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Inner and Outer join

May 10, 2012

The old syntax, with just listing the tables, and using the WHERE clause to specify the join criteria, is being deprecated in most modern databases.

It’s not just for show, the old syntax has the possibility of being ambiguous when you use both INNER and OUTER joins in the same query.

Let me give you an example.

Let’s suppose you have 3 tables in your system:

Each table contain numerous rows, linked together. You got multiple companies, and each company can have multiple departments, and each department can have multiple employees.

Ok, so now you want to do the follow:

List all the companies, and include all their departments, and all their employees. Note that some companies doesn’t have any departments yet, but make sure you include them as well. Make sure you only retrieve departments that have employees, but always list all companies.

So you do this:

SELECT * — for simplicity
FROM Company, Department, Employee
WHERE Company.ID *= Department.CompanyID
AND Department.ID = Employee.DepartmentID
Note that the last one there is an inner join, in order to fulfill the criteria that you only want departments with people.

Ok, so what happens now. Well, the problem is, it depends on the database engine, the query optimizer, indexes, and table statistics. Let me explain.

If the query optimizer determines that the way to do this is to first take a company, then find the departments, and then do an inner join with employees, you’re not going to get any companies that doesn’t have departments.

The reason for this is that the WHERE clause determines which rows ends up in the final result, not individual parts of the rows.

And in this case, due to the left join, the Department.ID column will be NULL, and thus when it comes to the INNER JOIN to Employee, there’s no way to fulfill that for this row, and so it won’t appear.

On the other hand, if the query optimizer decides to tackle the department-employee join first, and then do a left join with the companies, you will see them.

So the old syntax is ambiguous. There’s no way to specify what you want, without dealing with query hints, and some databases has no way at all.

Enter the new syntax, with this you can choose.

For instance, if you want all companies, as the problem description stated, this is what you would write:

FROM Company
Department INNER JOIN Employee ON Department.ID = Employee.DepartmentID
) ON Company.ID = Department.CompanyID
Here you specify that you want the department-employee join to be done as one join, and then left join the results of that with the companies.

Additionally, let’s say you only want departments that contains the letter X in their name. Again, with old style joins, you risk loosing the company as well, if it doesn’t have any departments with an X in its name, but with the new syntax, you can do this:

FROM Company
Department INNER JOIN Employee ON Department.ID = Employee.DepartmentID
) ON Company.ID = Department.CompanyID AND Department.Name LIKE ‘%X%’
This extra clause is used for the joining, but is not a filter for the entire row. So the row might appear with company information, but might have NULL’s in all the department and employee columns for that row, because there is no department with an X in its name for that company. This is hard with the old syntax.

This is why, amongst other vendors, Microsoft has deprecated the old outer join syntax, but not the old inner join syntax
Additionally, the old way, by throwing a bunch of tables at the query optimizer, with a bunch of WHERE clauses, was akin to saying “here you are, do the best you can”. With the new syntax, the query optimizer has less work to do in order to figure out what parts goes together.

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