A Wonderful SQL Feature: Quantified Comparison Predicates (ANY, ALL)

Have you ever wondered about the use-case behind SQL’s ANY (also: SOME) and ALL keywords?

You have probably not yet encountered these keywords in the wild. Yet they can be extremely useful. But first, let’s see how they’re defined in the SQL standard. The easy part:

8.7  <quantified comparison predicate>


    Specify a quantified comparison.


    <quantified comparison predicate> ::=
        <row value constructor> <comp op> 
            <quantifier> <table subquery>

    <quantifier> ::= <all> | <some>
    <all> ::= ALL
    <some> ::= SOME | ANY

Intuitively, such a quantified comparison predicate can be used as such:

-- Is any person of age 42?
42 = ANY (SELECT age FROM person)

-- Are all persons younger than 42?
42 > ALL (SELECT age FROM person)

Let’s keep with the useful ones. Observe that you have probably written the above queries with a different syntax, as such:

-- Is any person of age 42?
42 IN (SELECT age FROM person)

-- Are all persons younger than 42?
42 > (SELECT MAX(age) FROM person)

In fact, you’ve used the <in predicate>, or a greater than predicate with a <scalar subquery> and an aggregate function.

The IN predicate

It’s not a coincidence that you might have used the <in predicate> just like the above <quantified comparison predicate> using ANY. In fact, the <in predicate> is specified just like that:

8.4 <in predicate>

Syntax Rules

2) Let RVC be the <row value constructor> and let IPV 
   be the <in predicate value>.

3) The expression


   is equivalent to

     NOT ( RVC IN IPV )

4) The expression


   is equivalent to

     RVC = ANY IPV

Precisely! Isn’t SQL beautiful? Note, the implicit consequences of 3) lead to a very peculiar behaviour of the NOT IN predicate with respect to NULL, which few developers are aware of.

Now, it’s getting awesome

So far, there is nothing out of the ordinary with these <quantified comparison predicate>. All of the previous examples can be emulated with “more idiomatic”, or let’s say, “more everyday” SQL.

But the true awesomeness of <quantified comparison predicate> appears only when used in combination with <row value expression> where rows have a degree / arity of more than one:

-- Is any person called "John" of age 42?
(42, 'John') = ANY (SELECT age, first_name FROM person)

-- Are all persons younger than 55?
-- Or if they're 55, do they all earn less than 150'000.00?
(55, 150000.00) > ALL (SELECT age, wage FROM person)

See the above queries in action on PostgreSQL in this SQLFiddle.

At this point, it is worth mentioning that few databases actually support…

  • row value expressions, or…
  • quantified comparison predicates with row value expressions

Even if specified in SQL-92, it looks as most databases still take their time to implement this feature 22 years later.

Emulating these predicates with jOOQ

But luckily, there is jOOQ to emulate these features for you. Even if you’re not using jOOQ in your project, the following SQL transformation steps can be useful if you want to express the above predicates. Let’s have a look at how this could be done in MySQL:

-- This predicate
(42, 'John') = ANY (SELECT age, first_name FROM person)

-- ... is the same as this:
  SELECT 1 FROM person 
  WHERE age = 42 AND first_name = 'John'

What about the other predicate?

-- This predicate
(55, 150000.00) > ALL (SELECT age, wage FROM person)

-- ... is the same as these:
-- No quantified comparison predicate with
-- Row value expressions available
(55, 150000.00) > (
  SELECT age, wage FROM person

-- No row value expressions available at all
  SELECT 1 FROM person
  WHERE (55 < age)
  OR    (55 = age AND 150000.00 <= wage)

Clearly, the EXISTS predicate can be used in pretty much every database to emulate what we’ve seen before. If you just need this for a one-shot emulation, the above examples will be sufficient. If, however, you want to more formally use <row value expression> and <quantified comparison predicate>, you better get SQL transformation right.

Read on about SQL transformation in this article here.

Yet Another 10 Common Mistakes Java Developers Make When Writing SQL (You Won’t BELIEVE the Last One)

(Sorry for that click-bait heading. Couldn’t resist ;-) )

We’re on a mission. To teach you SQL. But mostly, we want to teach you how to appreciate SQL. You’ll love it!

Getting SQL right or wrong shouldn’t be about that You’re-Doing-It-Wrong™ attitude that can be encountered often when evangelists promote their object of evangelism. Getting SQL right should be about the fun you’ll have once you do get it right. The things you start appreciating when you notice that you can easily replace 2000 lines of slow, hard-to-maintain, and ugly imperative (or object-oriented) code with 300 lines of lean functional code (e.g. using Java 8), or even better, with 50 lines of SQL.

We’re glad to see that our blogging friends have started appreciating SQL, and most specifically, window functions after reading our posts. For instance, take

So, after our previous, very popular posts:

… we’ll bring you:

Yet Another 10 Common Mistakes Java Developer Make When Writing SQL

And of course, this doesn’t apply to Java developers alone, but it’s written from the perspective of a Java (and SQL) developer. So here we go (again):

1. Not Using Window Functions

After all that we’ve been preaching, this must be our number 1 mistake in this series. Window functions are probably the coolest SQL feature of them all. They’re so incredibly useful, they should be the number one reason for anyone to switch to a better database, e.g. PostgreSQL:

If free and/or Open Source is important to you, you have absolutely no better choice than using PostgreSQL (and you’ll even get to use the free jOOQ Open Source Edition, if you’re a Java developer).

And if you’re lucky enough to work in an environment with Oracle or SQL Server (or DB2, Sybase) licenses, you get even more out of your new favourite tool.

We won’t repeat all the window function goodness in this section, we’ve blogged about them often enough:

The Cure:

Start playing with window functions. You’ll never go back, guaranteed.

2. Not declaring NOT NULL constraints

This one was already part of a previous list where we claimed that you should add as much metadata as possible to your schema, because your database will be able to leverage that metadata for optimisations. For instance, if your database knows that a foreign key value in BOOK.AUTHOR_ID must also be contained exactly once in AUTHOR.ID, then a whole set of optimisations can be achieved in complex queries.

Now let’s have another look at NOT NULL constraints. If you’re using Oracle, NULL values will not be part of your index. This doesn’t matter if you’re expressing an IN constraint, for instance:

WHERE value IN (
  SELECT nullable_column FROM ...

But what happens with a NOT IN constraint?

