The past few years of rapid growth have left Button with unused data which cluttered our internal dashboards. In particular, there were a lot of accounts representing companies with no verification. One of my first projects at Button was to remove these accounts and everything related to them. In a perfect world, we'd be able to write a script that iterates through each account, checks to see if it is or isn't verified, and simply deletes it. But what if one day we needed to restore this account, or worse— what if someone accidentally ran the script and it permanently deleted one of our partners' data?

To proceed safely, we needed a mechanism to undo our deletions. We call this: soft deletes. In this post, I'll show you how to safely delete your data and bring it back to life using Django Rest Framework.

What we started with

If you're not familiar, Django Rest Framework provides an ORM (Object-relational mapping) which gives you a fancy way to talk to your database by letting you think in terms of models instead of SQL tables, columns, and rows. It may be an obvious feature, but inheriting from other Django model classes lets you share functionality.

We already had a BaseModel which contained useful metadata fields such ascreated_at and modified_at. Any model that inherits from BaseModel gets these fields as a column on its respective database table. Our BaseModel also provides some additional functionality like emitting useful metrics on record creation.

class BaseModel(models.Model):
created_at = models.DateTimeField(auto_now_add=True)
modified_date = models.DateTimeField(auto_now=True)

class Meta:
abstract = True

# other fields / methods...

Using the same principle of inheriting fields, we created a SoftDeleteModel which inherits from BaseModel. In its simplest and most naive form, SoftDeleteModel adds a single is_deleted field which specifies if the record was deleted at. It also overrides the Django's default delete behavior.

class SoftDeleteModel(BaseModel):
class meta:
abstract = True

is_deleted = models.DateTimeField(null=False, default=False)

def delete(self):
self.is_deleted = True

def restore(self):
self.is_deleted = False

To use this effectively, every query would need to explicitly filter out objects which are deleted. A really basic example might look something like this:

# horrible!
User.objects.filter(first_name='Ian', is_deleted=False).first()

This on its own is not very useful and is extremely prone to bugs. Expecting my coworkers (and especially myself) to remember to add an is_deleted=False filter to every single query is unreasonable and may not even be effective.

Luckily this isn't necessary! Every model in Django has a Manager, which is responsible for providing an interface for querying that particular model. As seen in the query just above, the default manager is referred to by User.objects but you can easily override with objects using a custom Manager that is more tailored to your needs. In our case we wanted our manager to filter out anything that's been deleted. A first approach to doing this might be creating a Manager that simply excludes anything where is_deleted is True, like this:

class SoftDeleteManager(models.Manager):
def __init__(self, *args, **kwargs):
self.with_deleted = kwargs.pop('deleted', False)
super(SoftDeleteManager, self).__init__(*args, **kwargs)

def _base_queryset(self):
return super().get_queryset().filter(deleted_at=None)

def get_queryset(self):
qs = self._base_queryset()
if self.with_deleted:
return qs
return qs.filter(is_deleted=False)

class SoftDeleteModel(BaseModel):
class meta:
abstract = True

objects = SoftDeleteManager()
objects_with_deleted = managers.SoftDeleteManager(deleted=True)

is_deleted = models.BooleanField(null=False, default=False)

def delete(self):
self.is_deleted = True

def restore(self):
self.is_deleted = False

Now the query to get the first Ian (who isn't deleted) simply becomes:


And if we wanted to the query to include deleted Ians, we'd just use:


To recap so far, we've added a new class SoftDeleteModel. It adds a new field, is_deleted, replaces the delete method, and changes the default manager to SoftDeleteManager in order to exclude "deleted" records. This is a decent start, but there are a few major issues which I'll list, and then discuss in more detail how we solved them.

Issues (in no particular order):

  • Recovery isn't implemented (there's no way for us cleanly restore things we've soft-deleted)
  • Relationships are broken (soft-deletable models won't trigger the specified on_delete for their foreign keys)
  • Batch deletes are broken (User.objects.all().delete() will bypass soft deletes and permanently remove all of our users, probably not good!)

