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Posted Apr 21, 2010

SQL's Optimized Hierarchical Data Processing Driven by its Data Structure

By Michael M. David

Learn how hierarchical data processing can be optimally driven automatically by its hierarchical structure semantics. When applied to SQL hierarchical data processing, this structured semantics offers optimization beyond current relational processing. In addition, this hierarchical optimization works with SQL dynamic processing and offers new relational capabilities.

My previous Database Journal article covered the ANSI SQL Hierarchical Data Processing Basics. This hierarchical data processing article will show how hierarchical processing can be optimally driven automatically by its hierarchical structure semantics. When applied to SQL hierarchical data processing, this structured semantics offers optimization beyond current relational processing. In addition, this hierarchical optimization works with SQL dynamic processing and offers new relational capabilities that will be covered in this article.

Hierarchical Structures and Processing

The Left Join operation preserves its left argument and not its right argument for unmatched joins. This causes it to operate hierarchically allowing the left parent to exist even with no matching right child argument, but the reverse is not possible; children cannot exist without their parent. As explained in the previous hierarchical structure processing basic articles, the hierarchical structure in Figure 1, where tables are represented as hierarchical nodes, can be defined hierarchically by a series of LEFT Outer Joins. These LEFT Joins model hierarchical structures using their hierarchical syntax to model the structure and specify its associated hierarchical semantics, which defines its parent/child data preservation semantics. This allows hierarchical views' data modeling syntax and associated semantics to be supplied directly to the relational engine when its view is processed at query invocation. This automatically turns your ANSI SQL processor into a powerful full hierarchical processor.

Hierarchical Data Processing - Global Structure
Figure 1: Global Structure

Notice in the hierarchical view definition above in Figure 1 the use of the newer outer join ON clause to separately specify the link points between hierarchical pairs of nodes. This offers an exact and unambiguous hierarchical mapping that can support multiple paths. The ANSI SQL LEFT Outer Join hierarchical structure definition doubles as structure metadata to specify how the data is hierarchically processed. This is possible because hierarchical data structure processing must follow hierarchical data preservation principles inherent in the data structure. These LEFT Outer Join definitions of hierarchical structures can be automatically generated from the information in hierarchical metadata sources such as XML schemas or even IBM's IMS and VSAM database definitions. This is also useful because all forms of hierarchical structures, contiguous or linked and physical or logical structures, have the same hierarchical processing principles and can be seamlessly processed heterogeneously with standard hierarchical processing. All that is necessary are the addition of specific access modules. These access modules will be different from similar access modules used today because they will be preserving the semantics of the hierarchical structures on retrieval because the data will be processed hierarchically.

Hierarchical Optimization

Because of a hierarchical structure's natural data preservation, a very powerful optimization can be easily applied at query invocation. This optimization is based on the data referenced in nodes and specifies that only the referenced nodes at query execution and any nodes on the path to referenced nodes are necessary for processing. All other nodes can be eliminated entirely from processing. It is obvious that referenced nodes are required. The reason that unreferenced nodes on the path to referenced nodes are needed is that the paths to referenced nodes are needed to preserve the semantics of the access path to reach the desired data. The data structure below in Figure 2 is optimized based on the query shown referencing only nodes A, C and F.

The arrows in Figure 2 indicate LEFT Outer Joins for specific nodes that can be removed or ignored for the active query shown without changing the semantics or results of the query. This optimization does preserve the semantics of the query, but also has a beneficial side effect that can reduce unneeded data replications caused by joins with unneeded tables or nodes. This can actually help reduce problems caused by these additional extraneous data replications. Hierarchical structures designed specifically for hierarchical data processing always remove all data replications. It is helpful to know that replicated data are extraneous while duplicate data are valid and meaningful. They should be processed differently.

As shown above in Figure 1, the newer more flexible ON clause replaces the single WHERE clause by using an ON clause at every join operation. This causes a reference to every node, but this is not taken into consideration for this optimization because it is a self-reference and if nodes are not necessary, their self-reference is removed, as is the unneeded node. This is supported by hierarchical processing's hierarchical data preservation. This demonstrates, in Figure 2, how easily the LEFT Outer Join hierarchical view can remove unneeded nodes for the dynamic rebuilding of the run time query.

