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Don Burleson Blog 









SQL Design Patterns

SQL Tips by Donald Burleson

SQL is a very successful language. Yet, is there a place for an advanced SQL book in the era of ?Learn Technology X in 10 Minutes?? Indeed, the tech industry today emphasizes a shallow knowledge of a huge number of technical skills, rather than deep knowledge of a more specialized skill.  That's how workers have been getting jobs, by knowing a tiny bit of many skills employers might need. Someone who knows how to use SQL in an advanced way does not have a proportionate advantage in getting a job over someone who knows only the basics.  If this second person, however, also knows J2EE, XSLT, Ajax, Flash, or any other flash in the pan to a similarly basic level, then he or she has a greater employment advantage.

The major flaw of this line of reason is equating the sophistication of SQL to these rather unsound technologies. This might be surprising to a newcomer who generally finds SQL a little bit old fashioned compared to the ?modern? programming languages. It is almost as old as C, which spawned at least 3 newer generation languages already, and it looks like COBOL, so why isn't it obsolete yet? Let me assure you that this appearance is misleading. Under the cover of sloppy and archaic syntax, a high abstraction language is found.

SQL programming is very unusual from the procedural perspective: there is no explicit flow control, no loops and no variables either to apply operations to or to store intermediate results into. SQL heavily leverages predicates instead, which elevates it to Logic Programming. Then, the grouping and aggregation syntax blends naturally into this already formidable logic foundation. Anybody who rediscovers that matrix or polynomial multiplication can be written in just three lines of code has a long lasting impression.

These ingredients that make SQL unique partially explain why advanced SQL programming does not revolve around syntax features, but demands a SQL programmer to develop an ability to recognize complex patterns. Yes, beyond a certain point a skill of piling up subqueries does not give much of a return and one has to study some rudimentary theory, which classifies known SQL solutions into patterns.

Patterns in procedural programming became popular a decade ago, originated with a landmark book by Gamma et. al. Each pattern has its name so that developers could quickly refer to it by just a name. ?Oh, that's a singleton!? instead of a lengthy description and often accompanied with a code snippet.

Patterns received a sour reception in a high abstraction language community. The prevailing perception was that patterns are a signature of low level programming. When a programmer sees patterns in her programs, it is a sign of trouble. The shape of a program should reflect only the problem it needs to solve. Any other regularity in the code indicates that abstractions are not powerful enough.

In reality, however, any language is quite limited in its abstraction power, declarative languages notwithstanding. Sooner or later we have to find workarounds for those limitations. This is how SQL patterns were born!

Patterns greatly improve our communication capabilities. On internet SQL forums it is not uncommon for people to ask the same question over and over again. Pattern names such as Interval coalesce or Relational division, for example, rarely surface in the discussion thread, giving way to numerous reply messages pointlessly competing to see who can find a query that does not look intimidating. Patterns allow succinct replies like this: ?Lookup the Interval coalesce method in the - textbook?.

Establishing common pattern names is the first goal of this book. Most of the patterns have standard names: Skyline query, Pivot, or Nested Intervals, for example. Few do not; we have to work out a name, like the fancy sounding Discrete interval sampling, for example.

When presenting SQL patterns in this book I decided to dismiss the standard template form. Template is perfect for reference material, but is a nuisance for a textbook. More important than this stylistic comment, however, is the fact that fairly soon you might stumble into patterns that require little familiarity with undergraduate level math. Don't be discouraged, however: as John Garmany suggested, many topics start making sense on second reading. In the Indicator Functions section, for example, you may want to skip the theory, first, rewind to the sample problem and SQL solutions, then, rollback to the theory.

List of patterns

1)      Counting

2)      Conditional summation

3)      Integer generator

4)      String/Collection decomposition

5)      List Aggregate

6)      Enumerating pairs

7)      Enumerating sets

8)      Interval coalesce

9)      Discrete interval sampling

User-defined aggregate

1)      Pivot

2)      Symmetric difference

3)      Histogram

4)      Skyline query

5)      Relational division

6)      Outer union

7)      Complex constraint

8)      Nested intervals

9)      Transitive closure

10)  Hierarchical total


This is an excerpt from the new book SQL Design Patterns: The Expert Guide to SQL Programming by Vadim Tropashko

You can buy it direct from the publisher for 30%-off.


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