SQL Server 2005 – SQL Server Integration Services – Part 4

In the previous
of this series dedicated to the SQL Server 2005 Integration
Services (SSIS), we started exploring features, which provide the ability to
reuse packages (without modifying their design) in situations where some of
their parameters need to be changed (frequently, this is required as the result
of switching from development or testing environments to production). The first
method we introduced involved the use of configurations, implemented through
Package Configuration Organizer, included in Business Intelligence Development
Studio. With its intuitive Wizard-driven graphical interface, it is straightforward
to specify variables or properties of SSIS components, which values can then be
assigned using external sources of data (such as XML configuration files,
registry entries, environment variables, or variables defined in parent SSIS
packages). We also described similar functionality available when executing
packages via the DTExec command line utility. In this article, we will focus on
variables, which capabilities have been considerably enhanced compared with their
implementation in SQL Server 2000 Data Transformation Services. We will also look
at using expressions – both in the context of variables and component
properties – which further expand the dynamic nature of SQL Server Integration

We already have provided an overview of the concept and basic
characteristics of SSIS variables. The most significant ones we mentioned were
the existence of two main categories (system and user) as well as scope,
namespace membership, and modifiable properties associated with each. The only
modifiable option of system variables is their ability to raise an event when
their value changes (which can be either enabled or disabled). This is one of
the primary distinctions that separates them from user variables, for which
majority of properties can be arbitrarily changed, (the other is the fact that
all system variables are predefined, while all user variables are custom
created). Variables can be assigned either a literal value (as in SQL Server
2000 DTS) or an expression (new feature in SQL Server 2005), but in either
case, they must posses a specific data type. As with package or component
properties, values of variables are set directly within a package, but they
might also be assigned through configurations or command line switches of the DTExec
utility, at the time of package invocation (allowing you to alter package
parameters and the outcome of its execution, without direct modifications of
its content). This, in turn, significantly reduces potential maintenance and
version control issues, simplifying package development, deployment, and

When executing packages from the command line with the DTExec utility, you
need to reference variables using the syntax we described briefly in our
previous article
. Always starting with the "Package" string, the
notation consists of one or more additional elements preceded by the backslash
(indicating that the next element is a container or a task name), a period
(specifying that what follows is a component characteristic – in our case this
is Variables collection), or square brackets (enclosing the index within the
Variables collection – this role is handled by a value of variable Name
property). In order to assign value to a variable, such string would be
followed by the ".Value" suffix, separated by the semicolon from the
last part, containing the actual value. For example, in order to set the value
of the CampaignDonations variable (for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume in
this case that the variable has been defined on the package level) to the value
"Kenny Lay", when executing the package called ToShredder.dtsx, you
would type at the Command Prompt:

DTExec /FILE ToShredder.dtsx /SET Package.Variables[CampaignDonations].Value;"Kenny Lay"

When referencing a variable on the level of a package component, you would
specify its path after the Package entry, following the rules outlined
previously (e.g. PackageRunMeVariables[CampaignDonations].Value;"Kenny
would allow you to accomplish the same goal but for a RunMe
task level variable). Keep in mind, though, that with both methods
(configurations and command line switches), values are assigned prior to
package execution (rather than when its tasks are running). To overcome this
limitation, you can take advantage of expressions, by assigning them to
variables or component properties (more about this shortly).

There are various ways to create user variables, which depend on their scope
and purpose, as well as the current context within the Business Intelligence
Development Studio. The most convenient method is provided by the Variables
window, which is activated from the View -> Other Windows menu or from the
same item in the SSIS menu (just ensure that your Designer window is active).
Within its interface, you can view, create, and modify properties of variables
for the container that is currently selected in the Designer window (with
Control Flow tab active, this also includes all of the package level variables)
for both User and System namespaces. For example, to define variables for Data
Flow Tasks, click on the Data Flow tab in the Designer interface and switch to the
Variables window (by selecting Variables from the Other Windows or SSIS menu).
Every new variable created at this point, will, by default, have the Data Flow
Task scope. Icons in the toolbar of the Variables window allow you to display
the content of the System namespace and show all of the variables defined
within the package. You can also specify which variable characteristics should
be displayed. By default, they include, besides the variable name, its scope,
data type, and value, but you can choose to add the name of Namespace and indicate
whether an event is raised when the variable’s value changes (we will look into
this functionality later in this series, when discussing event handlers). For
user variables, you can alter their names or values directly in the Variables
window as well as modify any of non-Read Only entries in the Properties window.

Another comprehensive view of variables within a package and its components
is provided by the Package Explorer tab of the Designer interface. As you would
expect, based on the naming convention, the display has a Windows Explorer-like
structure, with the Package node as the root. The Variables (containing all
package-level variables), Precedence Constraints, Event Handlers, Connection
Managers, Log Providers, and Executables are second level folders. The last second
level folder, Executables, consists of all of the tasks included in the Control
Flow, with Event Handlers and Variables (containing task level variables) subfolders
underneath (Data Flow Task contains also Components folder). Once you display
the content of any of the Variables folders, you can choose any of its entries,
representing individual System and User variables, and use the Properties
window to review and manage their values.