WHERE value NOT IN (
  SELECT nullable_column FROM ...

Due to SQL’s slightly unintuitive way of handling NULL, there is a slight risk of the second query unexpectedly not returning any results at all, namely if there is at least one NULL value as a result from the subquery. This is true for all databases that get SQL right.

But because the index on nullable_column doesn’t contain any NULL values, Oracle has to look up the complete content in the table, resulting in a FULL TABLE SCAN. Now that is unexpected! Details about this can be seen in this article.

The Cure:

Carefully review all your nullable, yet indexed columns, and check if you really cannot add a NOT NULL constraint to those columns.

The Tool:

If you’re using Oracle, use this query to detect all nullable, yet indexed columns:

    LPAD(i.column_position,  2) || ': ' || 
    RPAD(i.column_name    , 30) || ' '  ||
    DECODE(t.nullable, 'Y', '(NULL)', '(NOT NULL)'), 
    ', '
  ) WITHIN GROUP (ORDER BY i.column_position) 
    AS "NULLABLE columns in indexes"
FROM user_ind_columns i
JOIN user_tab_cols t
ON (t.table_name, t.column_name) = 
  ((i.table_name, i.column_name))
  FROM user_tab_cols t
  WHERE (t.table_name, t.column_name, t.nullable) = 
       ((i.table_name, i.column_name, 'Y'       ))
GROUP BY i.table_name, i.index_name
ORDER BY i.index_name ASC;

Example output:

TABLE_NAME | INDEX_NAME   | NULLABLE columns in indexes

And then, fix it!

(Accidental criticism of Maven is irrelevant here ;-) )

If you’re curious about more details, see also these posts:

3. Using PL/SQL Package State

Now, this is a boring one if you’re not using Oracle, but if you are (and you’re a Java developer), be very wary of PL/SQL package state. Are you really doing what you think you’re doing?

Yes, PL/SQL has package-state, e.g.

  -- Package state here!
  n NUMBER := 1;

END pkg;

    n := n + 1;
    RETURN n;
  END next_n;
END pkg;

Wonderful, so you’ve created yourself an in-memory counter that generates a new number every time you call pkg.next_n. But who owns that counter? Yes, the session. Each session has their own initialised “package instance”.

But no, it’s probably not the session you might have thought of.

We Java developers connect to databases through connection pools. When we obtain a JDBC Connection from such a pool, we recycle that connection from a previous “session”, e.g. a previous HTTP Request (not HTTP Session!). But that’s not the same. The database session (probably) outlives the HTTP Request and will be inherited by the next request, possibly from an entirely different user. Now, imagine you had a credit card number in that package…?

Not The Cure:

Nope. Don’t just jump to using SERIALLY_REUSABLE packages

  n NUMBER := 1;

END pkg;


  • You cannot even use that package from SQL, now (see ORA-06534).
  • Mixing this PRAGMA with regular package state from other packages just makes things a lot more complex.

So, don’t.

Not The Cure:

I know. PL/SQL can be a beast. It often seems like such a quirky language. But face it. Many things run much much faster when written in PL/SQL, so don’t give up, just yet. Dropping PL/SQL is not the solution either.

The Cure:

At all costs, try to avoid package state in PL/SQL. Think of package state as of static variables in Java. While they might be useful for caches (and constants, of course) every now and then, you might not actually access that state that you wanted. Think about load-balancers, suddenly transferring you to another JVM. Think about class loaders, that might have loaded the same class twice, for some reason.

Instead, pass state as arguments through procedures and functions. This will avoid side-effects and make your code much cleaner and more predictable.

Or, obviuously, persist state to some table.

4. Running the same query all the time

Master data is boring. You probably wrote some utility to get the latest version of your master data (e.g. language, locale, translations, tenant, system settings), and you can query it every time, once it is available.

At all costs, don’t do that. You don’t have to cache many things in your application, as modern databases have grown to be extremely fast when it comes to caching:

  • Table / column content
  • Index content
  • Query / materialized view results
  • Procedure results (if they’re deterministic)
  • Cursors
  • Execution plans

So, for your average query, there’s virtually no need for an ORM second-level cache, at least from a performance perspective (ORM caches mainly fulfil other purposes, of course).

But when you query master data, i.e. data that never changes, then, network latency, traffic and many other factors will impair your database experience.

The Cure:

Please do take 10 minutes, download Guava, and use its excellent and easy to set up cache, that ships with various built-in invalidation strategies. Choose time-based invalidation (i.e. polling), choose Oracle AQ or Streams, or PostgreSQL’s NOTIFY for event-based invalidation, or just make your cache permanent, if it doesn’t matter. But don’t issue an identical master data query all the time.

… This obviously brings us to

5. Not knowing about the N+1 problem

You had a choice. At the beginning of your software product, you had to choose between:

So, obviously, you chose an ORM, because otherwise you wouldn’t be suffering from “N+1”. What does “N+1” mean?

The accepted answer on this Stack Overflow question explains it nicely. Essentially, you’re running:


-- And then, for each book:
SELECT * FROM author WHERE id = ?
SELECT * FROM author WHERE id = ?
SELECT * FROM author WHERE id = ?

Of course, you could go and tweak your hundreds of annotations to correctly prefetch or eager fetch each book’s associated author information to produce something along the lines of:

FROM   book
JOIN   author 
  ON   book.author_id = author.id

But that would be an awful lot of work, and you’ll risk eager-fetching too many things that you didn’t want, resulting in another performance issue.

Maybe, you could upgrade to JPA 2.1 and use the new @NamedEntityGraph to express beautiful annotation trees like this one:

    name = "post",
    attributeNodes = {
            value = "comments", 
            subgraph = "comments"
    subgraphs = {
            name = "comments",
            attributeNodes = {

The example was taken from this blog post by Hantsy Bai. Hantsy then goes on explaining that you can use the above beauty through the following statement:

em.createQuery("select p from Post p where p.id=:id",
  .setParameter("id", this.id)

Let us all appreciate the above application of JEE standards with all due respect, and then consider…

The Cure:

You just listen to the wise words at the beginning of this article and replace thousands of lines of tedious Java / Annotatiomania™ code with a couple of lines of SQL. Because that will also likely help you prevent another issue that we haven’t even touched yet, namely selecting too many columns as you can see in these posts:

Since you’re already using an ORM, this might just mean resorting to native SQL – or maybe you manage to express your query with JPQL. Of course, we agree with Alessio Harri in believing that you should use jOOQ together with JPA:

The Takeaway:

While the above will certainly help you work around some real world issues that you may have with your favourite ORM, you could also take it one step further and think about it this way. After all these years of pain and suffering from the object-relational impedance mismatch, the JPA 2.1 expert group is now trying to tweak their way out of this annotation madness by adding more declarative, annotation-based fetch graph hints to JPQL queries, that no one can debug, let alone maintain.

