Database Migrations with Alembic, SQLAlchemy and Flask

Published on November 16, 2012

Recently I started using Alembic for managing database migrations for a Flask application at work. Alembic is developed and maintained by the maker of SQLAlchemy, thus it was immediately an attractive tool. I've been using it the last month or so and without a doubt I've had a pleasant experience using it so far. In this post I want to share a couple of things that I did with Alembic while developing a Flask app that might prove useful for other developers out there.

The Database Connection

Alembic, mostly, makes no assumptions about your database connection. Generally speaking, when you initialize Alembic for your project you will use the following command:

alembic init alembic

The only assumption Alembic makes during this process is that you'll have one place to store your database connection setting. That is in the generated file named alembic.ini. In this file there will be a line that reads:

sqlalchemy.url = driver://user:pass@localhost/dbname

This is a great place to get started but keeping the database connection setting in this file isn't sustainable for any application that has various environments or differences in connection settings.

Alembic also creates another file named that is located in the folder named alembic. It is in this file that Alembic creates the SQLAlchemy engine object using the options specified in alembic.ini. This happens in a method called run_migrations_online.

It is also in this file that you can work some magic so that Alembic will connect to the appropriate database. In my case I was developing a Flask application using the Flask-SQLALchemy extension and the database connection is specified in the application configuration file: myapp/ Given that my configuration file is a plain Python file it was very easy to pass that value to Alembic. The run_migrations_online method of my file now looks like this:

def run_migrations_online():
    # Override sqlalchemy.url value to application's value
    alembic_config = config.get_section(config.config_ini_section)
    from myapp import config as app_config
    alembic_config['sqlalchemy.url'] = app_config.SQLALCHEMY_DATABASE_URI

    engine = engine_from_config(

    connection = engine.connect()

        with context.begin_transaction():

This file now works in all the application's environments so long as is properly configured.

Autogenerating Migrations

One handy feature of Alembic is the ability to autogenerate migration files based on your SQLAlchemy models. This feature simply relies on specifying the MetaData object for your models. Given that I was using Flask-SQLAlchemy all I had to do was pass the preconfigured MetaData object to Alembic. This object is accessible on the instance of the Flask-SQLAlchemy extension object which in my app happens to in the myapp.core module.

Within you'll see a commented out line that may look like the following:

# target_metadata = mymodel.Base.metadata

In my case I changed this the following:

from myapp.core import db
target_metadata = db.metadata

Now with my properly configured database connection and MetaData object in place I can autogenerate migrations with the following command:

alembic revision --autogenerate -m "Added some table"

Just bear in mind that autogenerating migrations isn't the end all be all command. I does not account for everything that can be done during a migration. For instance, if you want to add indexes on particular fields you'll need to write that in yourself. Lastly, if you add anything by hand remember to modify both the upgrade and downgrade methods!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2022
Built with Gatsby, tailwindcss & GitHub Pages
Find me on Mastodon