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CONNECT BY Is Dead, Long Live CTE!

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CONNECT BY Is Dead, Long Live CTE!

Oracle is phasing out CONNECT BY in favor of Common Table Expressions for recursive queries. While more verbose, they allow for more flexible queries.

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Yes, you got that right, the old CONNECT BY as used by recursive SQL with Oracle has been replaced by Common Table Expressions, or the WITH statement in SQL:1999, which is now also available in MariaDB Server 10.2.4 (RC). Now, the SQL WITH construct, using Common Table Expressions or CTE, is useful for other things than just recursive queries, but this is the one feature that WITH enables that was previously very hard to do without some procedural code, the non-recursive use of Common Table Expressions could previously mostly be replaced by using temporary tables.

This blog post explains what recursive SQL is all about and why this is useful, and I will show some examples of both CONNECT BY and how the same SQL is written using the WITH clause.

The most common example for recursive SQL is probably for doing a parts explosion, where we have a table of parts of some component where each part is either a main, top level, part or is a part of another part. For example, a car with an engine, where the engine consists of pistons, cylinders, and a camshaft, where the latter also includes some camshaft bearings. I think you get the basic idea here. To query this data to create a list of components that make up some other component, you need to recursively visit the data, i.e. each row is evaluated using conditions from any other row already fetched, except the first row fetched, that is.

Now, let's look at some data first. I assume we have two tables here, one table that contains information on the different parts and then one table that contains information on the individual parts, and then one table that contains the hierarchy of the parts, called components. Like this:

CREATE TABLE parts(part_id INTEGER NOT NULL PRIMARY KEY,
  part_name VARCHAR(60) NOT NULL);

CREATE TABLE components(comp_id INTEGER NOT NULL PRIMARY KEY,
  comp_name VARCHAR(60),
  comp_count INTEGER NOT NULL,
  comp_part INTEGER NOT NULL,
  comp_partof INTEGER,
  FOREIGN KEY(comp_part) REFERENCES parts(part_id));
ALTER TABLE components ADD FOREIGN KEY(comp_partof) REFERENCES components(comp_id);


The two things to note here is that the components table has a column, comp_partof, which implements the hierarchy, and that there is a self-referencing FOREIGN KEY constraint on this table. Given these tables, assuming that we are a small privately held car-manufacturing company in southern Germany, let's insert some data:

INSERT INTO parts VALUES(1, 'Car');
INSERT INTO parts VALUES(2, 'Bolt');
INSERT INTO parts VALUES(3, 'Nut');
INSERT INTO parts VALUES(4, 'V8 engine');
INSERT INTO parts VALUES(5, '6-cylinder engine');
INSERT INTO parts VALUES(6, '4-cylinder engine');
INSERT INTO parts VALUES(7, 'Cylinder block');
INSERT INTO parts VALUES(8, 'Cylinder');
INSERT INTO parts VALUES(9, 'Piston');
INSERT INTO parts VALUES(10, 'Camshaft');
INSERT INTO parts VALUES(11, 'Camshaft bearings');
INSERT INTO parts VALUES(12, 'Body');
INSERT INTO parts VALUES(13, 'Gearbox');
INSERT INTO parts VALUES(14, 'Chassie');
INSERT INTO parts VALUES(15, 'Rear axle');
INSERT INTO parts VALUES(16, 'Rear break');
INSERT INTO parts VALUES(17, 'Wheel');
INSERT INTO parts VALUES(18, 'Wheel bolts');

INSERT INTO components VALUES(1, '320', 1, 1, NULL);
INSERT INTO components VALUES(2, NULL, 1, 6, 1);
INSERT INTO components VALUES(3, NULL, 1, 7, 2);
INSERT INTO components VALUES(4, NULL, 4, 8, 3);
INSERT INTO components VALUES(5, NULL, 4, 9, 3);
INSERT INTO components VALUES(6, NULL, 1, 10, 3);
INSERT INTO components VALUES(7, NULL, 3, 11, 6);
INSERT INTO components VALUES(8, NULL, 1, 12, 1);
INSERT INTO components VALUES(9, NULL, 1, 14, 1);
INSERT INTO components VALUES(10, NULL, 1, 15, 9);
INSERT INTO components VALUES(11, NULL, 2, 16, 10);

INSERT INTO components VALUES(12, '323 i', 1, 1, NULL);
INSERT INTO components VALUES(13, NULL, 1, 5, 12);


If you are not into mechanics, let me tell you that there are more parts than this to a car. For example, I left out a few critical components, such as the cup holder, the dog that stands on the pickup cargo area, and the insulting bumper sticker, but I think you get the idea. Note that there are two "main" components, the '320' and '323 i' and that these are top level components are indicated by the comp_partof column being set to NULL.

