Bitemporality: More Than a Design Pattern

Bitemporality is the full solution.

Bitemporality: More Than a Design Pattern

April 12, 2021
Steven Deobald

Martin Fowler recently wrote about recording Bitemporal History. His article is a concise introduction to the topic. Combined with his earlier writing on Temporal Patterns, we have a strong foundation to examining the (apparent) paradox of bitemporality: how can it simultaneously appear so important yet so difficult?

Bitemporality Matters

Martin’s article highlights a fundamental truth about bitemporality: Bitemporality is real. The time an event occurred in the "real world" and the time that same event was recorded to disk are very different things, even if they often seem to mirror one another. Martin employs a classic payroll example. The folks at Robinhood provide a very real stock price example on their blog. Neither of these examples are particularly complicated or nuanced. They demonstrate the need for bitemporality in even the most basic systems.

They also have something else in common: accounting. "Accountants don’t use erasers" has become a mantra for engineers who recognize that recording immutable events as they occur is the only way to accurately record events at all. The world of accounting does not permit destructive updates and neither should we. The habit of updating records in place was engrained in software back when disk was limited and expensive. Whether we are building financial systems or not, the update-in-place habit flounders in 2021 when these constraints no longer exist. We are behaving like an accountant who erases entries on her ledger for fear of running out of paper.

Martin points to this fact back in 2005, when disk was still expensive enough to justify destructive updates in some systems:

In general changing the time record is quite messy. …​. The first simplification is that you may have only additive changes.

— Martin Fowler
Temporal Patterns

Sage advice. Software systems already have enough complexities. Trying to layer time on top of mutation — and then a second axis of time on top of that — is unnecessary. We should put our erasers away and treat our ledger as immutable. The software world has other common examples of immutable ledgers. The blockchain is waving the biggest banner, clamouring for the attention of venture capitalists, but there are simpler examples in git and log files. All three adhere to the same principle: don’t rewrite history. Which isn’t to say it’s not possible, of course. But if you want to amend history in git you better let everyone know you’re doing so — and you better have a good reason. If you are deleting data from log files it’s because someone served you a GDPR Right to Erasure notice.

No system is perfectly immutable. Eviction is the natural concomitant of immutable data. But it is the exception, not the rule. Once your systems record all their data immutably, you have untied one of your hands. Eliminating destructive updates frees the developer to think about the two timelines she must master.

Bitemporality is Hard

I’ve seen grown developers bite their own heads off when faced with this kind of stuff. But once you realize that everything comes down to this notion of two dimensions, then things start getting a lot simpler. …​. The first simplification is that it isn’t difficult to use Audit Log to cope with these changes. …​. The second simplification is that you often don’t want your model to handle both dimensions. …​. Bi-temporality is the full solution, but it’s always worth thinking of ways around it."

— Martin Fowler
Temporal Patterns

Martin’s implementation advice signals an incongruity. One one hand, bitemporality is real and it is important that we record both timelines to keep ourselves sane. On the other hand, bitemporality is incredibly difficult to program correctly, so it’s best avoided whenever possible. The two time dimensions impart their simplicity in direct proportion to their prevalence. But if we encode them by hand, their presence isn’t free.

These patterns seem to contradict themselves because bitemporality — while the truth of your system — is not the domain of your system. Implementing temporality from scratch requires sprinkling your code with a pile of patterns, none of which have anything to do with your business: Snapshots, Temporal Objects, Time Points, Temporal Properties, and Effectivities. Not to mention your valid_from, valid_to, tx_from, and tx_to columns on every single table. [1]

These patterns are not just an extra domain you need to deal with. They are also a complicated domain. They are easy to get wrong. The combination is unpleasant: you must invest months (or years) of development time building a half-baked bitemporal system which, in and of itself, has nothing to do with your goals. This is another reason entirely for grown developers to "bite their own heads off." Even if you manage to get bitemporality right, building it from scratch is still a waste of your time.

Unfortunately, you are unlikely to get bitemporality right. If you are using an update-in-place RDBMS you will require entity_history tables for every entity table. You will probably require triggers to update these or a plugin to do that for you. [2] You will need to manage all the extra columns by hand, ensuring they are added to every table. You must take these explicit, user-managed timeplane columns into account in every join of every query. Postgres and Oracle do not know that these extra columns are special, which mean the query planner won’t either. Even if you are using an immutable database, if it doesn’t understand bitemporality you are still left managing valid-time by hand.

There are patterns in C to write object-oriented code but we chose C++. There are patterns in C++ for managing object lifecycles but we chose the JVM. There are patterns in Java for managing concurrency but we chose persistent data structures. It is still possible to build a car from a mail-order kit. There are patterns for managing temporality but perhaps we’d prefer the problem was solved in a repeatable and provably-correct way.


There’s got to be a better way. And indeed there is. Use a bitemporal database. Crux is one such database (though it’s not the only one).

Håkan Råberg is the original software architect behind Crux. Håkan’s Design and Implementation of a Bitemporal Database talk [3] does a good job of explaining why it’s a requirement of any system which incorporates temporality in its domain.

We realized, "Okay, we’re solving a similar problem. We want to have a toolkit to solve this problem." …​. It’s not so good to come to your standup and say "I want to build a bitemporal database." It’s frowned upon.

— Håkan Råberg
Design and Implementation of a Bitemporal Database

Bitemporality is more than a design pattern. It has to be baked in. It should work automatically, across all your records, across all your systems. By default, you shouldn’t even know it exists; a good bitemporal system assumes you’re talking about the state of the world as-of-now unless you specify otherwise. Your business needs to trust that bitemporality Just Works — and that it will work just as well on your next project. And the next one.

You want a car built and tested in a factory. You want a bitemporal toolkit built and tested by a Bitemporal Engineer. Your car won’t fall apart on the freeway and you won’t bite your own head off when you write time-traveling queries.

Bitemporality matters beyond accounting systems. Håkan provides an overview of bitemporal use cases your systems might already have: corrections, new information, auditing, integration of systems with their own disparate timelines, backfill of large amounts of historical data, reordering of events, and Immutability in the Large:

You are either constrained by (1) a functional programming Romantic Fairy Land where you never need to change anything and everything is pure or (2) you get this horrific update-in-place thing. But bitemporality tries to give you the best of both worlds. You can change your mind — but you still know that you’ve changed your mind.

— Håkan Råberg
Design and Implementation of a Bitemporal Database

There isn’t a way around a proper bitemporal data store. Martin points directly to it, from a number of different angles. Bitemporal data makes most domains simpler — and makes some previously impossible calculations possible. Doing bitemporality correctly means we can only permit additive changes, which means our system is only permitted immutable data. Martin hints at Event Sourcing as one solution to the immutability problem, but acknowledges the complications it introduces: slow queries and the technical complexity of snapshots. Event streams on their own don’t make good general purpose databases. Thus, to "update" immutable data our database must understand how to add a new record which represents a change — and to efficiently query that immutable data our database must understand both events and records. The event source must be part of the database. Finally, once we have immutability in place, we need data eviction to comply with laws like GDPR.

Bitemporality is a reality of any system which has ever been deployed to production. Crux encodes this reality in every record it stores — automatically and transparently. Systems which find they require valid-time and tx-time can access them — optionally. By 2050, all databases will behave this way but the effort must be at the database layer, even today.

1. Although Martin has chosen the terminology of Actual Time and Record Time, the terms Valid Time and Transaction Time are the standard terms for those semantics.
2. Such plugins do exist.
3. Håkan’s talk is well worth a watch, even if you’ve seen it before.