Django tips: the difference between ‘blank’ and ‘null’

Published June 28, 2006. Filed under: Django.

New users of Django, even people who have lots of experience writing database-driven applications, often run into a seemingly simple problem: how do you set up a model with “optional” fields that don’t always have to be filled in? Django’s validation system assumes by default that all fields are required, so obviously you have to tell it which fields it’s OK to leave blank.

But therein lies the problem: there are two different ways you can “leave it blank”.

There’s nothing…

For the most part, assuming that fields should be required is a good idea; it’s easier to go back and mark something as optional later on than it is to recover from a critical required field that was being left blank until you noticed something was wrong. So Django merrily goes along making all your model’s fields required until you say otherwise, and things hum along smoothly.

But then you decide that it’d be OK for the “mother’s maiden name” field on your site’s user profile model to be left blank, so you go hunting in the Django documentation and find the blank argument. You add it to your model like so:

mothers_maiden_name = model.CharField(maxlength=50, blank=True)

And you tell your users that they don’t have to fill that in anymore.

And then you start getting the complaints. “I left it blank like you said I could, but I get an error!”

…and then there’s nothing

The problem is that the blank argument on your model only applies to Django’s own input validation mechanisms, not to your database. Databases are wonderfully flexible things, and can take in all sorts of data types: dates, times, strings, numbers and so on. They also have a very special data type called NULL, which is literally nothing. It’s the database equivalent of Python’s None keyword — NULL represents non-existent data.

If you leave a field blank in the admin, and you’ve specified blank=True for it, NULL is the value Django will insert into the database for that field. But that might not be allowed; when you create a database table, you have the option of specifying whether a particular column can accept NULL values or not; if you don’t want it to, you just add the declaration NOT NULL for that column, and the database will throw an error every time you try to insert nothing there.

And by default, Django creates all the columns in your database with NOT NULL declarations. Once again, this is a sensible thing to do; you might try to create an object directly in Python code, or execute raw SQL yourself, and if you do that you’ll bypass all of Django’s input validation. In these cases, the NOT NULL saves you from accidentally leaving a required field blank, and the same logic as above — better to change a field from required to optional than have to recover from a field that never should have been optional — applies.

To tell Django that a column in the database can truly be left blank, as opposed to just leaving a field blank in the admin, you use the null argument, like so:

mothers_maiden_name = models.CharField(maxlength=50, null=True)

It’s blanks all the way down

And, of course, if you used that line above, you’d still get errors because even though the database will accept a NULL, the admin won’t let you leave the field blank. So to truly “leave it blank”, you have to use both arguments:

mothers_maiden_name = models.CharField(maxlength=50, null=True, blank=True)

This way, the admin will let you leave the field blank, and the database will let you insert a NULL value for that field.

If you’ve already created your database, and didn’t use null=True, you’ll need to execute a tiny bit of SQL to get rid of the NOT NULL Django set up for you; the syntax varies from database to database, but for Postgres it would look like this:

ALTER TABLE user_profile ALTER COLUMN mothers_maiden_name DROP NOT NULL;

For MySQL it’s more complicated, because MySQL doesn’t support the DROP NOT NULL command; instead you have to use the MODIFY command and re-define the column.

This is confusing! Why not simplify it?

The distinction between blank and null is somewhat subtle and leads to a lot of confusion; people who are new to web development in general tend to think blank should work more the way it sounds, and people who’ve done web development before usually think null by itself should be enough to let a blank value go all the way through. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as it seems: sometimes you really need to be able to leave something blank in the admin, but have a NOT NULL for it in the database, or allow NULL in the database but require it to be entered in the admin. To see why, let’s look at a simple example.

On this weblog, I use the Python port of John Gruber’s Markdown to convert plain text into HTML for output. Now, Django includes a built-in template filter (found in django.contrib.markup) which will let you use Markdown, but that wasn’t what I wanted. Doing it that way requires me to run Markdown over an entry every time it’s displayed; since the text of the entry generally isn’t changing from one page view to another, that seems awfully wasteful.

So I actually use two fields in my database for the body of an entry. One holds the Markdown-formatted plain text, and the other holds the HTML produced by Markdown (if this also seems wasteful, keep in mind that on shared hosting disk space is often far more abundant than processor time — you’re going to waste one of them, so waste the one you can afford to waste). And Django makes it easy to do this; I just have a custom save() method on my Entry model that runs Markdown over the plain-text field and inserts the resulting HTML into the HTML field, then saves both to the database.

This means the field which will hold the HTML starts out blank in the admin, since it’s going to get automatically filled in before saving (in fact, I don’t even show that field in the admin). But in order to display the entry there has to be HTML in that field at output time, which means it can’t go NULL into the database. So the model ends up looking like this:

body = models.TextField()
body_html = models.TextField(blank=True)

If blank and null were condensed into one argument that controlled both Django’s input validation and whether the database accepted NULL, it wouldn’t be possible to do this sort of thing reliably. And calculating the value of one field automatically from another is an extremely common thing to have to do, so even though it’s a bit confusing at first it’s for the best that the two options stay separate.