What are procedures and functions after all?

Many RDBMS support the concept of “routines”, usually calling them procedures and/or functions. These concepts have been around in programming languages for a while, also outside of databases. Famous languages distinguishing procedures from functions are:

  • Ada
  • BASIC
  • Pascal
  • etc…

The general distinction between (stored) procedures and (stored) functions can be summarised like this:

Procedures:

  • Are called using JDBC CallableStatement
  • Have no return value
  • Usually support OUT parameters

Functions:

  • Can be used in SQL statements
  • Have a return value
  • Usually don’t support OUT parameters

But there are exceptions to these rules:

  • DB2, H2, and HSQLDB don’t allow for JDBC escape syntax when calling functions. Functions must be used in a SELECT statement
  • H2 only knows functions (without OUT parameters)
  • Oracle functions may have OUT parameters
  • Oracle knows functions that mustn’t be used in SQL statements for transactional reasons
  • Postgres only knows functions (with all features combined). OUT parameters can also be interpreted as return values, which is quite elegant/freaky, depending on your taste
  • The Sybase jconn3 JDBC driver doesn’t handle null values correctly when using the JDBC escape syntax on functions

In general, it can be said that the field of routines (procedures / functions) is far from being standardised in modern RDBMS. Every database has its ways and JDBC only provides little abstraction over the great variety of procedures / functions implementations, especially when advanced data types such as cursors / UDT’s / arrays are involved.