Hierarchical Data Processing - Optimized Access
Figure 2: Optimized Access

The hierarchical optimization, in Figure 2 above, would not normally be recognized by standard relational processing, which has no idea it is operating hierarchically. As previously mentioned, hierarchical optimization can be performed immediately when the query is invoked at run time. This is an extremely powerful semantic optimization, but does not replace standard relational optimization, which will be performed naturally after the hierarchical optimization is performed. This previously performed hierarchical optimization can have a further positive effect on the following standard relational optimization. It can enable standard relational optimization to perform more effectively by simplifying the run time query in ways it could not detect making relational optimizations more clear and detectable.

Optimization Enables Global Views

A significant benefit of hierarchical optimization is that it enables global hierarchical views to be used without any additional overhead. Normally views that have unnecessary tables at execution cause a great deal of overhead. The previous solution for this has been for the user to code many sub views, each tailored specifically to the required result. Besides having to create many different sub views for the same data structure and constantly adding views, this is also difficult for the user to be aware of all the different views. Hierarchical optimization allows global views with all nodes specified so that it can be dynamically capable of processing any number of different sub views without overhead. This is because each query is dynamically optimized to match the needs of the active query. The query above in Figure 2 is an example of a global view being automatically utilized.

Schema-free Processing Enabled by Global Views

Another benefit of hierarchical optimization is that it also enables schema-free processing supported naturally by SQL navigationless processing, which was covered in my previous article. Schema-free processing allows queries to be specified without user navigation when used for XML data. This also means the user does not need to know the data structure and this enables non-technical users to access XML data. Since users do not need to know the structure for these powerful schema-free queries or where the data is located in the structure, they need to be free to specify data anywhere in the structure and this requires a global view. The query in Figure 2 above is also an example of a schema-free query allowing its use without the user's need to navigate or know the data structure.

SELECT List Controls Processing Dynamically

It is important to point out that the SQL SELECT clause and its variable SELECT list supports full dynamic processing. This dynamically controls optimization, global views, and schema-free processing. The SELECT list dynamically specifies the output data and this directly affects the processing that is required. Since SQL is nonprocedural, there is no user coding necessarily for processing. In this case, the processing is established dynamically and is optimized only to cover the required results, which are inferred by the current dynamically specified output. In other words, the variable SELECT list dynamically controls the required processing as shown in the optimized easily rewritten Left Outer Join string in Figure 3 below. It limits the internal processing for the query and you can notice that it does not contain any processing for nodes D, E and G.

Hierarchical Data Processing - Optimized Processing
Figure 3: Optimized Processing

SELECT List More Powerful Than Realized

This dynamic optimized processing may not seem that impressive because with SQL it is easily applied automatically, but when compared to XQuery it will become clear how much more automatic and powerful SQL is. The processing of the SQL query above in Figure 3 is truly nonprocedural. This process is inferred from the hierarchical data structure defined in the LEFT Outer Join view and its natural processing principles. It is dynamically controlled from query to query by the variable SELECT list. Most books on XQuery mention that it contains the three key processing elements of SQL. These are SELECT, FROM and WHERE. XQuery has a WHERE clause data filter and has something similar to the FROM clause, but it does not have anything that approaches the variable and automatic power of SQL's dynamically variable SELECT list.

SQL's powerful variable SELECT list with its dynamic processing capability is not found in XQuery. XQuery through the use of its FOR syntax requires the user to set up the proper hierarchical nesting looping structure to match the desired hierarchical processing required. The data items required to generate the output values must be placed accurately at their correct nested looping levels. This is procedural coding and is not performed automatically or nonprocedurally. Any changes to the query represented in this fixed code must be procedurally adjusted and tested by the user. In SQL, this could be achieved simply by altering the SELECT list. This is real nonprocedural and declarative power.


An important test for proper query optimization is that it does not negatively affect the result or its external operation. Interestingly, the powerful hierarchical optimization described in this article also introduced two beneficial side effects. These were the reduction of superfluous relational data replication and then there was the automatic creation of the global view and the further capabilities it enabled. These were all seamless beneficial additions and stayed within the tenets of proper optimization.

Additional Resources

Creating Hierarchical Data Structure Mashups
Navigationless Database XML: Hierarchical Data Processing

» See All Articles by Columnist Michael M. David

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