Exploring SQL 2005’s Ranking Functions – NTILE() and ROW_NUMBER()

This is part 20 of a series. If you have not read part 19, I
suggest starting here.
That article is the first of this two-part coverage of ranking functions.

Table and Data for Illustration

This article will use the same table and data as Part 19, so
I won’t cover that again. The code to build and populate the table is here.

NTILE()

NTILE() breaks the results into groups. In the simplest
case, if we pass the integer 2 to NTILE() using Weight, it will rank each entry
as in either the first or second half based on Weight.

NTILE() with ORDER BY Only

Query:


SELECT
Category,
Weight,
Entrant,
NTILE(2) OVER (
ORDER BY Weight DESC
) AS [Ntile]

FROM dbo.ContestResults

Partial Results:


Category Weight Entrant Ntile
———- —— ————— —–
Pumpkin 716 Chad Johnson 1
Pumpkin 679 George Kopsell 1

Watermelon 132 Meg Giry 2
Watermelon 129 Joseph Buquet 2

This is valid, but it’s not terribly interesting or
valuable. Let’s add a PARTITION BY clause so we get top- and bottom-half
entries for each category.

NTILE() with PARTITION BY and ORDER BY

Query:


SELECT
Category,
Weight,
Entrant,
NTILE(2) OVER (
PARTITION BY Category
ORDER BY Weight DESC
) AS [Ntile]
FROM dbo.ContestResults

Partial Results:


Category Weight Entrant Ntile
———- —— ————— ——————–
Pumpkin 716 Chad Johnson 1

Pumpkin 229 Harvey Zale 2
Squash 462 Dan Gardner 1

Squash 405 Gary Spiel 2
Watermelon 146 Mark Bardin 1

Watermelon 129 Joseph Buquet 2

Now we have something useful.

Passing Different int Values to NTILE()

Passing 1 to NTILE() is worthless; it gives us 1 for each
entry. But what if we pass a larger number to NTILE() than the number of result
set rows? In our test table, we have four entries in the squash category. Let’s
try passing different values to NTILE(), starting with 2.

Query:


SELECT

NTILE(2) OVER (
ORDER BY Weight DESC
) AS [Ntile]
FROM dbo.ContestResults
WHERE Category = ‘Squash’

Results:


Category Weight Entrant Ntile
——– —— ———— —–
Squash 462 Dan Gardner 1
Squash 462 Harvey Zale 1
Squash 435 Terry Helmer 2
Squash 405 Gary Spiel 2

Sure, this splits the entries into two halves. Now what
about 3?


Category Weight Entrant Ntile
——– —— ———— —–
Squash 462 Dan Gardner 1
Squash 462 Harvey Zale 1
Squash 435 Terry Helmer 2
Squash 405 Gary Spiel 3

Notice that the first two entries get tile 1 and have the
same weight. This is interesting, but it’s not consistent. I will explain the
uneven distribution shortly.

If we switch to 4, we get one tile per entry as
expected. Any integer above 4 will return the same results for this set
as 4.


Category Weight Entrant Ntile
——– —— ———— —–
Squash 462 Dan Gardner 1
Squash 462 Harvey Zale 2
Squash 435 Terry Helmer 3
Squash 405 Gary Spiel 4

The tiling will split records that have the same weight into
different tiles. Here, we are using 7 as the tile integer and pulling
the thirteen pumpkin entries.


Category Weight Entrant Ntile
——– —— ————– —–
Pumpkin 716 Chad Johnson 1
Pumpkin 679 George Kopsell 1
Pumpkin 679 Dan Gardner 2

Pumpkin 481 John Suydam 2
….
Pumpkin 229 Harvey Zale 7

Note that two entries have the exact same weight (679) but
are split between tile 1 and 2. I tried rebuilding the table and putting Dan
Gardner’s entry in first and, as you might expect, the tiles were swapped. So,
for entries with equal weight, the order of the base records determines the tiling.

Another pattern is that if you have n records in your
result set and n-1 as your ntile integer, the first two entries always
have a tile of 1.

Dealing Cards

The distribution is actually very simple; it’s just like
dealing cards. Think of the tiles like card players. If you dealt five cards to
four players, the first player would have an extra card. If you dealt one more
card, it would go to the second player. If you think of the distribution of
tiles like that, it will match the results.

Using a Variable for the NTILE() int Value

You can use a variable for the NTILE int value. This has
clear value.

Query:


DECLARE @i int
SET @i = 5

SELECT

NTILE(@i) OVER (
PARTITION BY Category
ORDER BY Weight DESC
) AS [Ntile]
FROM dbo.ContestResults

ROW_NUMBER()

ROW_NUMBER() numbers the rows of the result set. Here is the
simplest case.

ROW_NUMBER() with ORDER BY Only

Query:


SELECT

ROW_NUMBER() OVER (
ORDER BY Weight DESC
) AS [RowNumber]

FROM dbo.ContestResults

Partial Results:


Category Weight Entrant RowNumber
———- —— ————- ———
Pumpkin 716 Chad Johnson 1
Pumpkin 679 Dan Gardner 2

Watermelon 132 Meg Giry 22
Watermelon 129 Joseph Buquet 23

Valid, yes, but fairly worthless. Adding a PARTITION BY
clause starts to show the value.

