Monday, June 29, 2009

Approaches to "UPSERT"

This week in the Database Programmer we look at something called an "UPSERT", the strange trick where an insert command may magically convert itself into an update if a row already exists with the provided key. This trick is very useful in a variety of cases. This week we will see its basic use, and next week we will see how the same idea can be used to materialize summary tables efficiently.


The idea behind an UPSERT is simple. The client issues an INSERT command. If a row already exists with the given primary key, then instead of throwing a key violation error, it takes the non-key values and updates the row.

This is one of those strange (and very unusual) cases where MySQL actually supports something you will not find in all of the other more mature databases. So if you are using MySQL, you do not need to do anything special to make an UPSERT. You just add the term "ON DUPLICATE KEY UPDATE" to the INSERT statement:

insert into table (a,c,b) values (1,2,3)
    on duplicate key update
     b = 2,
     c = 3

The MySQL command gives you the flexibility to specify different operation on UPDATE versus INSERT, but with that flexibility comes the requirement that the UPDATE clause completely restates the operation.

With the MySQL command there are also various considerations for AUTO_INCREMENT columns and multiple unique keys. You can read more at the MySQL page for the INSERT ... ON DUPLICATE KEY UPDATE feature.

A Note About MS SQL Server 2008

MS SQL Server introduced something like UPSERT in SQL Server 2008. It uses the MERGE command, which is a bit hairy, check it out in this nice tutorial.

Coding a Simpler UPSERT

Let us say that we want a simpler UPSERT, where you do not have to mess with SQL Server's MERGE or rewrite the entire command as in MySQL. This can be done with triggers.

To illustrate, consider a shopping cart with a natural key of ORDER_ID and SKU. I want simple application code that does not have to figure out if it needs to do an INSERT or UPDATE, and can always happily do INSERTs, knowing they will be converted to updates if the line is already there. In other words, I want simple application code that just keeps issuing commands like this:


We can accomplish this by a trigger. The trigger must occur before the action, and it must redirect the action to an UPDATE if necessary. Let us look at examples for MySQL, Postgres, and SQL Server.

A MySQL Trigger

Alas, MySQL giveth, and MySQL taketh away. You cannot code your own UPSERT in MySQL because of an extremely severe limitation in MySQL trigger rules. A MySQL trigger may not affect a row in a table different from the row originally affected by the command that fired the trigger. A MySQL trigger attempting to create a new row may not affect a different row.

Note: I may be wrong about this. This limitation has bitten me on several features that I would like to provide for MySQL. I am actually hoping this limitation will not apply for UPSERTs because the new row does not yet exist, but I have not had a chance yet to try.

A Postgres Trigger

The Postgres trigger example is pretty simple, hopefully the logic is self-explanatory. As with all code samples, I did this off the top of my head, you may need to fix a syntax error or two.

CREATE OR REPLACE FUNCTION orderlines_insert_before_F()
    result INTEGER; 
    -- Find out if there is a row
    result = (select count(*) from orderlines
                where order_id = new.order_id
                  and sku      = new.sku

    -- On the update branch, perform the update
    -- and then return NULL to prevent the 
    -- original insert from occurring
    IF result = 1 THEN
        UPDATE orderlines 
           SET qty = new.qty
         WHERE order_id = new.order_id
           AND sku      = new.sku;
        RETURN null;
    END IF;
    -- The default branch is to return "NEW" which
    -- causes the original INSERT to go forward
    RETURN new;


-- That extremely annoying second command you always
-- need for Postgres triggers.
CREATE TRIGGER orderlines_insert_before_T
   before insert
   EXECUTE PROCEDURE orderlines_insert_before_F();

A SQL Server Trigger

SQL Server BEFORE INSERT triggers are significantly different from Postgres triggers. First of all, they operate at the statement level, so that you have a set of new rows instead of just one. Secondly, the trigger must itself contain an explicit INSERT command, or the INSERT never happens. All of this means our SQL Server example is quite a bit more verbose.

The basic logic of the SQL Server example is the same as the Postgres, with two additional complications. First, we must use a CURSOR to loop through the incoming rows. Second, we must explicitly code the INSERT operation for the case where it occurs. But if you can see past the cruft we get for all of that, the SQL Server exmple is doing the same thing:

CREATE TRIGGER upsource_insert_before
ON orderlines
    DECLARE @new_order_id int;
    DECLARE @new_sku      varchar(15);
    DECLARE @new_qty      int;
    DECLARE @result       int;

    DECLARE trig_ins_orderlines CURSOR FOR 
            SELECT * FROM inserted;
    OPEN trig_ins_orderlines;

    FETCH NEXT FROM trig_ins_orderlines
     INTO @new_order_id

    WHILE @@Fetch_status = 0 
        -- Find out if there is a row now
        SET @result = (SELECT count(*) from orderlines
                        WHERE order_id = @new_order_id
                          AND sku      = @new_sku
        IF @result = 1 
            -- Since there is already a row, do an
            -- update
            UPDATE orderlines
               SET qty = @new_qty
             WHERE order_id = @new_order_id
               AND sku      = @new_sku;
            -- When there is no row, we insert it
            INSERT INTO orderlines 
            UPDATE orderlines

        -- Pull the next row
        FETCH NEXT FROM trig_ins_orderlines
         INTO @new_order_id

    END  -- Cursor iteration

    CLOSE trig_ins_orderlines;
    DEALLOCATE trig_ins_orderlines;


A Vague Uneasy Feeling

While the examples above are definitely cool and nifty, they ought to leave a certain nagging doubt in many programmers' minds. This doubt comes from the fact that an insert is not necessarily an insert anymore, which can lead to confusion. Just imagine the new programmer who has joined the team an is banging his head on his desk because he cannot figure out why his INSERTS are not working!

We can add a refinement to the process by making the function optional. Here is how we do it.

First, add a column to the ORDERLINES table called _UPSERT that is a char(1). Then modify the trigger so that the UPSERT behavior only occurs if the this column holds 'Y'. It is also extremely import to always set this value back to 'N' or NULL in the trigger, otherwise it will appear as 'Y' on subsequent INSERTS and it won't work properly.

So our new modified explicit upsert requires a SQL statement like this:


Our trigger code needs only a very slight modification. Here is the Postgres example, the SQL Server example should be very easy to update as well:

   ...trigger declration and definition above
   IF new._upsert = 'Y'
      result = (SELECT.....);
      _upsert = 'N';
      result = 0;
   END IF; of trigger is the same


The UPSERT feature gives us simplified code and fewer round trips to the server. Without the UPSERT there are times when the application may have to query the server to find out if a row exists, and then issue either an UPDATE or an INSERT. With the UPSERT, one round trip is eliminated, and the check occurs much more efficiently inside of the server itself.

The downside to UPSERTs is that they can be confusing if some type of explicit control is not put onto them such as the _UPSERT column.

Next week we will see a concept similar to UPSERT used to efficiently create summary tables.