The alternative is simple and straight-forward SQL. And with Java 8, we’ll add functional transformation through the Streams API. That’s hard to beat.

But obviuosly, your views and experiences on that subject may differ from ours, so let’s head on to a more objective discussion about…

6. Not using Common Table Expressions

While common table expressions obviously offer readability improvements, they may also offer performance improvements. Consider the following query that I have recently encountered in a customer’s PL/SQL package (not the actual query):

SELECT round (
  (SELECT amount FROM payments WHERE id = :p_id)
    SELECT e.bid
    FROM   currencies c, exchange_rates e
    WHERE  c.id     = 
      (SELECT cur_id FROM payments WHERE id = :p_id)
    AND    e.cur_id = 
      (SELECT cur_id FROM payments WHERE id = :p_id)
    AND    e.org_id = 
      (SELECT org_id FROM payments WHERE id = :p_id)
  ) / (
    SELECT c.factor
    FROM   currencies c, exchange_rates e
    WHERE  c.id     = 
      (SELECT cur_id FROM payments WHERE id = :p_id)
    AND    e.cur_id = 
      (SELECT cur_id FROM payments WHERE id = :p_id)
    AND    e.org_id = 
      (SELECT org_id FROM payments WHERE id = :p_id)
  ), 0
INTO amount 
FROM dual;

So what does this do? This essentially converts a payment’s amount from one currency into another. Let’s not delve into the business logic too much, let’s head straight to the technical problem. The above query results in the following execution plan (on Oracle):

| Operation                         | Name           |
| SELECT STATEMENT                  |                |
|   INDEX UNIQUE SCAN               | PAYM_PK        |
|   NESTED LOOPS                    |                |
|    INDEX UNIQUE SCAN              | CURR_PK        |
|      INDEX UNIQUE SCAN            | PAYM_PK        |
|     INDEX UNIQUE SCAN             | EXCH_PK        |
|       INDEX UNIQUE SCAN           | PAYM_PK        |
|       INDEX UNIQUE SCAN           | PAYM_PK        |
|     NESTED LOOPS                  |                |
|       INDEX UNIQUE SCAN           | CURR_PK        |
|         INDEX UNIQUE SCAN         | PAYM_PK        |
|      INDEX UNIQUE SCAN            | EXCH_PK        |
|        INDEX UNIQUE SCAN          | PAYM_PK        |
|        INDEX UNIQUE SCAN          | PAYM_PK        |
|  FAST DUAL                        |                |

The actual execution time is negligible in this case, but as you can see, the same objects are accessed again and again within the query. This is a violation of Common Mistake #4: Running the same query all the time.

The whole thing would be so much easier to read, maintain, and for Oracle to execute, if we had used a common table expression. From the original source code, observe the following thing:

-- We're always accessing a single payment:
  FROM payments WHERE id = :p_id

-- Joining currencies and exchange_rates twice:
  FROM currencies c, exchange_rates e

So, let’s factor out the payment first:

-- "payment" contains only a single payment
-- But it contains all the columns that we'll need
-- afterwards
WITH payment AS (
    SELECT cur_id, org_id, amount
    FROM   payments
    WHERE  id = :p_id
SELECT round(p.amount * e.bid / c.factor, 0)

-- Then, we simply don't need to repeat the
-- currencies / exchange_rates joins twice
FROM   payment p
JOIN   currencies c     ON  p.cur_id = c.id
JOIN   exchange_rates e ON  e.cur_id = p.cur_id
                        AND e.org_id = p.org_id

Note, that we’ve also replaced table lists with ANSI JOINs as suggested in our previous list

You wouldn’t believe it’s the same query, would you? And what about the execution plan? Here it is!

| Operation                      | Name           |
| SELECT STATEMENT               |                |
|  NESTED LOOPS                  |                |
|   NESTED LOOPS                 |                |
|    NESTED LOOPS                |                |
|     FAST DUAL                  |                |
|      INDEX UNIQUE SCAN         | PAYM_PK        |
|     INDEX UNIQUE SCAN          | EXCH_PK        |
|    INDEX UNIQUE SCAN           | CURR_PK        |

No doubt that this is much much better.

The Cure:

If you’re lucky enough and you’re using one of those databases that supports window functions, chances are incredibly high (100%) that you also have common table expression support. (Even MySQL 8.0 will finally have them).

Common table expressions are like local variables in SQL. In every large statement, you should consider using them, as soon as you feel that you’ve written something before.

The Takeaway:

Some databases (e.g. PostgreSQL, or SQL Server) also support common table expressions for DML statements. In other words, you can write:

WITH ...

This makes DML incredibly more powerful.

7. Not using row value expressions for UPDATEs

We’ve advertised the use of row value expressions in our previous listing. They’re very readable and intuitive, and often also promote using certain indexes, e.g. in PostgreSQL.

But few people know that they can also be used in an UPDATE statement, in most databases. Check out the following query, which I again found in a customer’s PL/SQL package (simplified again, of course):

SET n = (SELECT n + 1    FROM t WHERE u.n = t.n),
    s = (SELECT 'x' || s FROM t WHERE u.n = t.n),
    x = 3;

So this query takes a subquery as a data source for updating two columns, and the third column is updated “regularly”. How does it perform? Moderately:

| Operation          | Name |
|  UPDATE            | U    |

Let’s ignore the full table scans, as this query is constructed. The actual query could leverage indexes. But T is accessed twice, i.e. in both subqueries. Oracle didn’t seem to be able to apply scalar subquery caching in this case.

To the rescue: row value expressions. Let’s simply rephrase our UPDATE to this:

SET (n, s) = ((
      SELECT n + 1, 'x' || s FROM t WHERE u.n = t.n
    x = 3;

Let’s ignore the funny, Oracle-specific double-parentheses syntax for the right hand side of such a row value expression assignment, but let’s appreciate the fact that we can easily assign a new value to the tuple (n, s) in one go! Note, we could have also written this, instead, and assign x as well:

SET (n, s, x) = ((
      SELECT n + 1, 'x' || s, 3 
      FROM t WHERE u.n = t.n

As you will have expected, the execution plan has also improved, and T is accessed only once:

| Operation          | Name |
|  UPDATE            | U    |

The Cure:

Use row value expressions. Where ever you can. They make your SQL code incredibly more expressive, and chances are, they make it faster, as well.