ROW_NUMBER() with PARTITION BY and ORDER BY

Query:


SELECT

ROW_NUMBER() OVER (
PARTITION BY Category
ORDER BY Weight DESC
) AS [RowNumber]
FROM dbo.ContestResults

Partial Results:


Category Weight Entrant RowNumber
———- —— ————– ——————–
Pumpkin 716 Chad Johnson 1
Pumpkin 679 Dan Gardner 2

Pumpkin 247 Harvey Zale 12
Pumpkin 229 Harvey Zale 13
Squash 462 Dan Gardner 1
Squash 462 Harvey Zale 2
Squash 435 Terry Helmer 3
Squash 405 Gary Spiel 4
Watermelon 146 Mark Bardin 1
Watermelon 139 Christine Daaé 2

Watermelon 132 Meg Giry 5
Watermelon 129 Joseph Buquet 6

Now we have row numbers starting at 1 for each category.
This will allow us, for instance, to pull the top three entries from each
category. This is really the best choice to fulfill our original task of
picking who receives prizes.

Using ROW_NUMBER() with PARTITION BY and ORDER BY with a Common Table
Expression

Just like RANK() and DENSE_RANK(), you can’t do this:


SELECT

ROW_NUMBER() OVER (
PARTITION BY Category
ORDER BY Weight DESC
) AS RowNumber
FROM dbo.ContestResults
WHERE RowNumber <= 3

You get “Invalid column name ‘RowNumber’.” So, we turn again to Common Table
Expressions (CTEs) or table variables. I think the CTEs are cleaner, so I will
only illustrate that and not table variables.

Common Table Expression:


WITH t
AS (

SELECT

ROW_NUMBER() OVER (
PARTITION BY Category
ORDER BY Weight DESC
) AS RowNumber
FROM dbo.ContestResults
)
SELECT

RowNumber
FROM t
WHERE RowNumber <= 3
ORDER BY Category, RowNumber

Results:


Category Weight Entrant RowNumber
———- —— ——————- ———
Pumpkin 716 Chad Johnson 1
Pumpkin 679 Dan Gardner 2
Pumpkin 679 George Kopsell 3
Squash 462 Dan Gardner 1
Squash 462 Harvey Zale 2
Squash 435 Terry Helmer 3
Watermelon 146 Mark Bardin 1
Watermelon 139 Christine Daaé 2
Watermelon 139 Carlotta Giudicelli 3

A Real-World ROW_NUMBER() Example: Most Recent Entry by Person

I have had to use ROW_NUMBER() multiple times recently for a
specific requirement. We have a user action that happens multiple times, and we
have to pull only the most recent entry for each person. ROW_NUMBER() is
a huge winner here.

Say we’re storing data for a pediatrician and need to pull
information for the most recent visits by patients. This is a simple example,
but you can see the power of using ROW_NUMBER() here.

Query:


DECLARE @records TABLE (
Person int,
VisitDate datetime,
Purpose varchar(10)
)

INSERT INTO @records (Person, VisitDate, Purpose) VALUES …
(100, ‘1992-12-31’, ‘Birth’)
(100, ‘1993-01-12’, ‘CheckUp’)
(100, ‘1993-03-22’, ‘Shots’)
(100, ‘1993-04-19’, ‘EarInf’)

(101, ‘2003-01-29’, ‘Birth’)
(101, ‘2003-02-03’, ‘CheckUp’)

(102, ‘2008-10-13’, ‘Birth’)

SELECT * FROM @records

;WITH t
AS (
SELECT
Person,
VisitDate,
Purpose,
ROW_NUMBER() OVER (
PARTITION BY Person
ORDER BY VisitDate DESC
) AS RowNumber

FROM @records
)
SELECT
Person,
VisitDate,
Purpose
FROM t
WHERE RowNumber = 1
ORDER BY Person

Result:


Person VisitDate Purpose
—— ———- ——-
100 1992-12-31 Birth
100 1993-01-12 CheckUp
100 1993-03-22 Shots
100 1993-04-19 EarInf
101 2003-01-29 Birth
101 2003-02-03 CheckUp
102 2008-10-13 Birth

Person VisitDate Purpose
—— ———- ——-
100 1993-04-19 EarInf
101 2003-02-03 CheckUp
102 2008-10-13 Birth

This gives us exactly what we want with very readable code.

Conclusion

NTILE() may have a “sweet-spot” in some applications, but I
don’t see it being as useful as ROW_NUMBER(). I think ROW_NUMBER() is very
useful.

If you are a big fan of NTILE() and can explain where it is
useful, please drop a comment in the forum. You can also add comments there
about ROW_NUMBER() or any of the ranking functions.

So far, no one has answered the challenge I
posed in Part 19. Check it out and see if you can be the one that answers it.

»


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Rob Garrison

Rob Garrison
Rob Garrison is a database architect at Fiserv in Portland, Oregon specializing in OLTP design and development. He has over twenty years of IT experience, with over ten years in database development and architecture.

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