Now, assume you want to list all the parts that make up a 320. The way this works when using the CONNECT BY syntax, you compose one single SQL statement and provide a CONNECT BY clause to indicate the relationship. Like this:

SELECT LPAD('-', level, '-')||'>' level_text, comp_count, NVL(comp_name, part_name) name
FROM components c, parts p
WHERE c.comp_part = p.part_id
START WITH c.comp_name = '320'
CONNECT BY PRIOR c.comp_id = c.comp_partof;


Let me explain this a bit, but there is nothing really magic here. We are selecting from the two tables and joining them just as usual. Then, we use the START WITH clause to define the top-level component, and then the rest of the components have a comp_partof of a component that matches the comp_id of the START WITH component or a  comp_id of any other component that has been fetched.

This way of writing recursive SQL has some advantages, such as it being a relatively compact and easy to understand. The disadvantage is that there are some quirks and limitations to this, and once your queries get more complex, CONNECT BY gets a bit hairy. One sure sign that CONNECT BY is going away, even though I and many others tend to like it because of the ease of use, is that even Oracle, as of Oracle 11g, also has implemented the WITH construct, or Common Table Expressions or CTE. So looking at the above statement how this would work in MariaDB 10.2, this is what it would look like using the WITH construct:

WITH RECURSIVE comp(comp_id, comp_name, comp_partof, comp_count) AS (
  SELECT comp_id, comp_name, comp_partof, comp_count
    FROM components JOIN parts ON comp_part = part_id
    WHERE comp_partof IS NULL AND comp_name = '320'
  UNION ALL
  SELECT c1.comp_id, p.part_name, c1.comp_partof, c1.comp_count
  FROM components c1 JOIN parts p ON c1.comp_part = p.part_id
    JOIN comp c2 ON c1.comp_partof = c2.comp_id)
SELECT comp_count, comp_name FROM comp;


Comparing this CTE version to the CONNECT BY version as above, this is a bit more complex, but how it works is actually pretty clear once you look at it carefully. To begin with, the top level item, or anchor, is the first SELECT in the UNION ALL and the following components are fetched using the second SELECT. Then, the recursive aspect is handled by this UNION being run until there are no more rows returned from it.

As you can see, although this requires more text and more complex SQL to write, it is also a fair bit more flexible. For example, the anchor point is defined by a completely separate SELECT which means it can be whatever SELECT you want, selecting from any odd table. Secondly, the column you use and the conditions for defining the hierarchy can be as complex as you want. And thirdly, there is also the power of that last SELECT which in the case above just gets the data from the UNION, but you can actually apply any kind of filter, ordering or column filter to this query. The result of the query above is this:

comp_count      comp_name
1               320
1               4-cylinder engine
1               Body
1               Chassie
1               Cylinder block
1               Rear axle
4               Cylinder
4               Piston
1               Camshaft
2               Rear break
3               Camshaft bearings



Before I finish this off, the WITH RECURSIVE statement is somewhat overly complex. In MariaDB 10.2, you can, for example, skip listing the column names of the recursive table, like this:

WITH RECURSIVE comp AS (
  SELECT comp_id, comp_name, comp_partof, comp_count
    FROM components JOIN parts ON comp_part = part_id
    WHERE comp_partof IS NULL AND comp_name = '320'
  UNION ALL
  SELECT c1.comp_id, p.part_name, c1.comp_partof, c1.comp_count
  FROM components c1 JOIN parts p ON c1.comp_part = p.part_id
    JOIN comp c2 ON c1.comp_partof = c2.comp_id)
SELECT comp_count, comp_name FROM comp;



And although Oracle 11 and up supports the CTEs, it works a bit differently. For one thing, the RECURSIVE keyword isn't supported (it is assumed to be recursive by default) and the way I read the SQL standard, this is actually wrong, for recursive queries you have to use the RECURSIVE keyword. Second, Oracle does require the SELECT-list. So in Oracle, you would see something like this:

WITH comp(comp_id, comp_name, comp_partof, comp_count) AS (
  SELECT comp_id, comp_name, comp_partof, comp_count
    FROM components JOIN parts ON comp_part = part_id
    WHERE comp_partof IS NULL AND comp_name = '320'
  UNION ALL
  SELECT c1.comp_id, p.part_name, c1.comp_partof, c1.comp_count
  FROM components c1 JOIN parts p ON c1.comp_part = p.part_id
    JOIN comp c2 ON c1.comp_partof = c2.comp_id)
SELECT comp_count, comp_name FROM comp;


Yes, we are all happily following the same SQL standard. Somewhat... See the MariaDB Knowledge Base for more information on common table expressions.

Happy SQLing!

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Topics:
database ,mariadb ,recursive queries ,common table expressions ,tutorial

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