SQL JOINs, part 1
Left? Right? Outer? Let's review.
SQL JOIN is right up there in the list of most useful inventions along with sliced bread, the iPhone, and the chemical toilet. Why are there so many different kinds? Left? Right? Outer? Let’s review.
The INNER track
Here’s our example data set:
That’s some pretty crappy schema design. Anyway, we want a list of equipment along with its owner and that person’s telephone extension:
SELECT * FROM equipment JOIN people ON (people.name=equipment.owner)
The result set will look something like this:
Hey, what happened to the microwave? The SELECT picks it up since it’s in the equipment table, but there’s no matching record in the people table (there’s no person called “Everyone”).
When you say JOIN, that actually means INNER JOIN, which means “if you cannot find a matching record to join, discard it”. And there goes the microwave.
In this case, that might not be what we’re interested in. Maybe we want to know about all the equipment we have, and the owners are just nice to know.
Enter stage LEFT
LEFT JOIN is what we want in this case:
SELECT * FROM equipment LEFT JOIN people ON (people.name=equipment.owner)
Notice that our main table
equipment is on the left side of the statement, and our joined table
people is toward the right. A left join means “return every record available from the table on the left, even if there’s nothing to join to”. Here are the results:
Much better. We get to see every piece of equipment and the fields that couldn’t be joined are filled with NULLs.
Exit stage RIGHT
A right join is essentially the same thing except everything from the table on the right is returned. That means these two queries will return the same thing (although the fields may show up in a different order):
SELECT * FROM equipment LEFT JOIN people ON (people.name=equipment.owner) SELECT * FROM people RIGHT JOIN equipment ON (people.name=equipment.owner)
Generally though, you put the main table as the SELECT and the secondary one as the join. Right joins don’t get a lot of use and I would even argue that they’re bad form. Just stick to left joins and your future self and other code maintainers will thank you.
The default inner join is really a “left and right” or “both” join, since a record must be returned in both tables. Most JOINs in the world are either INNER or LEFT so those are the ones to know.
In part 2, we’ll look at the oddballs: OUTER and CROSS joins.