated with an employee record. on_delete is a required attribute that determines what will happen when an employee record gets deleted. In this case, CASCADE means that deleting an employee row will cascade and delete any of the employee's related phone numbers too.

The key to how this works is by understanding keys. When you make a Django model, you get an extra field added to your model by the framework. This field is called an AutoField.

# This is what Django adds to your model.
id = models.AutoField(primary_key=True)

An AutoField adds a column to a database table that will assign each row in the table a unique integer. Each new row increments from the previous row and numbering starts at one. This number is the identifier for the row and is called the primary key.

If Tom Bombadil is the first employee in the table, then the row id value would be 1.

Knowing about primary keys, we're equipped to understand foreign key fields. In the case of the PhoneNumber.employee foreign key field, any phone number row will store the value of some employee row's primary key. This is usually called a one to many relationship.

A ForeignKey is a one to many relationship because multiple rows from a table (in this case, PhoneNumber) can reference a single row in another table, namely, Employee. In other words, an employee can have multiple phone numbers. If we wanted to get Tom's phone numbers, then one possible way would be:

tom = Employee.objects.get(first_name='Tom', last_name='Bombadil')
phone_numbers = PhoneNumber.objects.filter(employee=tom)

The query for phone_numbers would be:

    FROM "application_phonenumber"
    WHERE "application_phonenumber"."employee_id" = 1

In the database, Django will store the table column for the foreign key as employee_id. The query is asking for all phone number rows that match when the employee ID is 1. Since primary keys have to be unique, that value of 1 can only match Tom Bombadil so the resulting rows will be phone numbers that are associated with that employee.

There is another relational field type that we should spend time on. That field is the ManyToManyField. As you might guess, this field is used when two types of data relate to each other in a many to many fashion.

Let's think about neighborhoods. Neighborhoods can have a variety of mixed residence types like houses, apartments, condominiums and so on, but to keep the example simpler, we'll assume that neighborhoods are composed of houses. Each house in a neighborhood is the home of one or more people.

What if we tried to model this with ForeignKey fields?

# application/
from django.db import models

class Person(models.Model):
    name = models.CharField(max_length=128)

class House(models.Model):
    address = models.CharField(max_length=256)
    resident = models.ForeignKey(Person, on_delete=models.CASCADE)

This version shows a scenario where a house can only have a single resident. A person could be the resident of multiple houses, but those houses would be pretty lonely. What if we put the foreign key on the other side of the modeling relationship?

# application/
from django.db import models

class House(models.Model):
    address = model.CharField(max_length=256)

class Person(models.Model):
    name = models.CharField(max_length=128)
    house = models.ForeignKey(House, on_delete_models.CASCADE)

In this version, a house can have multiple residents, but a person can only belong to a single house.

Neither of these scenarios model the real world well. In the real world, houses can and do often hold multiple people. Simultaneously, many people in the world have a second house like a beach house or a summer cottage in the woods. Both sides of the model relationship can have many of the other side.

With a ManyToManyField, you can add the field to either side. Here's the new modeling.

# application/
from django.db import models

class Person(models.Model):
    name = models.CharField(max_length=128)

class House(models.Model):
    address = models.CharField(max_length=256)
    residents = models.ManyToManyField(Person)

How does this work at the database level? We saw with foreign keys that one table can hold the primary key of another table's row in its own data. Unfortunately, a single database column cannot hold multiple foreign keys. That means that the modeling above does not add residents to the House table. Instead, the relationship is handled by adding a new database table. This new table contains the mapping between people and houses and stores rows that contain primary keys from each model.

Let's think of an example to see what this looks like. Suppose there are three people records with primary keys of 1, 2, and 3. Let's also suppose that there are three houses with primary keys of 97, 98, and 99. To prove that the many-to-many relationship works in both directions, we'll assume these conditions are true:

  • People with primary keys of 1 and 2 reside in house 97.
  • The person with primary key 3 owns house 98 and 99.

The data in the new mapping table between Person and House would contain data like:

Person | House
1      | 97
2      | 97
3      | 98
3      | 99

Because of the joining table, Django is able to query either side of the table to get related houses or residents.

We can access the many side of each model using a queryset. residents will be a ManyRelatedManager and, like other managers, can provide querysets by using certain manager methods.

Getting the reverse direction is a little less obvious. Django will add another ManyRelatedManager to the Person model automatically. The name of that manager is the model name joined with _set. In this circumstance, that name is house_set. You can also provide a related_name attribute to the ManyToManyField if you want a different name like if you wanted to call it houses instead.

house = House.objects.get(address='123 Main St.')
# Note the use of `all()`!
for resident in house.residents.all():

person = Person.objects.get(name='Joe')
for house in person.house_set.all():

Understanding ForeignKey and ManyToManyField is an important step to modeling your problem domain well. By having these tools available to you, you can begin to create many of the complex data relationships that exist with real world problems.


In this article, we've explored:

  • How to set up a database for your project.
  • How Django uses special classes called models to keep data.
  • Running the commands that will prepare a database for the models you want to use.
  • Saving new information into the database.
  • Asking the database for information that we stored.
  • Complex field types to model real world problems.

With this ability to store data into a database, you have all the core tools for building an interactive website for your users! In this series, we have examined:

  • URL handling
  • views to run your code and business logic
  • templates to display your user interface
  • forms to let users input and interact with your site
  • models to store data into a database for long term storage

This is the core set of features that most websites have. Since we've seen the core topics that make Django sites work, we're ready to focus our attention on some of the other amazing tools that set Django apart from the pack.

First on the list is the built-in Django administrators site that let's you explore the data that you store in your database. We'll cover:

  • What the Django admin site is
  • How to make your models appear in the admin
  • How to create extra actions that your admin users can do

If you'd like to follow along with the series, please feel free to sign up for my newsletter where I announce all of my new content. If you have other questions, you can reach me online on Twitter where I am @mblayman.

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Top comments (2)

hasanmn profile image

Awesomeness article series. Really helpful. Thanks a lot.

mblayman profile image
Matt Layman

Thanks! I'm glad you're enjoying the series.