How to Work Around ORA-38104: Columns referenced in the ON Clause cannot be updated

Standard SQL is a beautiful language. Vendor specific implementations, however, have their warts. In Oracle, for example, it’s not possible to update any columns in a MERGE statement, which have been referenced by the ON clause. For example:

CREATE TABLE person (
  id NUMBER(18) NOT NULL PRIMARY KEY,
  user_name VARCHAR2(50) NOT NULL UNIQUE,
  score NUMBER(18)
);

Now, in MySQL, we can run a non-standard INSERT .. ON DUPLICATE KEY UPDATE statement like this:

INSERT INTO person (id, user_name, score)
VALUES (1, 'foo', 100)
ON DUPLICATE KEY UPDATE
  SET user_name = 'foo', score = 100

Behind the scenes, MySQL will check all unique constraints for duplicates and reject the insert, replacing it by the update statement instead. It’s debatable whether this is really useful (ideally, we want to check only a single unique constraint for duplicates), but that’s what MySQL offers.

In case we want to run the same behaviour by Oracle, we could use the MERGE statement:

MERGE INTO person t
USING (
  SELECT 1 id, 'foo' user_name, 100 score
  FROM dual
) s
ON (t.id = s.id OR t.user_name = s.user_name)
WHEN MATCHED THEN UPDATE
  SET t.user_name = s.user_name, t.score = 100
WHEN NOT MATCHED THEN INSERT (id, user_name, score)
  VALUES (s.id, s.user_name, s.score)

That looks reasonable, but it doesn’t work. We’ll get:

SQL-Fehler: ORA-38104: Columns referenced in the ON Clause cannot be updated: “T”.”USER_NAME”

Obviously, this is some protection against the situation where such an update would suddenly move a row from the matched to the not matched group. In this particular example, it might not look like something that could cause problems, but if vendor specific extensions such as the WHERE or DELETE clause would be used, things might look different.

However, the parser is not very smart, in fact, it is almost not smart at all. While it detects extremely silly attempts at circumventing this limitation, such as this:

MERGE INTO person t
USING (
  SELECT 1 id, 'foo' user_name, 100 score
  FROM dual
) s
-- Circumvention attempt here: NVL()
ON (t.id = s.id OR nvl(t.user_name, null) = s.user_name)
WHEN MATCHED THEN UPDATE
  SET t.user_name = s.user_name, t.score = 100
WHEN NOT MATCHED THEN INSERT (id, user_name, score)
  VALUES (s.id, s.user_name, s.score)

It does not detect any of these attempts:

Using row value expressions

MERGE INTO person t
USING (
  SELECT 1 id, 'foo' user_name, 100 score
  FROM dual
) s
ON (t.id = s.id OR 
-- Circumvention attempt here: row value expressions
  (t.user_name, 'dummy') = ((s.user_name, 'dummy')))
WHEN MATCHED THEN UPDATE
  SET t.user_name = s.user_name, t.score = 100
WHEN NOT MATCHED THEN INSERT (id, user_name, score)
  VALUES (s.id, s.user_name, s.score)

Seemingly without any penalty on the execution plan. Both indexes are being used:

---------------------------------------------------------------------------
| Id  | Operation                               | Name            | Rows  |
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
|   0 | MERGE STATEMENT                         |                 |     1 |
|   1 |  MERGE                                  | PERSON          |       |
|   2 |   VIEW                                  |                 |       |
|   3 |    NESTED LOOPS OUTER                   |                 |     1 |
|   4 |     FAST DUAL                           |                 |     1 |
|   5 |     VIEW                                | VW_LAT_8626BD41 |     1 |
|   6 |      TABLE ACCESS BY INDEX ROWID BATCHED| PERSON          |     1 |
|   7 |       BITMAP CONVERSION TO ROWIDS       |                 |       |
|   8 |        BITMAP OR                        |                 |       |
|   9 |         BITMAP CONVERSION FROM ROWIDS   |                 |       |
|* 10 |          INDEX RANGE SCAN               | SYS_C00106110   |       |
|  11 |         BITMAP CONVERSION FROM ROWIDS   |                 |       |
|* 12 |          INDEX RANGE SCAN               | SYS_C00106111   |       |
---------------------------------------------------------------------------

Correlated subquery

MERGE INTO person t
USING (
  SELECT 1 id, 'foo' user_name, 100 score
  FROM dual
) s
ON (t.id = s.id OR 
-- Circumvention attempt here: correlated subquery
  (SELECT t.user_name FROM dual) = s.user_name)
WHEN MATCHED THEN UPDATE
  SET t.user_name = s.user_name, t.score = 100
WHEN NOT MATCHED THEN INSERT (id, user_name, score)
  VALUES (s.id, s.user_name, s.score)

This seems to prevent any index usage, and should thus be avoided:

----------------------------------------------------------
| Id  | Operation              | Name            | Rows  |
----------------------------------------------------------
|   0 | MERGE STATEMENT        |                 |     1 |
|   1 |  MERGE                 | PERSON          |       |
|   2 |   VIEW                 |                 |       |
|   3 |    NESTED LOOPS OUTER  |                 |     1 |
|   4 |     FAST DUAL          |                 |     1 |
|   5 |     VIEW               | VW_LAT_1846A928 |     1 |
|*  6 |      FILTER            |                 |       |
|   7 |       TABLE ACCESS FULL| PERSON          |     1 |
|   8 |       FAST DUAL        |                 |     1 |
----------------------------------------------------------

Using NVL() and updating a view instead

Just plain simple usage of NVL() inside of the ON clause didn’t work before. The parser was smart enough to detect that. But it isn’t smart enough to detect NVL() inside of a view / derived table.

