Oracle: Choosing and Using the Right Code

Sometimes a programming background can make a task harder
than it is when you lose sight of what SQL can do independently of PL/SQL. How
often do you find yourself using PL/SQL to loop through records where an update
for each record depends on some test or condition? That is certainly a valid
approach, but not necessarily the best approach each and every time. Let’s look
at two cases where it is and is not. Our first example problem will be a table
requiring one column to be updated depending on the value of another column.

Brute Force PL/SQL Problem Example

In simple terms, the problem is to update a table and set
column Y to some value based on a value in column X. Column X’s values can be
many. The PL/SQL brute force (meaning, we’re explicitly evaluating each and
every record) approach could go something like what’s shown below.

Cursor c is
Select rowid update_rowid, col_x
From my_table;
For r in c loop
If r.col_x = ‘A’ then
Update my_table
Set col_y = 1
Where rowid = r.update_rowid;
Elsif r.col_x = ‘B’ then
Update my_table
Set col_y = 2
Where rowid = r.update_rowid;
End if;
End loop;

There is a lot of unnecessary code in the above PL/SQL block.
The UPDATE statements are repeated and if there were many variations, then
there would be that many more lines of code to maintain. The concept of “lines
of code” or LOC is mentioned frequently in software engineering texts, more
often as KLOC for thousand lines of code. What is your company’s cost per KLOC?
Predictive models attempt to provide a good cost estimate of a development
project based on the KLOC.

Do you really need to loop through each record to perform a
test before updating my_table? Obviously not, and in fact, PL/SQL is not
necessary at all in this case. Why not take advantage of the CASE option for an
update? The PL/SQL block can be boiled down to a more elegant update using a
CASE construct.

Update my_table
Set col_y =
When col_x = ‘A’ then 1
When col_x = ‘B’ then 2

This is obviously much simpler to code and can be further
reduced to a few lines of code. Of course, you should consider what happens
when col_x is not A or B, that is, what else should happen? In addition to tests
for specific values, what if the update condition is based on a range? Let’s
suppose the range brackets are 0-2, 3-20, and 21 or more (which get coded
values of 1, 2 or 3). How would you incorporate the ranges in a CASE-type of
update statement?

Update my_table
Set col_y =
When col_x <= 2 then 1
When col_x between 3 and 20 then 2
Else 3

Update my_table
Set col_y =
When col_x < 3 then 1
When col_x > 20 then 3
Else 2

Note the switch between defaulting to 3 (on the left) to 2.
Each does the same thing, but the code on the right is a bit simpler. If the
range is 0 to 2, 3 to 20 and so on, you don’t need to evaluate in that order
(0-2, then 3-20, etc.). You can test or evaluate the range brackets in any
order you want (e.g., start with 0-2, then have the next test be for greater
than 20, and then what’s left, which is 3-20). Although the WHENs are number
to number comparisons, you are not locked into using the same datatypes. Oracle
supports a searched and a simple CASE, and the simple CASE is what you may run
across where CASE is being used to perform the same function as a DECODE. Overall,
a pure SQL approach is the best way to perform this type of conditional update.

Putting ROWID to work

Coming back to the PL/SQL block, note the use of the ROWID
pseudocolumn. ROWID is aliased to UPDATE_ROWID (or, going for the shorthand
approach, UPD_ROWID). The ROWID pseudocolumn is specific to Oracle, whereas
CASE is ANSI compliant. You could select the primary key from the table or make
the cursor’s select statement include “for update” and then use “where current
of c” to perform the update on the current record.

Next up is a situation where ROWID can be very useful when
used for update purposes in a PL/SQL block. If you have to join two unrelated
tables (e.g., add a survey PIN or code column to another table), you can
“zipper” them together by joining on the ROWNUM and include the base table’s
ROWID (stored as a column) in the join table. The idea is that you join up the
relevant columns between the two tables, and then do an update back on the main
table using the stored ROWID. Remember, ROWID is guaranteed to be unique within
a table, but not across tables.

Shown below is an example of the code to join uncorrelated
data to another table. There are three tables involved: the source table for PINs,
the main table (the one having PINs inserted/assigned to records), and a join
table (used to correlate the main table’s ROWID and a PIN).

1. Create the PIN table and populate it (CTAS, SQLLDR,

2. Create the join table (“jc” means join condition).

create table my_join_table
select * from
(select rowid main_rowid, rownum jc_a
from main_table
<where optional conditions>) a,
(select rowid pin_rowid, pin, rownum jc_b
from pin_table) b
where a.jc_a = b.jc_b;

If you need to keep track of assigned PINs, add a “used”
column on one of two tables. The code above assumes we’re going to update the
PIN table, not the join table.

alter table pin (or my_join) add (used char default 'n');

3. Perform the update(s).

set serveroutput on
v_counter number := 0; –optional
cursor c is
select main_rowid, pin_rowid, pin
from my_join_table;
for r in c loop
update main_table
set pin =
where rowid = r.main_rowid;
–optional, if PIN usage needs to be tracked
update pin_table
set used = ‘y’
where rowid = r.pin_rowid;
–optional counter/commit to check progress
–query the pin table by used, count(*)
v_counter := v_counter + 1;
if mod(v_counter,10000)=0 then
end if;
end loop;
dbms_output.put_line(‘Rows updated ‘||v_counter);

Updating (or performing other DML) based on a record’s ROWID
is going to be quite fast and can be done without the overhead of an index.
Alternatively, if the main table were primary keyed, then the join table could
have been created by selecting the PK value from the main table.

One tip you may want to incorporate in day-to-day ad hoc
coding is to use a shorthand notation for the cursor and record names. For a
simple block, “c” and “r” are sufficient to identify the cursor and record
names. How often do you want to type my_cur and my_rec when you can accomplish
the same thing with one-sixth the characters?

In Closing

Take advantage of Oracle’s improvements in SQL, where
improvements mean being more ANSI compliant. If something can be done in SQL,
it can almost always be done within PL/SQL. You pay a price in performance for
context switching (going back and forth between SQL and PL/SQL), so if you can
perform an operation in SQL, stay there unless there is a specific need to
switch over. On the other hand, if you are certain your application code is
always going to be within Oracle’s realm, then take advantage of features such
as the ROWID pseudocolumn.


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Steve Callan

Steve Callan
Steve Callan
Steve is an Oracle DBA (OCP 8i and 9i)/developer working in Denver. His Oracle experience also includes Forms and Reports, Oracle9iAS and Oracle9iDS.
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