Tag Archives: DBA

Articles for the DBA – accidental or otherwise

#0415 – SQL Server – Performance Tuning – Use STRING_AGG to generate comma separated strings


With more and more data being exchanged over APIs, generating comma-separated strings are becoming a much more common requirement.

A few years ago, I wrote about two different ways to generate comma-separated strings. The most common one I find to be in use when generating comma-separated values from a table is the intermediate conversion of XML. This however, is a very costly mechanism and can potentially take minutes for the query to run depending upon the amount of data involved.

SQL Server 2017 brings a new aggregate function that can be used to generate comma-separated values extremely fast. The function is STRING_AGG().

Here’s a sample of it’s usage:


 --WARNING: THIS SCRIPT IS PROVIDED AS-IS AND WITHOUT
-- WARRANTY.
-- FOR DEMONSTRATION PURPOSES ONLY
--Step 01: Generate Temp table to store source data
DECLARE @NamesTable TABLE ([Id] INT,
[Name] NVARCHAR(50)
);
--Step 02: Generate test data
INSERT INTO @NamesTable
VALUES (1, 'A'),
(2, 'D'),
(2, 'C'),
(3, 'E'),
(3, 'H'),
(3, 'G');
--Step 03: Using STRING_AGG to generate comma-separated strings
SELECT STRING_AGG(tbl.Name, ',') AS [CommaSeparatedString]
FROM @NamesTable AS tbl;
GO
/RESULTS**
CommaSeparatedString
A,D,C,E,H,G
*/

Advantages of STRING_AGG:

  • Can be used just like any other aggregate function in a query
  • Can work with any user supplied separator – doesn’t necessarily have to be a comma
  • No manual step required – Separators are not added at the end of the concatenated string
  • STRING_AGG() is significantly faster than using XML based methods
  • Can be used with any compatibility level as long as the version is SQL Server 2017 (or higher) and Azure SQL database

Here’s an example of how STRING_AGG can be used with any separator:

 --WARNING: THIS SCRIPT IS PROVIDED AS-IS AND WITHOUT
-- WARRANTY.
-- FOR DEMONSTRATION PURPOSES ONLY
--Step 01: Generate Temp table to store source data
DECLARE @NamesTable TABLE ([Id] INT,
[Name] NVARCHAR(50)
);
--Step 02: Generate test data
INSERT INTO @NamesTable
VALUES (1, 'A'),
(2, 'D'),
(2, 'C'),
(3, 'E'),
(3, 'H'),
(3, 'G');
--Step 03: Using STRING_AGG to generate comma-separated strings
SELECT STRING_AGG(tbl.Name, '-*-') AS [CustomSeparatorString]
FROM @NamesTable AS tbl;
GO
/RESULTS**
CustomSeparatorString
A--D--C--E--H--G /

A minor challenge

As with every new feature, there may be a small usability challenge with STRING_AGG. One cannot use keywords like DISTINCT to ensure that only distinct values are used for generating the comma-separated string. There is however a Azure feedback item open where you can exercise your vote if you feel this feature is useful.

Further Reading

  • Different ways to generate a comma-separated string from a table [Blog Link]
  • STRING_AGG() Aggregate Function [MSDN BOL]

Until we meet next time,

Be courteous. Drive responsibly.

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Output of the sp_help command showing negative signs for a few columns.

#0413 – SQL Server – Interview Question – Why are some columns displayed with a negative sign in sp_help?


One of the first things I do when I start work on a new database is to use “sp_help” to go through each table and study their structure. I recently noticed something that would make an interesting interview question.

Here’s what I saw during my study.

Output of the sp_help command showing negative signs for a few columns.

Output of the sp_help command

The interview question that came to my mind was:

Why is there a negative “(-)” sign in the sp_help output?

The answer

The answer is quite simple – the negative sign simply indicates the columns are in a different sort order. By default, when a sort order is not specified for a column on an index, Microsoft SQL Server arranges it in ascending order. When we explicitly specify a descending sort order of the column on the index, it will be reported with the negative “(-)” sign.

Here is the script I used to capture the screenshot seen above:

USE tempdb;
GO
--Safety Check
IF OBJECT_ID('tempdb..#StudentSubject','U') IS NOT NULL
BEGIN
    DROP TABLE #StudentSubject;
END
GO

--Create a temporary table to demonstrate the point under discussion
CREATE TABLE #StudentSubject 
    (StudentId          INT          NOT NULL,
     SubjectId          INT          NOT NULL,
     DayNumber          TINYINT      NOT NULL,
     SequenceNumber     TINYINT      NOT NULL,
     IsCancelled        BIT          NOT NULL 
                        CONSTRAINT df_StudentSubjectIsCancelled DEFAULT (0),
     Remarks            VARCHAR(255)     NULL,
     CONSTRAINT pk_StudentSubject 
                PRIMARY KEY CLUSTERED (StudentId      ASC,
                                       SubjectId      ASC,
                                       DayNumber      DESC,
                                       SequenceNumber DESC
                                      )
    );
GO

--Notice the DESC keyword against the DayNumber & SequenceNumber columns
--These columns will be reported in index with negative values
sp_help '#StudentSubject';
GO

--Cleanup
IF OBJECT_ID('tempdb..#StudentSubject','U') IS NOT NULL
BEGIN
    DROP TABLE #StudentSubject;
END
GO

Until we meet next time,

Be courteous. Drive responsibly.