MERGE INTO (
  SELECT id, user_name, nvl(user_name, null) n, score
  FROM person
) t
USING (
  SELECT 1 id, 'foo' user_name, 100 score
  FROM dual
) s
-- Circumvention attempt here: renamed column
ON (t.id = s.id OR t.n = s.user_name)
WHEN MATCHED THEN UPDATE
  SET t.user_name = s.user_name, t.score = 100
WHEN NOT MATCHED THEN INSERT (id, user_name, score)
  VALUES (s.id, s.user_name, s.score)

Notice that both USER_NAME and N columns are the same thing, but the parser doesn’t notice this and thinks we’re fine.

The execution plan is still optimal, as Oracle seems to have a way to optimise NVL() expressions (but not coalesce and others!):

---------------------------------------------------------------------------
| Id  | Operation                               | Name            | Rows  |
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
|   0 | MERGE STATEMENT                         |                 |     1 |
|   1 |  MERGE                                  | PERSON          |       |
|   2 |   VIEW                                  |                 |       |
|   3 |    NESTED LOOPS OUTER                   |                 |     1 |
|   4 |     FAST DUAL                           |                 |     1 |
|   5 |     VIEW                                | VW_LAT_46651921 |     1 |
|   6 |      TABLE ACCESS BY INDEX ROWID BATCHED| PERSON          |     1 |
|   7 |       BITMAP CONVERSION TO ROWIDS       |                 |       |
|   8 |        BITMAP OR                        |                 |       |
|   9 |         BITMAP CONVERSION FROM ROWIDS   |                 |       |
|* 10 |          INDEX RANGE SCAN               | SYS_C00106110   |       |
|  11 |         BITMAP CONVERSION FROM ROWIDS   |                 |       |
|* 12 |          INDEX RANGE SCAN               | SYS_C00106111   |       |
---------------------------------------------------------------------------

Using the WHERE clause

If we hadn’t had an OR predicate in our ON clause, but a AND predicate, then we could have used the WHERE clause in Oracle. This works:

-- NOT the same query as the original one!
MERGE INTO person t
USING (
  SELECT 1 id, 'foo' user_name, 100 score
  FROM dual
) s
ON (t.id = s.id)
WHEN MATCHED THEN UPDATE
  SET t.user_name = s.user_name, t.score = 100
  WHERE t.user_name = s.user_name
WHEN NOT MATCHED THEN INSERT (id, user_name, score)
  VALUES (s.id, s.user_name, s.score);

This is not the same query as the original one. I just listed it here for completeness’ sake. Also to remind readers of the fact that this approach as well doesn’t seem to use indexes optimally. Only the primary key index (from the ON clause) seems to be used. The unique key is not being used:

----------------------------------------------------------------
| Id  | Operation                      | Name          | Rows  |
----------------------------------------------------------------
|   0 | MERGE STATEMENT                |               |     1 |
|   1 |  MERGE                         | PERSON        |       |
|   2 |   VIEW                         |               |       |
|   3 |    NESTED LOOPS OUTER          |               |     1 |
|   4 |     VIEW                       |               |     1 |
|   5 |      FAST DUAL                 |               |     1 |
|   6 |     TABLE ACCESS BY INDEX ROWID| PERSON        |     1 |
|*  7 |      INDEX UNIQUE SCAN         | SYS_C00106110 |     1 |
----------------------------------------------------------------

Careful

Be careful when applying the above workarounds. Assuming that ORA-38104 is a good thing (i.e. that Oracle still thinks it should be enforced), then the above workarounds simply expose bugs in the parser, which should detect such cases. The above behaviour has been observed in Oracle 12c and 18c.

I personally believe that ORA-38104 should be abandoned entirely, and the root cause for this restriction should be removed. But it is certainly worth exploring alternative options rather than relying on the above workarounds in production code, apart from the occasional one-shot migration query, where such loop holes are always nice tools to exploit.

6 thoughts on “How to Work Around ORA-38104: Columns referenced in the ON Clause cannot be updated

  1. Agreed twice. To me, it sounds like two pretty strange bugs.

    When ORA-38104 should exist, then it shouldn’t rely on the parser, but on the occurrence of the column anywhere in the conditions tree.

    But it shouldn’t exist. Whatever problems may occur with vendor specific extensions, they won’t get any better due to this restriction.

    It doesn’t matter, but in your Oracle examples, you left out the score = 100 update.

    • When ORA-38104 should exist, then it shouldn’t rely on the parser, but on the occurrence of the column anywhere in the conditions tree.

      Well, it does, in a way. But I would imagine that the almost 50 year old Oracle database doesn’t have very well designed internal expression tree navigation APIs, so finding that occurrence might just be a major PITA :) (it’s hard enough already in jOOQ). Ultimately, SQL has quite a few scoping and aliasing rules, so what appears to be the same column, might in fact be a different one.

      But it shouldn’t exist. Whatever problems may occur with vendor specific extensions, they won’t get any better due to this restriction.

      I’m assuming that there are some edge cases that result in corrupt data, and the vendor definitely wants to avoid that at all costs. Lack of syntactic support is just a “minor” inconvenience. Corrupt data is a critical issue for any database system that claims ACID-ity.

      It doesn’t matter, but in your Oracle examples, you left out the score = 100 update.

      Thanks, fixed

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