Note that the above is supported by jOOQ’s UPDATE statement. This is the moment we would like to make you aware of this cheap, in-article advertisement:

jOOQ - The best way to write SQL in Java


8. Using MySQL when you could use PostgreSQL

Disclaimer: I wrote this article in 2014. Since then, MySQL has made tremendous progress, so I wouldn’t bet all my money on PostgreSQL any longer, when comparing it with MySQL! So, read this tip with the 2014 context in mind!

To some, this may appear to be a bit of a hipster discussion. But let’s consider the facts:

  • MySQL claims to be the “most popular Open Source database”.
  • PostgreSQL claims to be the “most advanced Open Source database”.

Let’s consider a bit of history. MySQL has always been very easy to install, maintain, and it has had a great and active community. This has lead to MySQL still being the RDBMS of choice with virtually every web hoster on this planet. Those hosters also host PHP, which was equally easy to install, and maintain.


We Java developers tend to have an opinion about PHP, right? It’s summarised by this image here:

The PHP Hammer

The PHP Hammer

Well, it works, but how does it work?

The same can be said about MySQL. MySQL has always worked somehow, but while commercial databases like Oracle have made tremendous progress both in terms of query optimisation and feature scope, MySQL has hardly moved in the last decade.

Many people choose MySQL primarily because of its price (USD $ 0.00). But often, the same people have found MySQL to be slow and quickly concluded that SQL is slow per se – without evaluating the options. This is also why all NoSQL stores compare themselves with MySQL, not with Oracle, the database that has been winning the Transaction Processing Performance Council’s (TPC) benchmarks almost forever. Some examples:

While the last article bluntly adds “(and other RDBMS)” it doesn’t go into any sort of detail whatsoever, what those “other RDBMS” do wrong. It really only compares MongoDB with MySQL.

The Cure:

We say: Stop complaining about SQL, when in fact, you’re really complaining about MySQL. There are at least four very popular databases out there that are incredibly good. These are:

(just kidding about the last one, of course)

Again, remember, this was said in 2014. Today, MySQL 8.0 has made tremendous progress, so please review this opinion!

The Takeaway:

Don’t fall for agressive NoSQL marketing. 10gen is an extremely well-funded company, even if MongoDB continues to disappoint, technically.

The same is true for Datastax.

Both companies are solving a problem that few people have. They’re selling us niche products as commodity, making us think that our real commodity databases (the RDBMS) no longer fulfil our needs. They are well-funded and have big marketing teams to throw around with blunt claims.

In the mean time, PostgreSQL just got even better, and you, as a reader of this blog / post, are about to bet on the winning team :-)

… just to cite Mark Madsen once more:

The Disclaimer:

This article has been quite strongly against MySQL. We don’t mean to talk badly about a database that perfectly fulfils its purpose, as this isn’t a black and white world. Heck, you can get happy with SQLite in some situations. MySQL, being the cheap and easy to use, easy to install commodity database. We just wanted to make you aware of the fact, that you’re expressly choosing the cheap, not-so-good database, rather than the cheap, awesome one.

9. Forgetting about UNDO / REDO logs

We have claimed that MERGE statements or bulk / batch updates are good. That’s correct, but nonetheless, you should be wary when updating huge data sets in transactional contexts. If your transaction “takes too long”, i.e. if you’re updating 10 million records at a time, you will run into two problems:

  • You increase the risk of race conditions, if another process is also writing to the same table. This may cause a rollback on their or on your transaction, possibly making you roll out the huge update again
  • You cause a lot of concurrency on your system, because every other transaction / session, that wants to see the data that you’re about to update, will have to temporarily roll back all of your updates first, before they reach the state on disk that was there before your huge update. That’s the price of ACID.

One way to work around this issue is to allow for other sessions to read uncommitted data.

Another way to work around this issue is to frequently commit your own work, e.g. after 1000 inserts / updates.

In any case, due to the CAP theorem, you will have to make a compromise. Frequent commits will produce the risk of an inconsistent database in the event of the multi-million update going wrong after 5 million (committed) records. A rollback would then mean to revert all database changes towards a backup.

The Cure:

There is no definitive cure to this issue. But beware that you are very very rarely in a situation where it is OK to simply update 10 million records of a live and online table outside of an actual scheduled maintenance window. The simplest acceptable workaround is indeed to commit your work after N inserts / updates.

The Takeaway:

By this time, NoSQL aficionados will claim (again due to excessive marketing by aforementioned companies) that NoSQL has solved this by dropping schemas and typesafety. “Don’t update, just add another property!” – they said.

But that’s not true!

First off, I can add columns to my database without any issue at all. An ALTER TABLE ADD statement is executed instantly on live databases. Filling the column with data doesn’t bother anyone either, because no one reads the column yet (remember, don’t SELECT * !). So adding columns in RDBMS is as cheap as adding JSON properties to a MongoDB document.

But what about altering columns? Removing them? Merging them?

It is simply not true that denormalisation takes you anywhere far. Denormalisation is always a short-term win for the developer. Hardly a long-term win for the operations teams. Having redundant data in your database for the sake of speeding up an ALTER TABLE statement is like sweeping dirt under the carpet.

Don’t believe the marketers. And while you’re at it, perform some doublethink and forget that we’re SQL tool vendors ourselves ;-) Here’s again the “correct” message:

jOOQ - The best way to write SQL in Java

10. Not using the BOOLEAN type correctly

This is not really a mistake per se. It’s just again something that hardly anyone knows. When the SQL:1999 standard introduced the new BOOLEAN data type, they really did it right. Because before, we already had something like booleans in SQL. We’ve had <search condition> in SQL-92, which are essentially predicates for use in WHERE, ON, and HAVING clauses, as well as in CASE expressions.

SQL:1999, however, simply defined the new <boolean value expression> as a regular <value expression>, and redefined the <search condition> as such:

<search condition> ::=
    <boolean value expression>

Done! Now, for most of us Java / Scala / etc. developers, this doesn’t seem like such an innovation. Heck it’s a boolean. Obviuosly it can be interchangeably used as predicate and as variable.