Variables can also be managed from the SSIS Designer interface in the
context of the container, which constitutes their scope. For example, Execute
Process Task Editor (which is part of our sample project, presented in the
second article of this series
, includes the ability to create new variables
when setting Standard Input, Standard Output, and Standard Error entries
(although, it is also possible to use any of existing variables for this
purpose ). If you decide to do so (and select the New Variable option), from
the Add Variable dialog box, you set the container, name, namespace, value
type, and value, as well as specify whether the variable is read-only.
Similarly, in the Editor interface of the File System Task, there exists IsDestinationPathVariable
and IsSourcePathVariable properties, along with corresponding DestinationVariable
and SourceVariable properties (respectively), allowing you to create new
variables (or use existing ones) to store the path to source and destination
files. Another example is the Execute SQL Task, where one of the general
properties, called SQLSourceType, determines whether a SQL Statement is
specified through direct input (in this case, SQLStatement property is used),
file connection (which requires connection to a file containing T-SQL code), or
variable (which automatically makes the SourceVariable property available,
giving you the ability to define a new variable or reuse an existing one).

An SSIS expression is a combination of variables, column identifiers,
literals, functions, and operators that all together evaluate to a single data
value. Expressions can be used in a number of scenarios, such as determining
package control flow at run-time (as part of conditional splits, precedence constraints,
or ForLoop containters), controlling data transformations and updates, or
assigning values to variables and component properties dynamically. Expressions
offer more flexibility than direct values or even non-expression based
variables, since they are evaluated at the time of execution of a control-flow
task with which they are associated. For example, Precedence Constraint Editor
allows you to set the evaluation operation to be a constraint (such as Success,
Failure, or Completion), an expression (involving any number of system or user
variables), as well as logical AND or OR of both. Note, however, that
expressions cannot be used to change properties of Data Flow task or any of its

If you intend to assign an expression to a variable (instead of setting its
value directly), you need to set its EvaluateAsExpression property (accessible
from the Properties window) to True. This will automatically enable its
Expression property (and make the content of the Value property irrelevant).
Conversely, in order to reference variables in expressions, it is necessary to
use specific notation which consists of the @ prefix, followed by namespace and
variable name, separated by a pair of semicolons and enclosed within square
brackets. For example, when including a variable called Donations in an
expression, you would need to type in @[User::Donations].

As already mentioned, expressions cannot only be used to set a value of a
variable dynamically – it is also possible to assign them to properties of
package components. The simplest way to accomplish this is via the component’s
Editor interface. For example, when working with Execute SQL Task, you would
select the Expressions entry appearing on the left hand side of the Editor
dialog box, highlight Expressions listed under "Misc" label on the
right hand side, and then click on the ellipsis (…) button. This would bring
up the Property Expressions Editor dialog box, with two columns – Property and
Expression. An entry in the first one is implemented as a list box from which
you can select any of the available properties of the Execute SQL Task
component. The second column allows you to either type in an expression that
will determine the value of the relevant property or to create it with help of
Expression Builder (which you can invoke by clicking on the ellipsis button to
the right of the Expressions entry). Expression Builder provides a fairly
intuitive interface, which includes a display of available Variables,
Mathematical, String, Date/Time, and NULL functions, as well as Type Casts and
Operators. Once an expression is constructed, you have an option to evaluate
its value with the Evaluate Expression button. The Expressions feature is
available for each task within the Designer interface (with the exception of the
Data Flow task).

Variables and expressions play a significant role in SSIS For Loop and ForEach
Loop containers (which have been introduced in SSIS). The SSIS For Loop
implements iterative execution of its subcomponents until an arbitrarily
assigned condition, formed by expressions including variables – InitExpression
(determining initial value for the loop), EvalExpression (defining evaluation
condition), and AssignExpression (which contains assignment expression) –
evaluates to False. The ForEach Loop container is more versatile since it can
derive a number of iterations based on several types of enumerators, such as
rows in tables (via For Each ADO enumerator), files in a file system folder
(via For Each File enumerator), objects in a collection referenced by a
variable (via For Each From Variable enumerator), XML Path expression (via For
Each Nodelist enumerator), or SQL Server Management objects of a specific type
(via For Each SMO enumerator). We will be reviewing these containers in more
details in the next article of this series.


See All Articles by Columnist
Marcin Policht

Marcin Policht
Marcin Policht
Being a long time reader, I'm proud to join the crowd of technology gurus gathered here. I have a fair share of Microsoft exams behind me, a couple of acronyms after my name - MCSE, MCSD, and MCT, decent familiarity with majority of MS BackOffice products (SMS, SQL, Exchange, IIS), programming and scripting languages (VB, C++, VBScript with wsh) and several years of practical experience with Windows environment administration and engineering. My focus these days is on SQL Server and Windows 2000, and I'll attempt to share the most interesting experiences with these products.

Latest Articles