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Generating unique identifiers with “SELECT MAX(id) + 1″

March 22, 2012

Normally, when you see code like this in a production system, you should duck your head and run:

SELECT NVL( MAX( id ), 0 ) + 1
INTO   :new_id
FROM   mytable;

What’s wrong with this code?

I hope the first answer that rolls off your tongue has something to do with concurrency – i.e. two sessions that run this around the same time will not see uncommitted rows from each other, and so are likely to try to insert rows with conflicting identifiers.

I hope the second answer that you might mention has to do with performance – even considering there’s a unique index on the column, this code will still need to read at least one index block to get the latest ID (assuming the query optimiser chooses to do a MIN/MAX index scan so that it doesn’t have to scan the entire index before returning a result). In a high load system this cost might be unacceptable.

Of course, the first problem (concurrency) could be solved by serializing access to the “get the next ID” function, e.g. with a DBMS_LOCK. We all know, however, that there’s no sane reason to serialize this when Oracle already provides a perfectly good mechanism for generating unique IDs, with virtually no serialization – sequences.

CREATE SEQUENCE my_id_seq;
SELECT my_id_seq.NEXTVAL INTO :new_id FROM DUAL;

Sequences have the benefits of guaranteeing uniqueness, and if their “cache” setting is set appropriately, will add a negligible amount of overhead for serialization.

Problem solved. Easy, right? I bet you’re wondering why I added the word “Normally” to my first sentence in this post….

Question: When might using “SELECT MAX(id) + 1″ ever be an acceptable source of unique identifiers?

Answer: Global Temporary tables.

If I’ve inserted any rows into a global temporary table, by definition no other session can see my data, so the first consideration, concurrency, is not an issue.

Also, if I’m not expecting to ever insert many rows into my global temporary table, I can be reasonably confident that performance will not be an issue either. Plus, if I put an index on the ID column, that query will be quite inexpensive.

Conclusion: if you are using global temporary tables, you don’t have to use sequences to generate unique identifiers for them. I’m not saying you shouldn’t, of course – a sequence may be faster, and may even lead to simpler code in some cases – but in other cases you might decide to forego a sequence – one less object, with perhaps its role grants and synonyms, to deploy.

Now, of course, you have to ask yourself, why query the table at all? Why not store that latest ID in a private global variable in a package? In fact, we can create a simple package to replace the sequence, e.g.:

CREATE OR REPLACE PACKAGE my_table_pkg IS
FUNCTION next_id RETURN my_table.id%TYPE;
END my_table_pkg;
CREATE OR REPLACE PACKAGE BODY my_table_pkg IS
  g_latest_id my_table.id%TYPE;
FUNCTION next_id RETURN my_table.id%TYPE IS
  BEGIN
    g_latest_id := NVL(g_latest_id, 0) + 1;
    RETURN g_latest_id;
  END next_id;
END my_table_pkg;

Well, now you know what to do. Whenever you need to generate a unique set of identifiers for a global temporary table, you’ve got a choice of options: sequence, package variable, or a “max(id)+1″ query.

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From → PL/SQL, SQL

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