But in the mind-set of the keyword-heavy SQL folks who have taken inspiration from COBOL when designing the language, this was quite a step forward.

Now, what does this mean? This means that you can use any predicate also as a column! For instance:

SELECT a, b, c
         MY_COL IN (1, 2, 3) b,
         3 BETWEEN 4 AND 5   c
) t

This is a bit of a dummy query, agreed, but are you aware of how powerful this is?

Luckily, again, PostgreSQL fully supports this (unlike Oracle, which still doesn’t have any BOOLEAN data type in SQL).

The Cure:

Every now and then, using BOOLEAN types feels very right, so do it! You can transform boolean value expressions into predicates and predicates into boolean value expressions. They’re the same. This makes SQL all so powerful.


SQL has evolved steadily over the past years through great standards like SQL:1999, SQL:2003, SQL:2008 and now SQL:2011. It is the only surviving mainstream declarative language, now that XQuery can be considered pretty dead for the mainstream. It can be easily mixed with procedural languages, as PL/SQL and T-SQL (and other procedural dialects) have shown. It can be easily mixed with object-oriented or functional languages, as jOOQ has shown.

At Data Geekery, we believe that SQL is the best way to query data. You don’t agree with any of the above? That’s fine, you don’t have to. Sometimes, even we agree with Winston Churchill who is known to have said:

tweet thisSQL is the worst form of database querying, except for all the other forms.

But as Yakov Fain has recently put it:

You can run from SQL, but you can’t hide

So, let’s better get back to work and learn this beast! Thanks for reading.

Counting Distinct Records in SQL

The SQL language and its depths… Some of you readers might be aware of MySQL’s capability of counting distinct records through the COUNT() aggregate function. The MySQL documentation reads:

COUNT(DISTINCT expr,[expr...])

Returns a count of the number of rows with different non-NULL expr values.

In other words, you can count distinct first and last names very easily:


That’s quite useful, but MySQL-specific (although HSQLDB also supports this particular MySQL syntax). Most other databases, however, do not offer such a feature, even if the SQL-99 standard has specified it long ago:

6.16  <set function specification>

<set function specification> ::=
    COUNT <left paren> <asterisk> <right paren>
  | <general set function>

<general set function> ::=
    <set function type>
        <left paren> [ <set quantifier> ] 
            <value expression> <right paren>

<set function type> ::=
    <computational operation>

<computational operation> ::=
    AVG | MAX | MIN | SUM

<set quantifier> ::= DISTINCT | ALL

The above was later on merged into 10.9 <aggregate function>, in SQL:2011, with lots of other aggregate function types and features. Now, let’s have a look at 6.23 <value expression>:

6.23 <value expression>

<value expression> ::=
<numeric value expression>
| <string value expression>
| <datetime value expression>
| <interval value expression>
| <boolean value expression>
| <user-defined type value expression>
| <row value expression>                <-- RVE!
| <reference value expression>
| <collection value expression>

Interestingly, you can put a row value expression in some of your aggregate functions. There are additional restrictions, as you cannot SUM() or AVG() records, for instance. But with COUNT() and COUNT(DISTINCT ...) this makes perfect sense. So, according to the SQL standard (and according to HSQLDB’s alternative, and PostgreSQL’s main implementation, which unfortunately isn’t really documented), the following would be the correct way to count distinct first and last names in SQL:


… which makes perfect sense. Watch out when reading this. This isn’t a DISTINCT() function! This is the DISTINCT keyword applied to a row value expression. See some previous blog posts about row value expressions here:

jOOQ standardises various SQL dialects and hides the above behind the DSL.countDistinct() method.

When you’re not using HSQLDB, MySQL, or PostgreSQL

In other databases, you might resort to some manual SQL transformation. Our example is easy to transform:

) t

But such query transformation can prove to be tricky, once you have GROUP BY clauses or other aggregate functions involved. Future versions of jOOQ might do that sort of transformation for you.

SQL Query Transformation Fun: Predicates with Row Value Expressions

Recently, I’ve blogged about how well jOOQ’s supported databases implement row value expressions and predicates formed from them. Some sample articles:

Row value expressions (or records, tuples) are useful to express more complex predicates, such as this one:

WHERE (t.t1, t.t2) IN (
    SELECT u.u1, u.u2 FROM u

The above statement semi-joins u to t based on a tuple comparison, not just a single column comparison. This is useful, for example, when you want to select those users from a table whose first AND last name are also contained in another table (without any formal foreign key relationship, of course):

FROM users u
WHERE (u.first_name, u.last_name) IN (
    SELECT a.first_name, a.last_name FROM addresses a

Now, not all databases really support row value expression predicates. In fact, only very few really do. Here is a non-exhaustive list of databases, that will support some form of the above:

  • DB2
  • MySQL
  • Oracle
  • Postgres

And these databases pretend they implement row value expression predicates, but get it wrong:

  • CUBRID (confusing them with sets)
  • H2 (confusing them with arrays)

A feature comparison matrix was listed here:

Can the above query be simulated?

Yes, it can! And it will be with jOOQ 3.1. Here’s how to transform the above query into an equivalent one, which doesn’t use row value expressions. So, here’s the original query, again:

WHERE (t.t1, t.t2) IN (
    SELECT u.u1, u.u2 FROM u

The above can be transformed into the following query, using an EXISTS predicate

    WHERE t.t1 = u.u1 AND t.t2 = u.u2

Now, in the above simple transformation, we have modified the subselect by changing the projection and by adding a predicate. This can be difficult for more complex subselects, so lets avoid touching it, by introducing another derived table:

    SELECT *
    FROM (
        SELECT u.u1, u.u2 FROM u -- untouched
    ) v(v1, v2)                  -- derived table
    WHERE t.t1 = v.v1 AND t.t2 = v.v2

That’s better. Many databases require renaming derived tables, which is why a derived column list v(v1, v2) was introduced. Not all databases support derived column lists, though, as can be seen in a previous blog post. So lets go on transforming the above into an equivalent query:

    SELECT *
    FROM (
        SELECT null v1, null v2  -- renaming
        FROM dual                -- if necessary
        WHERE 1 = 0              -- without new rows
        UNION ALL
        SELECT u.u1, u.u2 FROM u -- untouched
    ) v                          -- derived table
    WHERE t.t1 = v.v1 AND t.t2 = v.v2

Now, we’ve reached our goal. The above query will run on all databases, retaining the original semantics of a row value expression predicate using a subselect! Note, you possibly have to replace the dual with something more appropriate, of course.

