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Types of JOINs


Welcome to our continuing saga about SQL JOIN statements. We've spent the past few columns looking at the syntax and behavior of the inner join, the most commonly used type of join. This week, we'll take a look at what's going on behind the scenes when you perform a join and use that as a launching point to discuss the many different types of join statements that are supported by SQL.

How does a join work?

One of the fundamental challenges in understanding SQL is becoming comfortable with thinking about data in terms of mathematical sets and relational algebra. This is the similar to the challenge procedural programmers face when making the transition to object-oriented languages -- things are just simply different and the old rules simply don't apply. Joins force you to think in a set-oriented way. That is one of the reasons why they are one of the most difficult parts of SQL to learn.

So what actually happens when a join is executed? We can start with the simplest possible join -- the "cross join" (or Cartesian product). If we have two database tables consisting of information about CDs and musical artists:

ArtistID ArtistName
1 Peter Gabriel
2 Bruce Hornsby
3 Lyle Lovett
4 Beach Boys

CDID ArtistID Title Year
1 1 So 1984
2 1 Us 1992
3 2 The Way It Is 1986
4 2 Scenes from the Southside 1990
5 1 Security 1990
6 3 Joshua Judges Ruth 1992
7 4 Pet Sounds 1966

A join simply multiplies the two tables together into a new virtual table. There are four members of the Artists table and seven members in the CDs table which will result in 28 (!) rows in the result. You can try this using the following syntax,

SELECT * FROM Artists, CDs

and you should see a result that looks like the following table:

CDID CDs.ArtistID Artists.ArtistID ArtistName Title Year
1 1 1 Peter Gabriel So 1984
1 1 2 Bruce Hornsby So 1984
1 1 3 Lyle Lovett So 1984
1 1 4 Beach Boys So 1984
2 1 1 Peter Gabriel Us 1992
2 1 2 Bruce Hornsby Us 1992
2 1 3 Lyle Lovett Us 1992
2 1 4 Beach Boys Us 1992
3 2 1 Peter Gabriel The Way It Is 1986
3 2 2 Bruce Hornsby The Way It Is 1986
3 2 3 Lyle Lovett The Way It Is 1986
3 2 4 Beach Boys The Way It Is 1986
4 2 1 Peter Gabriel Scenes from the Southside 1990
4 2 2 Bruce Hornsby Scenes from the Southside 1990
4 2 3 Lyle Lovett Scenes from the Southside 1990
4 2 4 Beach Boys Scenes from the Southside 1990
5 1 1 Peter Gabriel Security 1990
5 1 2 Bruce Hornsby Security 1990
5 1 3 Lyle Lovett Security 1990
5 1 4 Beach Boys Security 1990
6 3 1 Peter Gabriel Joshua Judges Ruth 1992
6 3 2 Bruce Hornsby Joshua Judges Ruth 1992
6 3 3 Lyle Lovett Joshua Judges Ruth 1992
6 3 4 Beach Boys Joshua Judges Ruth 1992
7 4 1 Peter Gabriel Pet Sounds 1966
7 4 2 Bruce Hornsby Pet Sounds 1966
7 4 3 Lyle Lovett Pet Sounds 1966
7 4 4 Beach Boys Pet Sounds 1966

This table is typically filtered using the WHERE clause, for example

SELECT * FROM Artists, CDs WHERE Artists.ArtistID=CDs.ArtistID

which leads us to another nugget of SQL wisdom

SQL Wisdom #6) Using a cross join is almost always a bad idea

A cross join will typically bring your database to its knees since the amount of work increases as a multiple of the number of rows -- this does not scale linearly!

Comment on this articleWe've been working on Joins for three columns now. How's your progress toward mastering this sometimes tricky aspect of MySQL?
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Also in aboutSQL:

SQL Data Types

Working With Tables

Data Definition Language

Other types of JOINs

We've covered two types of joins so far, but there are many more. To whet you appetite for the upcoming columns, the major types of joins we'll cover include

The world of joins is another one of those pleasant corners of the SQL world where there is a lot of differentiation between database platforms as far as specific syntax and even which types of joins are supported. We'll cover the big picture for each type of join, but will only point out an whopping differences between the platforms. It is crucial when you are working with any complicated join, particularly one that involves multiple tables or nested joins, that you check you DBMS documentation to make sure that your approach is supported.

Next steps

This week we took a look at the cross join statement, the fundamental underpinning of the SQL join. Next week, we'll focus on the various "outer joins." Until then, feel free to contact me with comments and questions.

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