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Character datatypes in Oracle, namely CHAR, VARCHAR2, and their N variants, NCHAR and NVARCHAR2, are capable of storing either 2,000 bytes or 4,000 bytes of text. This text is converted between various character sets as needed by the database. A character set is a binary representation of individual characters in bits and bytes. Many different character sets are available, and each is capable of representing different characters, for example: The US7ASCII character set is the ASCII standard representation of 128 characters. It uses the low 7 bits of a byte to represent these 128 characters. The WE8ISO8859P1 character set is a Western European character set capable of representing the 128 ASCII characters as well as 128 extended characters, using all 8 bits of a byte. Before we get into the details of CHAR, VARCHAR2, and their N variants, it would benefit us to get a cursory understanding of what these different character sets mean to us.
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NLS Overview
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As stated earlier, NLS stands for National Language Support. NLS is a very powerful feature of the database, but one that is often not as well understood as it should be. NLS controls many aspects of our data. For example, it controls how data is sorted, and whether we see commas and a single period in a number (e.g., 1,000,000.01) or many periods and a single comma (e.g., 1.000.000,01). But most important, it controls the following: Encoding of the textual data as stored persistently on disk Transparent conversion of data from character set to character set It is this transparent part that confuses people the most it is so transparent, you cannot even really see it happening. Let s look at a small example. Suppose you are storing 8-bit data in a WE8ISO8859P1 character set in your database, but you have some clients that connect using a 7-bit character set such as US7ASCII. These clients are not expecting 8-bit data and need to have the data from the database converted into something they can use. While this sounds wonderful, if you are not aware of it taking place, then you might well find that your data loses characters over time as the characters that are not available in US7ASCII are translated into some character that is. This is due to the character set translation taking place. In short, if you retrieve data from the database in character set 1, convert it to character set 2, and then insert it back (reversing the process), there is a very good chance that you have materially modified the data. Character set conversion is typically a process that will change the data, and you are usually mapping a large set of characters
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CHAPTER 12 DATATYPES
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(in this example, the set of 8-bit characters) into a smaller set (that of the 7-bit characters). This is a lossy conversion the characters get modified because it is quite simply not possible to represent every character. But this conversion must take place. If the database is storing data in a single-byte character set but the client (say, a Java application, since the Java language uses Unicode) expects it in a multibyte representation, then it must be converted simply so the client application can work with it. You can see character set conversion very easily. For example, I have a database whose character set is set to WE8ISO8859P1, a typical Western European character set: ops$tkyte@ORA10G> select * 2 from nls_database_parameters 3 where parameter = 'NLS_CHARACTERSET'; PARAMETER VALUE ------------------------------ ---------------------------------------NLS_CHARACTERSET WE8ISO8859P1 Now, if I ensure my NLS_LANG is set the same as my database character set (Windows users would change/verify this setting in their registry) as follows: ops$tkyte@ORA10G> host echo $NLS_LANG AMERICAN_AMERICA.WE8ISO8859P1 then I can create a table and put in some 8-bit data. This data that will not be usable by a 7-bit client that is expecting only 7-bit ASCII data: ops$tkyte@ORA10G> create table t ( data varchar2(1) ); Table created. ops$tkyte@ORA10G> insert into t values ( chr(224) ); 1 row created. ops$tkyte@ORA10G> insert into t values ( chr(225) ); 1 row created. ops$tkyte@ORA10G> insert into t values ( chr(226) ); 1 row created. ops$tkyte@ORA10G> select data, dump(data) dump 2 from t; D DUMP - ------------------- Typ=1 Len=1: 224 Typ=1 Len=1: 225 Typ=1 Len=1: 226 ops$tkyte@ORA10G> commit; Now, if I go to another window and specify a 7-bit ASCII client, I ll see quite different results:
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