A Session object is basically an ongoing transaction of changes to a database (update, insert, delete). These operations aren't persisted to the database until they are committed (if your program aborts for some reason in mid-session transaction, any uncommitted changes within are lost).
The session object registers transaction operations with session.add(), but doesn't yet communicate them to the database until session.flush() is called.
session.flush() communicates a series of operations to the database (insert, update, delete). The database maintains them as pending operations in a transaction. The changes aren't persisted permanently to disk, or visible to other transactions until the database receives a COMMIT for the current transaction (which is what session.commit() does).
flush() is always called as part of a call to commit() (1).
When you use a Session object to query the database, the query will return results both from the database and from the flushed parts of the uncommitted transaction it holds. By default, Session objects autoflush their operations, but this can be disabled.
s = Session()
s.add(Foo('A')) # The Foo('A') object has been added to the session.
# It has not been committed to the database yet,
# but is returned as part of a query.
print 1, s.query(Foo).all()
s2 = Session()
s2.autoflush = False
print 2, s2.query(Foo).all() # The Foo('B') object is *not* returned
# as part of this query because it hasn't
# been flushed yet.
s2.flush() # Now, Foo('B') is in the same state as
# Foo('A') was above.
print 3, s2.query(Foo).all()
s2.rollback() # Foo('B') has not been committed, and rolling
# back the session's transaction removes it
# from the session.
print 4, s2.query(Foo).all()
3 [<Foo('A')>, <Foo('B')>]
Just one more thing: do you know whether calling commit() increases the memory used, or decreases it?
This is also false for db engines that don't support transactions such as myisam. As there is no ongoing transaction, flush has even less to distinguish itself from commit.
Is it good or poor style to use flush() and commit(), or should I leave that up to Alchemy. I used flush() in some cases because subsequent queries needed to pick up new data.