Correlated subqueries are SQL queries that contain a nested subquery, where the nested query refers to one or more outside tables. The definition sounds complicated, but an example is worth a thousand words.
My book Data Analysis Using SQL and Excel includes a database of customers, orders, and transactions (which can be downloaded). From such data, we might ask a question such as "What products did customer X order on her or his earliest order date?" A typical way to answer this is with a corrrelated subquery.
FROM orders o JOIN
.....ON o.OrderID = ol.OrderID AND
.....o.CustomerID = X
WHERE o.OrderDate = (SELECT MIN(OrderDate)
.....................FROM orders o2
.....................WHERE o2.CustomerID = o.CustomerID)
Since this is standard SQL, all reasonable relational databases should support this syntax. One syntax note: the subquery could optionally contain a "GROUP BY o2.CustomerID" clause.
What is the query doing? It is joining two tables together (orders and orderline) and then restricting the results to a single customer. However, the query is about the products in a particular order, so the WHERE clause selects the particular order -- as the one with the smallest OrderDate. Voila. The query answers the question.
The correlated subquery is in the WHERE clause, buried in the subquery in the line o.OrderID = o2.OrderID. This is placing a restriction on the values in the subquery based on the results of an outer query. Do note that if the WHERE clause were instead o.CustomerID =
So far so good. When we think of how the query runs, we think of iterating through every row in the o2 table and looking to match it to the current value in the o table. If there is an index, so much the better because the query engine can use the index to access the o2 table.
This conceptual approach is, in fact, how most (if not all) query engines optimize such a query. For now, I'm leaving open the question of whether this is a good thing, in order to present the idea of unrolling the subquery.
There are other ways to answer the original question ("What products did Customer X order on his or her earliest order date?"). The following query shows an alternative approach:
FROM orders o JOIN
.....ON o.OrderID = ol.OrderID JOIN
.....(SELECT CustomerID, MIN(OrderDate) as minOrderDate
......GROUP BY CustomerID) omin
.....ON o.OrderDate = omin.minOrderDate AND
........o.CustomerID = omin.CustomerID
WHERE o.CustomerID = X
This version of the query unrolls the subquery, by creating a summary table with the earliest order date for all customers. The link to the other table is made through an explicit join condition between this summary table and the orders table.
Note that in this particular query, the WHERE clause that chooses the customer could be in the subquery, because the columns in the WHERE clause are in the subquery. However, in the general case, the filter could be using columns not available in the subquery -- such as getting all products that start with the letter "A".
There is a big difference in how this query gets executed versus the earlier version. The big difference is that now the orders need to be grouped to find the earliest order date for all orders. The correlated subquery could use an index and only look at the handful of rows for a given customer. So, the correlated subquery seems to be more efficient.
If the correlated subquery is more efficient, then why do I personally avoid using them? One reason is the explicitness of the joins. I find it much easier to understand the unrolled version. However, ease of understanding is less important than performance. In many cases, the unrolled version does execute faster.
Notice that both these queries are looking for data about one particular customer -- a small subset of the overall data. For queries that are looking for such needles in the haystack, then correlated subqueries are fine.
However, decision support queries are usually looking to sift through the whole haystack and not look for just the needle. If we changed the question to "What products are ordered on the earliest order date?" then the queries lose the restrictive clause limiting them to one customer. Now what happens?
In the case of the correlated subquery, query engines essentially execute the joins in one of two ways: (1) by repeatedly looping through one table (typically the one in the inner join) or (2) using indexes. In terms of join algorithms, these are nested loop joins and index-based joins -- two perfectly good join algorithms. But, I might add, two out of many algorithms that could be used.
On the other hand, doing the explicit join as in the second example allows the query engine to execute the different steps it needs to execute, and then to decide on the best strategies. In particular, when the data is partitioned for simultaneous access on multiple processors, most query engines would forget the parallel possibilities and simply execute the correlated subquery on a single processor.
On the other hand, most parallel query engines would correctly parallelize the second version of the query. The GROUP BY would execute in parallel, as would the rest of the joins. The query optimizer would use table statistics to generate the best query plan.
Correlated subqueries are a tool used when designing queries. In all cases, though, the subqueries can be unrolled using more traditional aggregation and join operations. However, query optimizers generally do not perform this operation.
Correlated subqueries are often the most efficient approach when looking for a few rows from a table, particularly when the optimizer can use indexes for the join. On the other hand, unrolling the subqueries is often more efficient when there is a large amount of data, because the optimizer can do full query optimization, making use of parallelism and table statistics.
Currently, most query optimizers do not know how to unrolls correlated subqueries -- or how to roll them back up. So, we need to make such decisions when writing the queries ourselves.