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Category: Constraints

Supporting Multiple NULL Values with a Unique Constraint

Itzik Ben-Gan walks us through a workaround in T-SQL:

Suppose that you have a database in a platform that supports the standard unique constraint and you need to migrate that database to SQL Server. You may face issues with the enforcement of unique constraints in SQL Server if the unique columns support NULLs. Data that was considered valid in the source system may be considered invalid in SQL Server. In the following sections I’ll explore a number of possible workarounds in SQL Server.

I use a simplified version of this as an interview question, so it’s nice to see an entire article from Itzik on the topic, including a couple solutions way outside the box.

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Finding Foreign Key Relationships in SQL Server

John Morehouse shows how you can piece together foreign key relationships in SQL Server:

Recently, I had to purge some parent records from a table.  In this case, the parent table had foreign keys, which itself isn’t an issue.  The fact that there were more than 30 of them was.   While SQL Server will happily tell you that you are violating a foreign key if a child record is present when deleting the parent record, finding all of them can be cumbersome.  This is even more true when you have a larger number of foreign keys.

Thankfully, SQL Server can tell us a lot of information about foreign keys including both the parent and child tables as well as the column used.  From this information, we can dynamically create a SELECT statement that would tell us the number of child records that are tied to the parent ID.

Click through for the solution.

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Finding Data Which Breaks Constraints

Phil Factor has a procedure to test disabled check constraints and find data which would cause an error:

However often I go on about CHECK constraints, there will always be a developer who will leave them out or mutter in a dignified manner about how all checks need to be done only at the application level. This attitude soon gets divine retribution. Bad data springs up like a rotting fungus over your database unless you add CHECK constraints to all your tables. This is fine but then how do you prevent the excellent and estimable habit of adding them to then interfere with a release? The constraints will stop the build if they meet bad data: it is what they are trained to do. If you don’t like that, then you must fix the bad data first.

Click through for the process.

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The Joy of Non-Nullable Persisted Computed Columns

Louis Davidson shows what you can do with persisted, non-nullable computed columns:

Next, let’s add a check constraint our computed column. For this example, we are just going to make sure that the value in the table is a palindrome (because this is something that every data architect has come across at least one in their life, right?). So Value = REVERSE(Value);

Read on for more fun and sometimes-useful things you can do.

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Changing Constraints in Near-Zero Downtime Situations

I have part six of my interminable series on near-zero downtime deployments:

The locking story is not the same as with the primary and unique key constraints. First, there’s one extra piece: the transition will block access to dbo.LookupTable as well as the table we create the constraint on. That’s to keep us from deleting rows in our lookup table before the key is in place.

Second, the locks begin as soon as we hit F5. Even SELECT statements get blocked requesting a LCK_M_SCH_S lock. Bad news, people.

So what can we do to get around this problem? Two routes: the ineffectual way and the ugly way.

Despite my being a ray of sunshine here, you should still check this out. It’s shorter than the average Russian novel, at least.

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Implicit Parent Reference On Foreign Keys

Deborah Melkin shows us an interesting way of creating foreign keys:

No matter how long you work with something, you can always find something that you never knew before. I found one about foreign keys this week.

I was reviewing SQL scripts for coworkers and I noticed that the foreign keys were written without referencing the parent table’s column. But the script didn’t fail and created the foreign keys correctly. So how did this work?

I don’t think I’ve ever seen this syntax either. I’m not a big fan of it for the same reason that Deborah isn’t a big fan of it: adding a couple more words does clarify your intent, and so add the words.

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Missing Foreign Keys—A Cultural Problem

Martin Catherall tells a spooky Halloween story:

By large databases I’m roughly meaning databases with several hundred tables, and I usually see a lot of these tables with several hundred GB’s of data in them.

When I generally ask about the reason for no foreign key, I’m told

  1. they add  overhead
  2. they give no benefit
  3. we can’t enter our data properly when we have them

The last one in the above list is generally down to poor modelling – an example being entering a later part of a financial transaction before the first part of the financial transaction has taken place. Once both parts of the financial transaction have taken place then the database is left in a consistent state – BUT, that generally being handled by the app NOT the database – OUCH!

There are times where key constraints are too much—often-updating fact tables might be one such scenario.  And some of “too much” comes down to hardware quality.  But for the most part, those key constraints are one of the clearest forms of database documentation available, not to mention their normal benefits.

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Natural Keys?

Steve Jones wonders if we should give up on natural primary key constraints:

One of the things I think is important in modeling your particular entity is including a primary key (PK). In my DevOps talk I stress this, as I’d rather most attendees come away thinking a PK is important as their first takeaway from the session. There are exceptions, but they are rare, and I would prefer that most tables just have some PK included from the beginning.

A PK ought to be stable as well, and there are plenty of written words about how to pick the PK for your particular problem domain. Often I have received the advice that natural keys are preferred over surrogate keys, and it is worth the effort to try and identify a suitable column (or set of columns) that will guarantee uniqueness. I think that’s good advice, and it’s also advice I tend to ignore.

Read on for Steve’s reasoning.  I tend to use surrogate keys out of habit, though I do prefer to put unique key constraints on natural keys to help me reason through data models.

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Trigger Or Constraint?

Andy Levy points out that you shouldn’t use a trigger when a default constraint will do:

We want to spend our SQL Server licensing dollars wisely, so why ask it to do unnecessary work? More CPU time, more IO, and our client is waiting longer for the process to complete (I don’t like making anyone wait).

There’s a second “gotcha” with the AFTER INSERT method that applies to only some use cases. Let’s say you’re loading some historical data into the table, and that data includes the LastModified date. Or maybe your application has a very specific date that should be inserted into the table for this field.

Andy makes good points.

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Constraints On Temp Tables

Kenneth Fisher argues that you should use default naming for temp table constraints:

You should be able to create a #temp in every session. That’s the idea, right? It’s one of the things that differentiates a global temp table from a local temp table. But there can be some difficulties with that.

If you are working with reusable code that uses temp tables (a stored procedure for example), sometimes you need to create a constraint. The thing about constraints is that their names are just as unique as tables, stored procedures etc. i.e. the name of a constraint can only be used once. You can’t have two tables with the same constraint name. In fact, you can’t even have a constraint name that matches a table, stored procedure etc name.

There’s some solid advice in this post.

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