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Graphs in SQL

SQL Tips by Donald Burleson

Graphs are much more challenging than trees. Even something as basic as a planar graph drawing is still an open research problem. There are few graph encodings and all of them are volatile. The set of graph problems is much richer and those problems are usually difficult. Applied to graphs the cowboy programmer attitude simply does not work.

This chapter will offer information regarding the different realms of graph methods: the recursive with kingdom, the connect by county, and the materialized transitive closure province. It will show typical graph queries, beginning with the number of connected components and ending with aggregated totals.

Schema Design

Being cautioned about the complexity of graph problems, this field should be approached carefully. Its thorough examination should begin with the schema design. When designing a schema, the first question to ask is how are graphs defined?

Graphs can be directed and undirected. This study is devoted almost exclusively to directed graphs; this is why the adjective is normally omitted.  The directed graph definition is nearly ubiquitous.

Graph Definition

Graph is a set of nodes connected by edges. Each edge is an ordered pair of nodes, to which are referred in this chapter as head and tail.

It is straightforward to carry over this graph definition to the schema design: 

table Nodes (
   id integer primary key,

table Edges (
   head integer references Nodes,
   tail integer references Nodes,

Nodes and edges in a graph are normally weighted, hence the ellipsis in the schema definition. For example, in a network of cities connected by roads, each edge is labeled with the distance.

Tree Constraint

Representing trees as graphs is a very common database application programming practice. Consider the familiar Emp table:

select ename, empno, mgr from Emp

Tree as Graph

In practice, tree schema design is often reduced to a single table

table Tree (
   id integer primary key,
   parentId integer references Tree,

This is just a sloppy programming style. The design with Nodes and Edges is clean - it separates the two concepts. With a single table it is easy to get confused when writing a hierarchical query. Also, consider the tree root node. It has to refer to parentId = NULL, whereas the design with Nodes and Edges does not require NULLs.

The most important concern, however, is that the graph schema, allows graphs which are not trees. Consider a cycle, for example:

In order to describe a tree structure in graph terms, a couple of auxiliary definitions are needed.

1        Directed path is a sequence of edges such that the previous edge head is the same as the next edge tail.

2        Undirected path is a sequence of edges such that the previous edge head or tail coincides with the next edge head or tail.

An undirected path concept is needed to define a connected graph - a graph where there is a path between every pair of nodes. Otherwise, by path we would understand the directed path. For example, the graph in Figure 6.1 is connected.

Cycle is a closed path. In a closed path the last edge head is the same as the first edge tail. An acyclic graph does not contain cycles.

The tree definition, then, is essentially a constrained graph.

Tree as Subclass of Graph

Tree is an acyclic connected graph such that any two edges have distinct heads.

While the condition that any two edges have distinct heads could be declared effortlessly as a unique key constraint on the head column, the other two constraints are tough. In Chapter 4 we studied many tricks which allowed to enforce complex constraints via materialized views. If there is any hope leveraging that approach for enforcing tree constraint, then we?d better figure out how to query cycles, and calculate a number of connected components in a graph, as well.

This does not look very promising. Therefore, we have to give up on enforcing tree constraint in a graph model. To be fair, though, only a minority of database application programmers would insist that enforcing tree constraint is a matter of life-or-death. More important issues are:

1)      How is a graph model queried?

2)      Are the query methods efficient?


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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