Does this apply to all comparison predicates?

In principle, yes. Let’s look at a few examples.


WHERE (t.t1, t.t2) NOT IN (
    SELECT u.u1, u.u2 FROM u

-- transforms into
    SELECT *
    FROM (
        SELECT null v1, null v2
        FROM dual
        WHERE 1 = 0
        UNION ALL
        SELECT u.u1, u.u2 FROM u
    ) v
    WHERE t.t1 = v.v1 AND t.t2 = v.v2

Equality and non-equality

Equality and non-equality work the same way as IN and NOT IN IFF you are operating on scalar subselects. While actual comparison predicates will raise an error if subselects return more than one row, the EXISTS predicate will not. Beware!


Just as with equality and non-equality, beware of non-scalar subselects!

WHERE (t.t1, t.t2) > (
    SELECT u.u1, u.u2 FROM u

-- transforms into
-- EXISTS is not formally correct,
-- if the subselect is a non-scalar one
    SELECT *
    FROM (
        SELECT null v1, null v2
        FROM dual
        WHERE 1 = 0
        UNION ALL
        SELECT u.u1, u.u2 FROM u
    ) v
    WHERE (t.t1 > v.v1)
    OR    (t.t1 = v.v1 AND t.t2 > v.v2)

See the previously cited blog post about the BETWEEN predicate to learn how to simulate “ordering” comparison predicates with row value expressions.

Quantified comparison predicates

Quantifiers now become quite useful. The ANY quantifier removes the need for having scalar subselects, as in the previous example:

WHERE (t.t1, t.t2) > ANY (
    SELECT u.u1, u.u2 FROM u

-- transforms into
-- EXISTS is now formally correct
    SELECT *
    FROM (
        SELECT null v1, null v2
        FROM dual
        WHERE 1 = 0
        UNION ALL
        SELECT u.u1, u.u2 FROM u
    ) v
    WHERE (t.t1 > v.v1)
    OR    (t.t1 = v.v1 AND t.t2 > v.v2)

The ALL quantifier, on the other hand, can be expressed with its inverse ANY quantifier, i.e.

WHERE (t.t1, t.t2) > ALL (
    SELECT u.u1, u.u2 FROM u

-- first transforms into
WHERE NOT ((t.t1, t.t2) <= ANY (
    SELECT u.u1, u.u2 FROM u

-- and then transforms into
-- (NOT) EXISTS is now formally correct
    SELECT *
    FROM (
        SELECT null v1, null v2
        FROM dual
        WHERE 1 = 0
        UNION ALL
        SELECT u.u1, u.u2 FROM u
    ) v
    WHERE (t.t1 < v.v1)
    OR    (t.t1 = v.v1 AND t.t2 <= v.v2)


Happy transforming, and keep an eye out for jOOQ 3.1, conveniently implementing all of the above behind a type-safe Java API!


Yes, NULLs. The above transformation deliberately left out edge cases where NULLs are involved.

A Typesafety Comparison of SQL Access APIs

SQL is a very expressive and distinct language. It is one of the few declarative languages which are used by a broad audience in everyday work. As a declarative language, SQL allows to specify what we’re expecting as output, not how this output should be produced. As a side-effect of this, ad-hoc record data types are created by every statement. An example:

-- A (id: integer, title: varchar) type is created
SELECT id, title
FROM book;

The above statement generates a cursor whose records have a well-defined record type with these properties:

  • The degree of the record is 2
  • The column names are id and title
  • The column types are integer and varchar
  • The column id can be accessed at index 1. The column title can be accessed at index 2

In other words, SQL records combine features from records (access by name) and tuples (access by index). They can be seen like typesafe associative “map-arrays”, where map keys are formally bound to array indexes and their associated key/index type.

Another, more complex example shows how these ad-hoc record types can be reused within a SQL statement!

-- A (c: bigint) type is created
SELECT count(*) c
FROM book

-- A (..: integer, ..: integer) type is created and compared with...
WHERE (author_id, language_id) IN (

  -- ... another, compatible (..: integer, ..: integer) type
  SELECT a.id, a.language_id
  FROM author a

This query counts books written by authors in their native language.

In the above example, the projected record type is a bit simpler. It contains only one column. The interesting part is the row value expression IN comparison predicate, which compares two compatible (integer, integer) types. In SQL, you can typesafely create ad-hoc record types and immediately compare them with other ad-hoc record types. In these comparisons, column names are not important, but column indexes (and associated column types) are.

Comparing various SQL access APIs

The previous examples show how SQL allows for the formal declaration of record types including record degree, column names, column indexes, column types. While SQL is very expressive in that matter, many client languages accessing SQL are less expressive. When comparing expressiveness and typesafety, two features should be taken into consideration:

  1. Are the records produced into the client language typesafe?
  2. Are the SQL statements produced from the client language typesafe and syntax-safe?

Let’s have a look at various accessing techniques, and how expressive they are in terms of the above typesafety requirements:

JDBC: Least typesafety

JDBC offers the least expressiveness and typesafety. This isn’t surprising, as JDBC is a very low-level API. It offers:

  1. No typesafety whatsoever when accessing result records.
  2. No typesafety or syntax-safety whatsoever when producing SQL statements.

Here is an example:

PreparedStatement stmt = null;
ResultSet rs = null;

try {

  // SQL statements are just strings. Constructing them is not
  // typesafe or syntax-safe
  stmt = connection.prepareStatement(
    "SELECT id, title FROM book WHERE id = ?");

  // Bind values are set by index. There is no typesafety or
  // "index safety"
  stmt.setInt(1, 15);

  rs = stmt.executeQuery();
  while (rs.next()) {

    // There is no typesafety or "index safety" when accessing
    // result record values
      "ID: " + rs.getInt(1) + ", TITLE: " + rs.getString(2));
finally {
  closeSafely(stmt, rs);

Now, this wasn’t surprising. JDBC makes up for the lack of typesafety by being absolutely general. It is possible to implement a JDBC driver for any type of relational database, no matter what kinds of SQL and JDBC features they really support.

