jOOQ Tuesdays: Markus Winand is on a Modern SQL Mission

Welcome to the jOOQ Tuesdays series. In this series, we’ll publish an article on the third Tuesday every other month where we interview someone we find exciting in our industry from a jOOQ perspective. markuswinandThis includes people who work with SQL, Java, Open Source, and a variety of other related topics.

We are excited to talk with Markus Winand in this sixth edition. Markus is the author of the popular book SQL Performance Explained and the even more popular website Use The Index, Luke, and we’re thrilled to see that he’s pulling off another stunt:

Hi Markus – You have recently launched modern-sql.com. What is your goal with this website?

My goal for modern-sql.com is to create a textbook and reference about the SQL goodies you didn’t learn in school or university. Interestingly, online manuals about these features are pretty sparse. They come in two fashions: blog posts and vendor documentation. Blog posts are usually one-off events covering a particular feature or use case. There are many great blogs out there – the jOOQ blog being one of them – but there is no one I could recommend to learn all about recent SQL features. Vendor documentation, on the other hand, is mostly a reference about syntax—quite often even a bad one: they often don’t mention standard compliance at all and tend to follow a “proprietary features first” approach.

The consequence is that SQL market is very fragmented: besides SQL-92, there is no obvious base that is common to all databases. This becomes particularly evident on the job market: job offers either require just SQL—meaning good old relational SQL—or they require experience with a specific product. That’s pretty much the norm nowadays and nobody questions it. However, how would you think about this job opening: “Google Chrome Web Developer.” Web developers can’t choose the client’s browser. Many tried, but failed. Remember “optimized for XYZ”? That’s why web developers demanded standard conformance from browsers over the past decades. Just having launched a new website I can say that CSS conformance has improved drastically over the past five years. Ultimately, I’d like the same thing to happen for SQL. I hope that modern-sql.com sparks interest in standard conforming SQL so that developers also start to demand standard conformance from the database vendors. Quite an ambitious goal.

Last year, you’ve gone into battle against the SQL OFFSET clause. Want to shed some light on the background of that campaign?

The most striking problem with OFFSET is that it is generally used for an invalid use case: pagination. In this case, OFFSET is used to skip over a number of rows in the intention to find the rows following the previously selected ones. However, OFFSET does per definition not return the rows following one that was selected earlier, but just discards the first N rows of the result. Coincidentally, OFFSET yields the expected result if the data has not changed in the meanwhile—a case that is pretty common during development. But as soon as rows are added or deleted, discarding a fixed number of rows just doesn’t give the right result. The correct approach is to remember the last row fetched and use this data in a WHERE clause to select the rows following. This approach is explained in detail at http://use-the-index-luke.com/no-offset.

Besides the fact that OFFSET cannot be used to implement correct pagination, OFFSET is also bad for performance. OFFSET is wrong and slow. What else do you need? As a matter of fact, the only valid use case I know for OFFSET it to implement SLEEP in SQL—not that I ever need that. Unfortunately, OFFSET made it into the SQL standard in 2011. I consider this the worst mistake in recent history of SQL because it can’t be corrected. The only good part is that it is an optional feature—vendors don’t need to implement for standard conformance. Nevertheless, Oracle and Microsoft just recently added OFFSET to their SQL databases.

You’ve written a very popular book on SQL Performance called SQL Performance explained. How does it compare to other SQL books and why should our readers buy it?

I’ll start with the second question. First of all you must know that the full content of SQL Performance Explained is available for free at http://use-the-index-luke.com/. Most people I’m asking why they bought the book did so because the like the web site. They bought the book either to support my work on Use The Index, Luke (greatly appreciated!) or, more importantly, to finally read the book from cover to cover. A typical answer I get goes along these lines: “I knew Use The Index, Luke for years and have read many articles there, but I finally wanted to read everything from the beginning to end.”

Now coming to the first question why the world needed another SQL performance tome: it didn’t. Therefore, I wrote a very small book that can be read in less than a day. I focused on the basic concepts, which are the same in most databases, and boldly skipped less common special cases. Its shortness is also most appreciated in the reviews. On the other hand, the book has occasionally being criticized as being incomplete—probably because the sub-title reads “Everything developers need to know about SQL performance”. Personally, I think these critiques somehow proof my point: Obviously, Java, PHP or .NET developers don’t need to know as much about SQL performance as database performance consultants. When writing for such an audience, you must skip a lot.

Where do you see SQL in 10 years from today?

I hope that the temporal features of SQL:2011 (see here) become commonly available—also in free open source databases. At the moment, they are only available in commercial databases—even there the completeness and standard conformance varies. I would also hope that the SQL standard finds a way to cope with the current trend that every database vendor adds its own proprietary set of JSON functions. Unfortunately, it might be too late for that already.

However, my greatest hope is that developers realize that SQL is not stuck in 1992. The standard has added many useful features since than. Most databases offer a good part of these features. It’s really just our perception of SQL that got stuck in 1992.

Learn more about Markus’s work

… Markus is giving his Modern SQL talk at conferences. Learn more about it here:

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