NOTE: The following sections borrow logic from each other. Certain things might not be explained fully until you read all three sections.


Foreign keys

Django lets you specify relationships between models in a straightforward way. For example, let's say we have a many-to-one relationship between cars and their owners and their manufacturers:

class Car(models.Model):
# CASCADE is the default behavior. When this car's manufacturer is deleted,
# this car will also be deleted
manufacturer = models.ForeignKey(Manufacturer, on_delete=models.CASCADE)

# SET_NULL makes it so when this car's owner gets deleted, it will continue
# to exist without an owner.
owner = models.ForeignKey(User, on_delete=models.SET_NULL)

In the fictional world of the example above, when a manufacturer is deleted, all cars produced by that manufacturer are deleted (just like real life!). But when car's owner is deleted, any cars that refer to that user as the owner will set its owner field to null. I like the interface for this and really don't want to change it .

To keep this behavior consistent in our soft-delete model, we'll need to do some surgery. The first thing we'll do is add an_on_delete method that will be called after a soft-deletable record is deleted. The goal of this method is to traverse the graph of objects related to the record we just deleted, and recursively update or delete each record.

After a LOT of poking around debugging sessions and reading the source, I came up with this:

Class SoftDeleteModel(BaseModel):

# same fields / methods from before

def _on_delete(self):
for relation in self._meta._relation_tree:
on_delete = getattr(relation.related, 'on_delete', models.DO_NOTHING)

if on_delete in [None, models.DO_NOTHING]:

snapshot_kwargs = {}

if issubclass(relation.model, SoftDeleteModel):
snapshot_kwargs['snapshot_id'] = self.snapshot_id

filter = { self}
related_queryset = relation.model.objects.filter(**filter)

if on_delete == models.CASCADE:
elif on_delete == models.SET_NULL:
for r in related_queryset.all():
# We'll define SnapshotRecord later in this post
related_queryset.update(**{ None})
elif on_delete == models.PROTECT:
if related_queryset.count() > 0:
raise ProtectedError()

This works by looking at all the models that point to the object we're currently deleting (self). We use self._relation_tree to get a list of all the relationships in which self is involved in. We can then filter those records using the name by which the related model refers to self.

The on_delete field defined for that relationship determines what we do next.

  • If it's empty or DO_NOTHING we can skip this field and move on to the next one.
  • If it's PROTECTED, we need to verify that no records exist in that relationship that are still pointing to self.
  • When we encounter a field whose on_delete behavior is set to CASCADE, we can simply delete those records. The only caveat is that we need to determine if the referencing model is soft-deletable or not. If it is, we need to pass in snapshot_id so that we can tie all the deleted records to the same snapshot. If it's not we can simply delete all those records. I'll cover snapshots in the next section.
  • When we see a field who on_delete is SET_NULL, we can update the field (which references self in the related record) to be NULL. We also need to explicitly create a new SnapshotRecord record which describes this change.


The beginning of this post listed snapshotting and recovery as a requirement. After all, what good is a soft delete if there's no way to undo it?

Snapshotting can be done multiple ways. One approach is to copy the data into a different location (maybe a different table, or even a different database— it doesn't matter). With this method, to restore a record, you'd get all the data contained in the snapshot and reinsert it.

This poses a few issues though. First, you can't look up deleted data (e.g. for audits or debugging). It also makes maintaining your schema a nightmare. Say you run a migration to your database that adds a new field with some default value. There's no way to cleanly apply those changes to your snapshotted data without writing custom adapters for your external, deleted records. You'll also lose some metadata (created_at, modified_at, etc.) when reinserting. Your primary key could also be reused!


