Report query with optional parameters

I received a question today from a developer who wanted to write a single static SQL query that could handle multiple optional parameters – i.e. the user might choose to leave one or more of the parameters NULL, and they’d expect the query to ignore those parameters. This is a quite common requirement for generic reporting screens, and there are two different methods commonly used to solve it.

Their sample query, using bind variables (natch), never returned any rows if any of the bind variables were null:

SELECT * FROM emp 
WHERE job = :P_JOB
AND dept = :P_DEPT
AND city = :P_CITY

This is expected, of course, because “x = null” always evaluates to “unknown”, and this causes the rows to be omitted.

Option 1: add “OR v NOT NULL”, e.g.

SELECT * FROM emp 
WHERE (job = :P_JOB OR :P_JOB IS NULL)
AND (dept = :P_DEPT OR :P_DEPT IS NULL)
AND (city = :P_CITY OR :P_CITY IS NULL)

Option 2: use NVL, e.g.

SELECT * FROM emp 
WHERE job = NVL(:P_JOB, job)
AND dept = NVL(:P_DEPT, dept)
AND city = NVL(:P_CITY, city)

If the columns in the table do not have NOT NULL constraints on them, Option #2 will fail to return rows that have NULL in the relevant column – regardless of whether the user parameter is null or not. This is because “job = job” will always be “unknown” if job is null. In this case, Option #1 must be used.

If the columns do have NOT NULL constraints on them, then both Option #1 and Option #2 will work just fine. However, given the choice I would use Option #2 in order to take advantage of the potential performance optimisation that Oracle 12 can do with these types of NVL queries. There is a 3rd option, which is identical to Option #2 except that it uses the COALESCE function instead of NVL – but I would avoid this option as it will not get the performance optimisation.

On the other hand, if any of the attributes is the result of a costly operation (e.g. a function call), I would always use Option #1 (“OR NULL”) instead, because the NVL does not use short-circuit evaluation to avoid multiple function calls.

If there is a mix of columns that have NOT NULL constraints and others that don’t, I don’t really see any problem with mixing the two methods, e.g. in the case where dept has a NOT NULL constraint but job and city don’t:

SELECT * FROM emp 
WHERE (job = :P_JOB OR :P_JOB IS NULL)
AND dept = NVL(:P_DEPT, dept)
AND (city = :P_CITY OR :P_CITY IS NULL)

Here’s a question for you to think about. What if the business rule states that the report should omit records where a column is null (i.e. the column may have nulls but they don’t want those records to ever appear in the report)? You may as well use NVL, e.g. in the case where dept has a NOT NULL constraint, but job and city don’t, but the report should omit records where job is null:

SELECT * FROM emp 
WHERE job = NVL(:P_JOB, job)
AND dept = NVL(:P_DEPT, dept)
AND (city = :P_CITY OR :P_CITY IS NULL)

You might argue that future developers might be confused by the above query; it’s not exactly clear whether the developer intended to omit the records with null jobs, or if they made a mistake. Code comments might help, but alternatively you might choose to make the rule explicit, e.g.:

SELECT * FROM emp 
WHERE job = NVL(:P_JOB, job) AND job IS NOT NULL
AND dept = NVL(:P_DEPT, dept)
AND (city = :P_CITY OR :P_CITY IS NULL)

If you feel strongly about this one way or another, please leave your comments below 🙂

This topic is a reminder that when there are multiple possible solutions to a problem, the choice should not be taken arbitrarily; and we should avoid enshrining one choice in any standards document as the “one true way”. This is because the answer is often “it depends” – different options may be valid for different scenarios, and have advantages and disadvantages that need to be taken into account.

Further Reading

Convert an APEX Application to Multi-Tenant
Interactive Grid: Custom Select List on each row

Comments

  1. Nice blog post. Very good points, I like being purposeful and coding the intent.
    Very interesting how this NVL and COALESCE discussion is evolving.

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