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Oracle CASE vs. DECODE machinations explained

Doug Burns has published one of the most comprehensive papers ever on the Oracle CASE statement and how it differs from DECODE:

Burns also has a good whitepaper explaining the details of the DECODE statement, where he observes several shortcomings on DECODE:

“The first is that of code readability. It should be clear from Example 7 that clean and readable code formatting is essential when using a number of DECODEs, particularly if they are nested.

The second, which was mentioned earlier, is that DECODE is a post-retrieval function and it is easy to write code which is spectacularly inefficient but functionally correct. As a first principle for any SQL statement you may write, you should attempt to reduce the rows retrieved using the best access path and the most selective WHERE clause. Only then should you use DECODE for additional processing.

The final potential problem with DECODE is that it is an Oracle-specific extension and is not included in the ANSI standards. This is a problem if code-portability to other databases is an issue, but shouldn't distract you from the extra power in the Oracle implementation. Many of us use PL/SQL, after all!”

In the Oracle CASE expression paper, Burns notes that CASE was designed as a replacement for DECODE:

"CASE was introduced in Oracle 8.1.6, however, and is a much better option because it is

1)         More flexible than DECODE

2)         Easier to read

3)         ANSI-compatible (if that matters to you)

However, CASE is essentially a better implementation of DECODE so the reasons for using either are similar."

Burns concludes about the CASE statement and offers some tips for using CASE expressions:

“CASE is a post-retrieval function and it is easy to write code which is spectacularly inefficient but functionally correct. Remember the golden rule :

Use the WHERE clause to eliminate all unnecessary data first and then use CASE for additional processing.”


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