Question: You have a table of people and a table that specifies the activities each person is involved in. You want to return a result that has one record per person and a column that has a listing of activities for each person separated by semicolons and alphabetically sorted by activity. You also want the whole set alphabetically sorted by person's name.
This is a question we are always asked and since we mentor on various flavors of databases, we need to be able to switch gears and provide an answer that works on the client's database. Most often the additional requirement is that you can't install new functions in the database. This means that for PostgreSQL/SQL Server that both support defining custom aggregates, that is out as an option.
Normally we try to come up with an answer that works in most databases, but sadly the only solution that works in most is to push the problem off to the client front end and throw up your hands and proclaim -- "This ain't something that should be done in the database and is a reporting problem." That is in fact what many database purists do, and all I can say to them is wake up and smell the coffee before you are out of a job. We feel that data transformation is an important function of a database, and if your database is incapable of massaging the data into a format your various client apps can easily digest, WELL THAT's A PROBLEM.
We shall now document this answer rather than trying to answer for the nteenth time. For starter's PostgreSQL has a lot of answers to this question, probably more so than any other, though some are easier to execute than others and many depend on the version of PostgreSQL you are using. SQL Server has 2 classes of answers neither of which is terribly appealing, but we'll go over the ones that don't require you to be able to install .NET stored functions in your database since we said that is often a requirement. MySQL has a fairly simple, elegant and very portable way that it has had for a really long time.
For PostgreSQL and SQL Server, we'll demonstrate more than one approach. Just because we demonstrate newer approaches doesn't make the older approaches obsolete or necessarily worse. Don't feel the need to use something new because it's new. Think of the newer approaches as just extra options that may or may not be faster for your use-case.
Below is the script to setup our test tables. This script will work fine for all databases we will discuss here.
CREATE TABLE people(p_name varchar(75) PRIMARY KEY); INSERT INTO people(p_name) VALUES('Jack'); INSERT INTO people(p_name) VALUES('Jill'); INSERT INTO people(p_name) VALUES('Humpty'); INSERT INTO people(p_name) VALUES('Dopey'); CREATE TABLE people_activities(p_name varchar(75) NOT NULL, activity varchar(100) NOT NULL); ALTER TABLE people_activities ADD CONSTRAINT pk_people_activities PRIMARY KEY (p_name,activity); INSERT INTO people_activities(p_name, activity) SELECT 'Jack', 'Hiking' UNION ALL SELECT 'Jack', 'Skiing' UNION ALL SELECT 'Jack', 'Fishing' UNION ALL SELECT 'Jill', 'Hiking' UNION ALL SELECT 'Jill', 'Bear Hunting' UNION ALL SELECT 'Humpty', 'Tumbling' UNION ALL SELECT 'Humpty', 'Seating' UNION ALL SELECT 'Humpty', 'Cracking'; -- we want our output to look like -- p_name | activities --------+-------------------------------- Dopey | Humpty | Cracking;Seating;Tumbling Jack | Fishing;Hiking;Skiing Jill | Bear Hunting;Hiking
In PostgreSQL 9.0, PostgreSQL introduced the STRING_AGG function and also the ORDER BY predicate in any aggregate function, which made this task much easier and probably much more efficient as well. Note that in Oracle 11G Release 2, Oracle introduced an aggregate function call LISTAGG which is similar. Details of using LISTAGG and Oracle LISTAGG, the older WM_CONCAT and other string aggregation approaches for Oracle are described in Oracle String Aggregation Techniques.
-- PostgreSQL 9.0 way -- SELECT p.p_name, STRING_AGG(a.activity, ';' ORDER BY a.activity) As activities FROM people AS p LEFT JOIN people_activities As a ON (p.p_name = a.p_name) GROUP BY p.p_name ORDER BY p.p_name;
PostgreSQL 8.4 introduced the ANSI-SQL array_agg function which IBM DB2 also has. Not sure about other databases. This provided another option for doing a string aggregation. Without the ORDER BY feature for aggregates introduced in PostgreSQL 9.0, this option is less powerful.
-- PostgreSQL 8.4+ -- -- This you should use with caution if you care about order -- It seems to work but well that is probably by accident rather than design SELECT p.p_name, array_to_string(ARRAY_AGG(a.activity),';') As activities FROM people AS p LEFT JOIN (SELECT * FROM people_activities ORDER BY p_name, activity) As a ON (p.p_name = a.p_name) GROUP BY p.p_name ORDER BY p.p_name;
Here is the PostgreSQL 8.4+ equivalent of a third option that people mentioned is available for SQL Server - the Recursive Window CTE.
-- This is the PostgreSQL 8.4+ equivalent to the SQL Server Window CTE approach -- WITH RECURSIVE t1 AS ( SELECT p.p_name, a.activity, ROW_NUMBER() OVER(PARTITION BY a.p_name ORDER BY a.activity) AS rn FROM people AS p LEFT JOIN people_activities AS a ON a.p_name = p.p_name ), t2 AS ( SELECT t1.p_name, CAST(t1.activity AS varchar) AS activities, t1.rn FROM t1 WHERE t1.rn = 1 UNION ALL SELECT t2.p_name, t2.activities || ';' || t1.activity, t1.rn FROM t2 INNER JOIN t1 ON t1.p_name = t2.p_name AND t1.rn = t2.rn + 1 ) SELECT t2.p_name, COALESCE(t2.activities, '') FROM t2 INNER JOIN ( SELECT t1.p_name, MAX(t1.rn) AS max_rn FROM t1 GROUP BY t1.p_name ) AS t ON t.p_name = t2.p_name AND t.max_rn = t2.rn ORDER BY t2.p_name;
One thing that PostgreSQL has always had going for it that both MySQL and SQL Server still lack is phenomenal array support. Arrays are first class citizens in PostgreSQL witha rich set of functions to complement them. They are extremely versatile and make creating things like aggregate functions pretty trivial. For example in MySQL you'd have to become a C programmer to build an aggregate function which is generally out of the reach of most users. In SQL Server you'd have to learn .NET (VB or C#) and write a non-trivial amount of code which is much more accessible than C but not wihtout its issues. In PostgreSQL all you need to know is SQL and write a couple of lines of code to build your own custom aggregate functions. That is just SUPER COOL.
