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Posted Oct 4, 2001

The Impact of Standards - Page 3

By DatabaseJournal.com Staff

If all databases are SQL92-compliant, then they must be the same. At least that is the assumption made many times. In this section I would like to dispel that myth.

SQL92 is an ANSI/ISO standard for databases. It is the successor to the SQL89 ANSI/ISO standard. It defines a language (SQL) and behavior (transactions, isolation levels, and so on) that tell you how a database will behave. Did you know that many commercially available databases are SQL92-compliant? Did you know that it means very little as far as query and application portability goes?

Starting with the standard, we will find that the SQL92 standard has four levels:

  • Entry-level — This is the level to which most vendors have complied. This level is a minor enhancement of the predecessor standard, SQL89. No database vendors have been certified higher and in fact the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the agency that used to certify for SQL- compliance, does not even certify anymore. I was part of the team that got Oracle 7.0 NIST-certified for SQL92 entry-level compliance in 1993. An entry level compliant database has the feature set of Oracle 7.0.
  • Transitional — This is approximately 'halfway' between entry-level and intermediate- level as far as a feature set goes.
  • Intermediate — this adds many features including (not by any means an exhaustive list):
    • Dynamic SQL
    • Cascade DELETE for referential integrity
    • DATE and TIME data types
    • Domains
    • Variable length character strings
    • A CASE expression
    • CAST functions between data types
  • Full — Adds provisions for (again, not exhaustive):
    • Connection management
    • A BIT string data type
    • Deferrable integrity constraints
    • Derived tables in the FROM clause
    • Subqueries in CHECK clauses
    • Temporary tables

The entry-level standard does not include features such as outer joins, the new inner join syntax, and so on. Transitional does specify outer join syntax and inner join syntax. Intermediate adds more, and Full is, of course all of SQL92. Most books on SQL92 do not differentiate between the various levels leading to confusion on the subject. They demonstrate what a theoretical database implementing SQL92 FULL would look like. It makes it impossible to pick up a SQL92 book, and apply what you see in the book to just any SQL92 database. For example, in SQL Server the 'inner join' syntax is supported in SQL statements, whereas in Oracle it is not. But, they are both SQL92-compliant databases. You can do inner joins and outer joins in Oracle, you will just do it differently than in SQL Server. The bottom line is that SQL92 will not go very far at the entry-level and, if you use any of the features of intermediate or higher, you risk not being able to 'port' your application.

You should not be afraid to make use of vendor-specific features — after all, you are paying a lot of money for them. Every database has its own bag of tricks, and we can always find a way to perform the operation in each database. Use what is best for your current database, and re-implement components as you go to other databases. Use good programming techniques to isolate yourself from these changes. The same techniques are employed by people writing OS-portable applications. The goal is to fully utilize the facilities available to you, but ensure you can change the implementation on a case-by-case basis.

For example, a common function of many database applications is the generation of a unique key for each row. When you insert the row, the system should automatically generate a key for you. Oracle has implemented the database object called a SEQUENCE for this. Informix has a SERIAL data type. Sybase and SQL Server have an IDENTITY type. Each database has a way to do this. However, the methods are different, both in how you do it, and the possible outcomes. So, to the knowledgeable developer, there are two paths that can be pursued:

  • Develop a totally database-independent method of generating a unique key.
  • Accommodate the different implementations and use different techniques when implementing keys in each database.

The theoretical advantage of the first approach is that to move from database to database you need not change anything. I call it a 'theoretical' advantage because the 'con' side of this implementation is so huge that it makes this solution totally infeasible. What you would have to do to develop a totally database-independent process is to create a table such as:

create table id_table ( id_name varchar(30), id_value number );
insert into id_table values ( 'MY_KEY', 0 );

Then, in order to get a new key, you would have to execute the following code:

update id_table set id_value = id_value + 1 where id_name = 'MY_KEY';
select id_value from id_table where id_name = 'MY_KEY';

Looks simple enough, but the outcome is that only one user at a time may process a transaction now. We need to update that row to increment a counter, and this will cause our program to serialize on that operation. At best, one person at a time will generate a new value for this key. This issue is compounded by the fact that our transaction is much larger then we have outlined above. The UPDATE and SELECT we have in the example are only two statements of potentially many other statements that make up our transaction. We have yet to insert the row into the table with this key we just generated, and do whatever other work it takes to complete this transaction. This serialization will be a huge limiting factor in scaling. Think of the ramifications if this technique was used on web sites that processed orders, and this was how we generated order numbers. There would be no multi-user concurrency, so we would be forced to do everything sequentially.

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