SQL: Think in Sets not Rows

This article is also posted on LinkedIn.

Structured Query Language, better known as SQL, is regarded as the working language of relational database management systems (RDBMS). As was the case with the relational model and the concepts of normalization, the language developed as result of IBM research in the nineteen seventies.

Left to their own devices, the early RDBMSs (sic) implemented a number of languages, including SEQUEL, developed by Donald D. Chamberlin and Raymond F. Boyce in the early 1970s while working at IBM; and QUEL, the original language of Ingres. Eventually these efforts converged into a workable SQL, the Structured Query Language” (Kriegel, 2001).

For information professionals and database practitioners, SQL is regarded as a foundational skill that enables raw data to be manipulated within a RDBMS. “This is a declarative type of language. It instructs the database about what you want to do, and leaves details of implementation (how to do it) to the RDBMS itself” (Kriegel, 2001).

Before the advent of commercially accessible databases, data was typically stored in a proprietary file format manner. Each vendor had detailed specific access mechanisms, which could not be easily configured and customized for access by alternate applications. As databases began to adopt the relational model, the arrival and eventual standardization of SQL by ANSI (American National Standards Institute) and ISO (International Standards Institute) helped foster access, manipulation and retrieval consistency across many products.

Think in Sets not Rows!

SQL provides users the ability to query and manipulate data within the RDBMS without having to solely rely on a graphical user interface. There are powerful extensions in the many variant structured query languages (e.g. T-SQL, DB2, PL/SQL, etc.) that provide functionality above and beyond ISO and ANSI standards. However, SQL practitioners must first and foremost remember that SQL is a SET BASED construct. The most efficient SQL code regards table data as a whole and refrains from manipulating individual row elements one at a time unless absolutely necessary.

“Thinking in sets, or more precisely, in relational terms, is probably the most important best practice when writing T-SQL code. Many people start coding in T-SQL after having some background in procedural programming. Often, at least at the early stages of coding in this new environment, you don’t really think in relational terms, but rather in procedural terms. That’s because it’s easier to think of a new language as an extension to what you already know as opposed to thinking of it as a different thing, which requires adopting the correct mindset” (Ben-Gan, 2012).

Working with a relational language based upon the relational data model demands a set based mindset. Iterative cursor based processing, if used, should be used sparingly.

“By preferring a cursor-based (row-at-a-time) result set—or as Jeff Moden has so aptly termed it, Row By Agonizing Row (RBAR; pronounced ‘ree-bar’)—instead of a regular set-based SQL query, you add a large amount of overhead to SQL Server” (Fritchey, 2014).

If all other set based options have been exhausted and a row-by-row cursor must be employed, then make sure to use an “efficient” (relatively speaking) cursor type. The fast-forward only cursor type provides some performance advantages with respect to other cursor types in a SQL server environment. Fast forward cursors are read only and they only move forward within a data set (i.e. they do not support multi-direction iteration). Furthermore, according to Microsoft Technet (2015), fast forward only cursors automatically close when they reach the end of the data. The application driver does not have to send a close request to the server, which saves a roundtrip across the network.


Ben-Gan, I.  (Apr, 2012). T-SQL Foundations: Thinking in Sets. Why this line of thought is important when addressing querying tasks. Retrieved from http://sqlmag.com/t-sql/t-sql-foundations-thinking-sets

Fritchey, Grant. ( © 2014). Sql server query performance tuning (4th ed.).

Kriegel, Alex. ( © 2011). Discovering sql: a hands-on guide for beginners.

Microsoft Technet. Fast Forward-Only Cursors (ODBC). Retrieved April 23, 2015, from https://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/aa177106(v=sql.80).aspx


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