JPA: Some typesafety

JPA has implemented quite a bit of typesafety mostly on top of JPQL, but also slightly on top of SQL. With JPA, you can have:

  1. Some typesafety when accessing records.
  2. Some typesafety and syntax-safety when producing JPQL statements through the CriteriaQuery API (not SQL statements).

Record access typesafety can be guaranteed when you project the outcome of your statements onto your JPA-annotated entities. While the mapping itself isn’t really typesafe, the outcome is, as a Java class is the closest match to a SQL record. A Java class, much like a SQL record, has:

  • A degree, expressed in the number of properties
  • Column names, expressed as property names
  • Column types, expressed as property types
  • But: No column indexes. Properties have no explicit order

JPA record mapping has additional features that exceed the expressiveness of SQL, as “flat”, tabular result sets can be mapped onto object hierarchies. In any case, you will have to create one record / entity type per query to profit from this typesafety. If you’re not projecting all columns from every table, but ad-hoc records (including values derived from functions), you will lose this typesafety again.

When it comes to statement typesafety, JPA offers the CriteriaQuery API to produce typesafe JPQL statements. The CriteriaQuery API is often criticised for its verboseness and for the fact that resulting client code is hard to read. Here is an example taken from the CriteriaQuery API docs:

CriteriaQuery<String> q = cb.createQuery(String.class);
Root<Order> order = q.from(Order.class);
CriteriaQuery<Product> q2 = cb.createQuery(Product.class);

It can be seen that there is only a limited amount of typesafety in the above query construction:

  • Columns are accessed by string literals, such as "shippingAddress".
  • Generic entity types are not really checked. The <Item,Product> generic parameters might as well be wrong.

Of course, there are more typesafe API parts in JPA’s CriteriaQuery API. Using those API parts quickly lead to the aforementioned verbosity, though, as can be seen in this Stack Overflow question, or in the Java EE 6 Tutorials.

LINQ: Much typesafety (in .NET)

LINQ goes very far in offering typesafety in both dimensions:

  1. Much typesafety when accessing records or tuples.
  2. Much typesafety when producing LINQ-to-SQL statements (not SQL statements).

As LINQ is formally integrated into various .NET languages, it has the advantage of being able to produce formally defined record types, directly into the target language (e.g. C#). Not only can typesafe records be produced, the LINQ-to-SQL statement is formally verified by the compiler as well. An example

// Typesafe renaming (aliasing with "AS" in SQL)
From p In db.Products
// Typesafe (named!) variable binding
Where p.UnitsInStock <= ReorderLevel AndAlso Not p.Discontinued
// The typesafe projection will produce a Products record
Select p

Another example from Stack Overflow can be seen here:

// Producing a C# tuple
var r = from u in db.Users
        join s in db.Staffs on u.Id equals s.UserId
        select new Tuple<User, Staff>(u, s);

// Producing an anonymous record type
var r = from u in db.Users
    select new { u.Name, 
                 (from s in db.Staffs 
                  select s.Password where u.Id == s.UserId) 

LINQ has many obvious advantages when it comes to typesafety. In the case of LINQ, this comes at the price of losing actual SQL expressivity and syntax, as LINQ-to-SQL is not really SQL (just as JPQL is not really SQL either). The SQL querying API is partially shared with other, heterogeneous querying targets, such as LINQ-to-Entities, LINQ-to-Collections, LINQ-to-XML. This will reduce LINQ’s feature scope (see also a previous blog post, and I will soon blog about this again).

But C# offers all typesafety aspects that a SQL record offers as well: degree, column name (anonymous types), column index (tuples), column types (both types and tuples).

SLICK: Much typesafety (in Scala)

SLICK has been inspired by LINQ, and can thus offer a lot of typesafety as well. It offers:

  1. Much typesafety when accessing tuples (not records).
  2. Much typesafety when producing SLICK statements (not SQL statements).

SLICK takes advantage of Scala’s integrated tuple expressions. This is best shown by example:

// "for" is the "entry-point" to the DSL
val q = for {

    // FROM clause   WHERE clause
    c <- Coffees     if c.supID === 101

// SELECT clause and projection to a tuple
} yield (c.name, c.price)

The above example shows that the projection onto a (String, Int) tuple is done typesafely by the yield method. At the same time, the whole query expression is formally validated by the compiler, as SLICK makes heavy use of Scala’s language features in order to introduce an internal DSL for querying. Much more than LINQ, SLICK has a unique syntax that doesn’t remind of SQL any more. It is not obvious how subqueries, complex joins, grouping and aggregation can be expressed.

jOOQ: Much typesafety

jOOQ is mainly inspired by SQL itself and embraces all the features that SQL offers. It has thus:

  1. Much typesafety when accessing records or tuples.
  2. Much typesafety when producing SQL statements.

jOOQ offers similar capabilities as JPA when it comes to mapping SQL result sets onto records, although JPA’s mapping type hierarchies are not supported by jOOQ. But jOOQ also allows for typesafe tuple access, the way SLICK has implemented it. Ad-hoc records produced by arbitrary query projections will maintain their various column types through generic Record1<T1>, Record2<T1, T2>, Record3<T1, T2, T3>, … record types. Unlike in Java, this can be leveraged extensively in Scala, where these typesafe Record[N] types can be used just like Scala’s tuples.

On the other hand, just like LINQ-to-SQL, which has formally integrated querying as a first-class citizen into .NET languages, jOOQ allows for heavy type-checking and syntax-checking, when writing SQL statements in Java.

In SQL, you can typesafely write things like:

SELECT * FROM t WHERE (t.a, t.b) = (1, 2)
SELECT * FROM t WHERE (t.a, t.b) OVERLAPS (date1, date2)
SELECT * FROM t WHERE (t.a, t.b) IN (SELECT x, y FROM t2)
UPDATE t SET (a, b) = (SELECT x, y FROM t2 WHERE ...)
INSERT INTO t (a, b) VALUES (1, 2)

In jOOQ 3.0, you can (also typesafely!) write

select().from(t).where(row(t.a, t.b).eq(1, 2));
// Type-check here: ----------------->  ^^^^
select().from(t).where(row(t.a, t.b).overlaps(date1, date2));
// Type-check here: ------------------------> ^^^^^^^^^^^^
select().from(t).where(row(t.a, t.b).in(select(t2.x, t2.y).from(t2)));
// Type-check here: -------------------------> ^^^^^^^^^^
update(t).set(row(t.a, t.b), select(t2.x, t2.y).where(...));
// Type-check here: --------------> ^^^^^^^^^^

insertInto(t, t.a, t.b).values(1, 2);
// Type-check here: ---------> ^^^^

This also applies for existing API, which doesn’t involve row value expressions:

// Type-check here: ---------------> ^^^^
// Type-check here: -------------------> ^^^^
// Type-check here: ---------------> ^^^^

select(t1.a, t1.b).from(t1).union(select(t2.a, t2.b).from(t2));
// Type-check here: -------------------> ^^^^^^^^^^

jOOQ is not SQL, but unlike other attempts of introducing SQL as an internal domain-specific language into host languages like Java, Scala, C#, jOOQ looks very much like SQL thanks to its unique fluent API technique, which informally follows an underlying BNF notation.

