Documents are self-contained units of information, each typically representing a single record or instance of an entity

Documents in ArangoDB are JSON objects that contain structured or semi-structured data. They are stored in collections.

Each document has an immutable key that identifies it within a collection, and an identifier derived from the key that uniquely identifies it within a database.

Data types

Documents can store primitive values, lists of values, and nested objects (to any depth). JSON and thus ArangoDB supports the following data types:

  • null to represent the absence of a value, also known as nil or none type.
  • true and false, the Boolean values, to represent yes and no, on and off, etc.
  • numbers to store integer and floating-point values.
  • strings to store character sequences for text, encoded as UTF-8.
  • arrays to store lists that can contain any of the supported data types as elements, including nested arrays and objects.
  • objects to map keys to values like a dictionary, also known as associative arrays or hash maps. The keys are strings and the values can be any of the supported data types, including arrays and nested objects.

Example document:

  "_id" : "myusers/3456789",
  "_key" : "3456789",
  "_rev" : "14253647",
  "firstName" : "John",
  "lastName" : "Doe",
  "address" : {
    "street" : "Road To Nowhere 1",
    "city" : "Gotham"
  "hobbies" : [
    { "name": "swimming", "howFavorite": 10 },
    { "name": "biking", "howFavorite": 6 },
    { "name": "programming", "howFavorite": 4 }

System attributes

All documents contain special attributes at the top-level that start with an underscore, known as system attributes:

  • The document identifier is stored as a string in the _id attribute.
  • The document key is stored as a string in the _key attribute.
  • The document revision is stored as a string in the _rev attribute.

You can specify a value for the _key attribute when creating a document. The _id and _key values are immutable once the document has been created. The _rev value is maintained by ArangoDB automatically.

Edge documents in edge collections have two additional system attributes:

  • The document identifier of the source vertex stored in the _from attribute.
  • The document identifier of the target vertex stored in the _to attribute.

More system attributes may get added in the future without notice. Therefore, you should avoid using own attribute names starting with an underscore.

Document keys

Each document has a unique document key (or primary key) which identifies it within its collection.

A document key uniquely identifies a document in the collection it is stored in. It can and should be used by clients when specific documents are queried. The document key is stored in the _key attribute of each document. The key values are automatically indexed by ArangoDB in a collection’s primary index. Thus looking up a document by its key is a fast operation. The _key value of a document is immutable once the document has been created, which means it cannot be changed.

Keys are case-sensitive, i.e. myKey and MyKEY are considered to be different keys.

By default, ArangoDB generates a document key automatically if no _key attribute is specified. Otherwise, it uses the _key you provide. This behavior can be changed on a per-collection level by creating collections with the keyOptions attribute. Using keyOptions, it is possible to disallow user-specified keys completely, or to force a specific regime for auto-generating the _key values.

User-specified keys

If you allow user-specified keys, you can pick the key values as required, provided that the values conform to the following restrictions:

  • The key must be a string value. Numeric keys are not allowed, but any numeric value can be put into a string and can then be used as document key.
  • The key must be at least 1 byte and at most 254 bytes long. Empty keys are disallowed when specified (though it may be valid to completely omit the _key attribute from a document).
  • It must consist of the letters A to Z (lower- and uppercase), the digits 0 to 9, or any of the following punctuation characters: _ - : . @ ( ) + , = ; $ ! * ' %
  • Any other characters, especially multi-byte UTF-8 sequences, whitespace, or punctuation characters not listed above cannot be used inside key values.
  • The key must be unique within the collection it is used in.

When working with named graphs, their names are used as document keys in the _graphs system collection. Therefore, the same document key restrictions apply.

Automatically generated keys

There are no guarantees about the format and pattern of auto-generated document keys other than the above restrictions. Clients should therefore treat auto-generated document keys as opaque values and not rely on their format.

The default format for generated keys is a string containing numeric digits. The numeric values reflect chronological time in the sense that _key values generated later contain higher numbers than _key values generated earlier. However, the exact value that is generated by the server is not predictable. Note that if you sort on the _key attribute, string comparison is used, which means "100" is less than "99" etc.

Document identifiers

A document identifier (or document handle) uniquely identifies a document across all collections within the same database. It consists of the collection’s name and the document key (the value of the _key attribute), separated by a forward slash (/), like collection-name/document-key.

See Collection names and Document keys for information about the allowed characters.

Document revisions

Every document in ArangoDB has a revision, stored in the system attribute _rev. It is fully managed by the server and read-only for the user.

Its value should be treated as opaque, no guarantees regarding its format and properties are given except that it will be different after a document update. More specifically, _rev values are unique across all documents and all collections in a single server setup. In a cluster setup, within one shard it is guaranteed that two different document revisions have a different _rev string, even if they are written in the same millisecond.

The _rev attribute can be used as a pre-condition for queries, to avoid lost update situations. That is, if a client fetches a document from the server, modifies it locally (but with the _rev attribute untouched) and sends it back to the server to update the document, but meanwhile the document has been changed by another operation, then the revisions do not match anymore and the operation is cancelled by the server. Without this mechanism, the client would accidentally overwrite changes made to the document without knowing about it.

When an existing document is updated or replaced, ArangoDB writes a new version of this document to the write-ahead logfile (regardless of the storage engine). When the new version of the document has been written, the old version(s) is still present, at least on disk. The same is true when an existing document (version) gets removed: the old version of the document plus the removal operation are on disk for some time.

On disk, it is therefore possible that multiple revisions of the same document (as identified by the same _key value) exist at the same time. However, stale revisions are not accessible. Once a document has been updated or removed successfully, no query or other data retrieval operation done by the user is able to see it any more. Every transaction only ever sees a single revision of a document. Furthermore, after some time, old revisions are removed internally. This is to avoid ever-growing disk usage.

From a user perspective, there is just one single document revision present per different _key at every point in time. There is no built-in system to automatically keep a history of all changes done to a document and old versions of a document cannot be restored via the _rev value.

Attribute names

You can pick attribute names for document attributes as desired, provided the following naming constraints are not violated:

  • Attribute names starting with an underscore are considered to be system attributes for ArangoDB’s internal use. You should avoid using own attribute names starting with an underscore.

  • Theoretically, attribute names can include punctuation and special characters as desired, provided the name is a valid UTF-8 string. For maximum portability, special characters should be avoided, however.

    For example, attribute names may contain the dot character (.), but it has a special meaning in JavaScript and also in AQL. When using such attribute names in one of these languages, the attribute name needs to be quoted.

    Overall, it is recommended to use attribute names which don’t require any quoting or escaping in all languages used. This includes languages used by clients, such as Ruby and PHP, if the attributes are automatically mapped to object members.

  • Attribute names starting with an at sign (@) need to be enclosed in backticks or forward ticks when used in AQL queries to tell them apart from bind variables. Similarly, characters like +, -, *, /, and % are operators in AQL and require the use of backticks or forward ticks, too. This does not apply if you use the bracket notation with the attribute name as a string.

  • The dot character (.) and the character sequence [*] are special in ArangoDB index definitions, preventing you from creating indexes over attributes that include them in their names.

  • ArangoDB does not enforce a length limit for attribute names. However, long attribute names may use more memory in result sets etc. Therefore the use of long attribute names is discouraged.

  • Attribute names are case-sensitive.

  • Attributes with empty names (an empty string) are disallowed.

Documents API

The following descriptions cover the JavaScript interface for documents that you can use to handle documents from the arangosh command-line tool, as well as in server-side JavaScript code like Foxx microservices. For other languages see the corresponding language API.