-- All versions of PostgreSQL SELECT p.p_name, array_to_string(ARRAY( SELECT activity FROM people_activities AS a WHERE a.p_name = p.p_name ORDER BY a.activity) ,';') As activities FROM people AS p ORDER BY p.p_name;
SQL Server has a fairly cryptic way of doing this which one would consider a HACK and repurpose of functionality that was designed for something else. On the plus side, we do find its CROSS APPLY and OUTER APPLY functionality which I crave a lot when working with MySQL and a little with PostgreSQL (PostgreSQL has similar but not quite as elegant equivalents). Not so much for this particular use case.
SQL Server Recursive CTE + Window
-- SQL Server 2005+ -- Note this won't work unless you also have SQL Server 2005+ compatibility mode -- -- We haven't done benchmarks to see which approach is faster. -- use subselect - the stuff is to get rid of the leading ; -- In theory this should be faster than subselect of SQL 2000 -- Note we use OUTER APPLY here -- but for this particular use case CROSS APPLY would work -- fine too since one record seem to be returned regardless -- As a general rule of thumb you should use OUTER APPLY for LEFT JOIN like behavior and -- CROSS APPLY as inner join like behavior SELECT p.p_name, activities FROM people AS p OUTER APPLY (SELECT STUFF(( SELECT ';' + a.activity FROM people_activities AS a WHERE a.p_name = p.p_name ORDER BY a.activity FOR XML PATH('') ), 1,1,'') AS activities ) AS f ORDER BY p.p_name;
This is the Window + CTE approach that someone posted on reddit that we revised slightly to be a bit more ANSI-SQL compliant. Note: we listed the PostgrreSQL 8.4+ equivalent of this approach in the PostgreSQL section.
The reason many people prefer this approach is that it doesn't leave any XML entities you have to strip with REPLACE. e.g. if you had & in your original text you would have to use
REPLACE(final,'&', '&') to strip off the xmlish stuff.
The other reason is people felt this was less of a hack. Note: that the PostgreSQL 8.4 variant looks pretty close to SQL Server since both support ANSI SQL Window and CTE. The main differences:
-- SQL Server 2005+ using Window and CTE WITH t1 AS ( SELECT p.p_name, a.activity, ROW_NUMBER() OVER(PARTITION BY a.p_name ORDER BY a.activity) AS rn FROM people AS p LEFT JOIN people_activities AS a ON a.p_name = p.p_name ), t2 AS ( SELECT t1.p_name, CAST(t1.activity AS varchar(MAX)) AS activities, t1.rn FROM t1 WHERE t1.rn = 1 UNION ALL SELECT t2.p_name, t2.activities + ';' + t1.activity, t1.rn FROM t2 INNER JOIN t1 ON t1.p_name = t2.p_name AND t1.rn = t2.rn + 1 ) SELECT t2.p_name, COALESCE(t2.activities, '') FROM t2 INNER JOIN ( SELECT t1.p_name, MAX(t1.rn) AS max_rn FROM t1 GROUP BY t1.p_name ) AS t ON t.p_name = t2.p_name AND t.max_rn = t2.rn ORDER BY t2.p_name;
This is the old tried and true way which should work even if you are in SQL Server 2000 compatibility mode or are stuck using SQL Server 2000
-- SQL Server 2000+ SELECT p.p_name, STUFF(( SELECT ';' + a.activity FROM people_activities AS a WHERE a.p_name = p.p_name ORDER BY a.activity FOR XML PATH('') ), 1,1,'') AS activities FROM people AS p ORDER BY p.p_name;
Database purists like to make fun of MySQL, but in some ways it's way ahead of others. Its focus has always been to make the common easy and as a result was more advanced than some other databases. Some might say it catered too much to the whims of its users at the expense of doing things the right way. That's another story. This catering is no doubt a large reason for MySQL's popularity. There is something to be said about listening to the needs of users, which I think most other databases dismiss. For example MySQL was the first of these 3 databases to have a LIMIT OFFSET feature, which PostgreSQL later copied, and SQL Server 2010 (Denali) is finally introducing in the form of OFFSET FETCH NEXT. It was also the first to have the MULTI ROW VALUE insert option which was later adopted by PostgreSQL 8.2 and SQL Server 2008 and I think Oracle is yet to adopt. Heck Oracle still has that arcane FROM DUAL stupid requirement to my knowledge. How Oracle users put up with that nonsense I don't know.
SET SESSION group_concat_max_len = 32768;
In addition it has always had this aggregate function for as far back as MySQL 3.23 days GROUP_CONCAT. It's really convenient to be able to use this on any version of MySQL. Below is how you would use it.
-- MySQL Way -- SELECT p.p_name, GROUP_CONCAT(a.activity ORDER BY a.activity SEPARATOR ';') As activities FROM people AS p LEFT JOIN people_activities As a ON (p.p_name = a.p_name) GROUP BY p.p_name ORDER BY p.p_name;