Even if Java offers less expressiveness than other languages like C# or Scala, jOOQ probably comes closest to both result record typesafety and SQL syntax safety in the Java world.

Row value expressions and the BETWEEN predicate

Now this is a simple example of how SQL clause simulation can get nasty if you want to make use of some more advanced SQL clauses that aren’t supported in all databases. Consider the following predicate and equivalent transformations thereof:

The BETWEEN predicate

The BETWEEN predicate is a convenient form of expressing the fact that one expression A should be in BETWEEN two other expressions B and C. This predicate was defined already in §8.4 of SQL-1992, and then refined in SQL-1999 (adding ASYMMETRIC/SYMMETRIC):

8.3 <between predicate>

    Specify a range comparison.

    <between predicate> ::=
        <row value expression> [ NOT ] BETWEEN 
          <row value expression> AND <row value expression>

While ASYMMETRIC is just a verbose way of expressing the default behaviour of the BETWEEN predicate, SYMMETRIC has the useful property of indicating that the order of B and C is irrelevant. Knowing this, the following transformations can be established:

BETWEEN predicate transformations

The following statements are all equivalent:

(A >= B AND A <= C) OR (A >= C AND A <= B)

While this is still somewhat readable, try adding row value expressions:

-- The original statement

-- Transforming away BETWEEN SYMMETRIC
   (     (A1, A2) >= (B1, B2) 
     AND (A1, A2) <= (C1, C2) )
OR (     (A1, A2) >= (C1, C2) 
     AND (A1, A2) <= (B1, B2) )

-- Transforming away the row value expressions
   (     ((A1 > B1) OR (A1 = B1 AND A2 > B2) OR (A1 = B1 AND A2 = B2))
     AND ((A1 < C1) OR (A1 = C1 AND A2 < C2) OR (A1 = C1 AND A2 = C2)) )
OR (     ((A1 > C1) OR (A1 = C1 AND A2 > C2) OR (A1 = C1 AND A2 = C2))
     AND ((A1 < B1) OR (A1 = B1 AND A2 < B2) OR (A1 = B1 AND A2 = B2)) )

In the lowest expression, some parts could’ve been factored out for “simplicity”. The example is just to give you a picture of what the BETWEEN [SYMMETRIC] predicate really does to row value expressions.

Native SQL support for row value expressions and BETWEEN SYMMETRIC

Here’s a comprehensive list of the 14 SQL dialects supported by jOOQ, and what is natively supported by them:

CUBRID [1] no yes no no
DB2 no yes yes yes
Derby no no no no
Firebird no no no no
H2 [2] no yes yes yes
HSQLDB yes yes yes yes
Ingres yes no no no
MySQL no yes yes no
Oracle no yes no no
Postgres yes yes yes yes
SQL Server no no no no
SQLite no no no no
Sybase ASE no no no no
Sybase SQL Anywhere no no no no


  • The BETWEEN SYMMETRIC column indicates, whether the database supports the SYMMETRIC keyword in general
  • The RVE = RVE column indicates, whether the database supports row value expressions in general (e.g. in equal comparison predicates)
  • The RVE < RVE column indicates, whether the database supports “ordering” comparison predicates (<, <=, >, >=) along with row value expressions
  • The RVE BETWEEN column indicates, whether the database supports the BETWEEN predicates along with row value expressions


  • [1]: CUBRID doesn’t really support row value expressions. What looks like a RVE is in fact a SET in CUBRID
  • [2]: H2 doesn’t really support row value expressions. What looks like a RVE is in fact an ARRAY in H2

Row value expressions and the NULL predicate

Row value expressions are something very powerful in SQL. They have been around since the early days of standard SQL, e.g. in SQL 1992, even if not all databases implement them correctly, still today.

As always, the NULL predicate is one that is a bit tricky to understand, also in the context of row value expressions. Have a look at the following expressions:


The SQL 1992 standard defines that:


General Rules

1) Let R be the value of the <row value constructor>.

2) If all the values in R are the null value, then "R IS NULL" is
   true; otherwise, it is false.

3) If none of the values in R are the null value, then "R IS NOT
   NULL" is true; otherwise, it is false.

   Note: For all R, "R IS NOT NULL" has the same result as "NOT
   R IS NULL" if and only if R is of degree 1. Table 12, "<null
   predicate> semantics", specifies this behavior.

Pay some special attention to paragraph 3). Yes, the following two predicates are NOT equivalent!

    (A, B) IS NOT NULL
NOT((A, B) IS     NULL)

This is easy to understand, when factoring out the rules of equivalency:

(A, B) IS NOT NULL                -- equivalent to...
A IS NOT NULL AND B IS NOT NULL   -- equivalent to...
NOT(A IS NULL) AND NOT(B IS NULL) -- equivalent to...

-- whereas...
NOT((A, B) IS NULL)               -- equivalent to...

The truth table also nicely documents this:

|                | R IS  | R IS NOT    | NOT R IS   | NOT R IS NOT |
| Expression     | NULL  | NULL        | NULL       | NULL         |
| degree 1: null | true  | false       | false      |  true        |
| degree 1: not  | false | true        | true       |  false       |
| null           |       |             |            |              |
| degree > 1:    | true  | false       | false      |  true        |
| all null       |       |             |            |              |
| degree > 1:    | false | false       | true       |  true        |
| some null      |       |             |            |              |
| degree > 1:    | false | true        | true       |  false       |
| none null      |       |             |            |              |

More on row value expressions

jOOQ 3.0 will introduce formal and typesafe support for row value expressions and predicates based thereupon. Stay tuned for more interesting insight and articles about row vlaue expressions and how they’re supported (and/or simulated) in various SQL dialects