A nicer way to do the same thing (in my opinion) is to maintain snapshots in the form of tombstones with some extra data. The main idea is that your data never actually leaves the database, it's just marked as deleted. To do this, we'll add a foreign key snapshot_id to our SoftDeleteModel and whenever a record is deleted, we'll create a new Snapshot. Each Snapshot will have a list of all the records affected by the delete that created it. As mentioned earlier, we don't want to break any existing Django interfaces. In particular, we want to preserve the behavior of foreign keys' on_delete behavior. Let's start by defining two models which will represent a Snapshot.

class Snapshot(models.Model):
# unique identifier for snapshots
id = models.Charfield(max_length=32)
# the record which initiated the snapshot
root_id = models.CharField(max_length=32)

def restore(self):
[x.restore() for x in self.snapshot_records.all()]

class SnapshotRecord(models.Model)
snapshot = models.ForeignKey(Snapshot, null=False)
# this field is used to represent the record affected by the delete
record_id = models.CharField(max_length=32)
# these fields are used to represent links to another record.
# if they are set, it means a
fk_field = models.CharField(max_length=64, null=True)
fk_value = models.CharField(max_length=64, null=True)

def restore(self):
# we'll implement BaseModel.get later
record = BaseModel.get(self.record_id, include_deleted=True)

if fk_model is None:
record.is_deleted = False
setattr(record, self.fk_field, self.fk_value)

The Snapshot model itself is straightforward enough. It has a unique id and a root_id which references the original record that was removed. What I mean by original is if we have delete something that references it, we want to make sure we preserve Django's original behavior by cascading those soft-deletes through those references or setting foreign keys to NULL where appropriate.

SnapshotRecord is a little more interesting. It contains a reference to the Snapshot to which it belongs and a record_idfield which refers to a single record that was affected. In order to store records of any model type, values in this field will be of the form: <model_name>.<primary_key>. SnapshotRecords representing records that were deleted will simply have a snapshot_id and a record_id. The fields fk_field and fk_value field will be used to indicate links to records that were deleted for models that exhibit on_delete=SET_NULL behavior. Here's an example of how it works:

class User(SoftDeleteModel):
name = models.CharField(null=False, blank=False)

class Cat(SoftDeleteModel):
owner = models.ForeignKey(

ian ='Ian')
pichael ='Pichael', owner=ian)

print(pichael.owner) # should print None

# Now there should be a Snapshot that looks like this:
# {
# id: 1,
# root_id:,
# snapshot_records: [
# { record_id:, foreign_key: null },
# { record_id:, foreign_key: "owner_id:{}" }
# ]
# }
print(pichael.owner) # should be ian

Batch deletes

A common pattern is to operate on collections of objects without actually loading them. The statement User.objects.filter(name="Ian").delete() will bypass the custom delete method we added in SoftDeleteModel and permanently remove all of the users named Ian without leaving a trace! This is because the Manager we're using returns a QuerySet that uses the default delete behavior.

To fix this, we can create our own QuerySet that our custom Manager (defined earlier in this post) can use. Although slow, we can simply change the behavior of delete to iterate over the set of records contained in the query set , and individually delete each one.

class SoftDeleteQuerySet(models.QuerySet):
def delete(self, snapshot_id=None):
[x.delete(snapshot_id=snapshot_id) for x in self]

class SoftDeleteQueryManager(models.Manager):
def __init__(self, *args, **kwargs):
self.with_deleted = kwargs.pop('with_deleted', False)
super(SoftDeleteManager, self).__init__(*args, **kwargs)

# same fields and methods before except for
def get_queryset(self):
qs = SoftDeleteQuerySet(self.model)
if self.with_deleted:
return qs
return qs.filter(is_deleted=False)

Now when we call User.objects.filter(name="Ian").delete() we can rest assured knowing the each Ian will be removed safely and softly.

I'm willing to tolerate the slowness here because in our particular use case, deletes are not all that common. There are probably better ways to do this and I'm happy to hear suggestions on how this could be improved— leave us a comment with your thoughts!


This was my first time using Python in a production setting and it was a good way to jump straight into the deep end. I learned a lot about Button's internal systems and Django in general while solving this task and hope that this post can be thought provoking or useful for others who find themselves in a similar position of needing to delete their data and bring it back to life. If you're interested in tackling Django and many of the other challenges at Button, visit our opportunities page. We're hiring!