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13 XML and XQuery
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When Should You Use XML Instead of Relational Representation
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I hope that you won t think that I m entirely opposed to having XML support inside a relational database . I can actually give many examples where it does make sense . First, I have to admit that a schema sometimes is in fact volatile . Think about situations in which you have to support many different schemas for the same kind of event . There are many such cases within SQL Server itself . DDL triggers and extended events are a good example . There are dozens of different DDL events, and each event returns different event information that is, data with a different schema . A conscious design choice was that DDL triggers return event information in XML format via the EVENTDATA() function . Event information in XML format is quite easy to manipulate . Furthermore, with this architecture, SQL Server will be able to extend support for new DDL events in future versions more easily . Another interesting example of internal XML support in SQL Server and proof that Microsoft is practicing what it preaches is XML showplans . You can generate execution plan information in XML format using the SET SHOWPLAN_XML and SET STATISTICS XML statements . Think of the value for applications and tools that need execution plan information it s easy to request and parse it now . You can even force the optimizer to use a given execution plan by providing the XML plan in a USE PLAN query hint . Another place to use XML is to represent data that is sparse . Your data is sparse having many unknown values if some columns are not applicable to all rows . Standard solutions for such a problem introduce subtypes or implement an open schema model in a relational environment . However, a solution based on XML could be the easiest to implement . A solution that introduces subtypes can lead to many new tables . A solution that implements a relational open schema model can lead to complex, dynamic SQL statements . SQL Server 2008 introduces sparse columns and filtered indexes . Sparse columns provide another, non-XML solution for representing attributes that are not applicable for all rows in a table . Sparse columns have optimized storage for NULLs . If you have to index them, you can efficiently use filtered indexes to index known values only; this way, you optimize table and index storage . In addition, you can have access to all sparse columns at once through a column set . A column set is an XML representation of all the sparse columns that is even updateable . However, even with sparse columns, the schema is not dynamic . In addition, using sparse columns limits your solution to SQL Server 2008 only the solution is not portable . In short, I find XML very suitable for dynamic schemas . You could have other reasons to use an XML model . XML inherently supports hierarchical sorted data . This fact makes people wonder whether XML is more appropriate for representing hierarchical data than a relational model . A relational solution that has references among entities is cumbersome . However, a hierarchy can be represented in
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Inside Microsoft SQL Server 2008: T-SQL Programming
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a relational model as an adjacency list (parent/child attributes) with a self-referencing foreign key constraint . You can then query the data using recursive common table expressions (CTEs) . In SQL Server 2008, you can also represent graphs, trees, and hierarchies by using the new HIERARCHYID data type . Personally, I prefer to use the adjacency list model for representing hierarchies . It is a standard, portable solution . In addition, it is not limited to hierarchies only; you can use it to represent any kind of a graph, including trees and hierarchies . To summarize, I am not a fan of using XML for hierarchies . What if ordering is inherent in your data I don t find this a good enough reason to justify using XML . You can have an attribute that defines the order; otherwise, you probably haven t done your business analysis well . Finally, another scenario for using XML representation is when you want to modify parts of the data based on its structure . I agree with using XML in such a scenario in some cases, and I ll explain and demonstrate why in the following section . Objects in .NET applications can be persisted in one of two ways: using binary or XML serialization . Binary serialization is very encapsulated; only applications that know the structure (class) of the object and the way it is serialized can deserialize it . XML serialization is much more open . All you need to know is the XML schema, and even without it, you can browse the data . Now think of objects in a wider sense . Everything you store in a computer is a kind of object . For example, take Microsoft Visio diagrams . They can be stored in internal Visio format or as XML . If they are stored in the internal format, you can open them only with Microsoft Visio . If they are stored in XML format, you can open them even with Notepad . And if you store them using XML format in a database, you can use T-SQL queries to search and manipulate the document data . That is valuable functionality! Imagine you are searching for all Visio documents that include a specific element . If they are stored in internal format, you have to open them one by one and visually check them . If they are stored as XML documents in a file system, you can use full-text indexes and search through them . But if they are stored in a database in an XML column, you can find all documents you need with a single SELECT statement . As another example of using XML, consider a frequently asked question: How do you pass an array as a parameter to a stored procedure In SQL Server 2008, you can use table-valued parameters . Table-valued parameters were not available in previous versions of SQL Server . Another option is to pass the array of values as a comma-separated string and then use T-SQL code to separate the elements . Or you can pass the array as an XML parameter, and use the nodes method to shred the values into a relational presentation . After this introduction, you should have an idea of when the XML data type is appropriate and when you should stick to the relational model . Now that I ve covered the background, I can discuss the XML data type methods, and some other XML enhancements . I ll also walk you through code samples that you re likely to find useful .
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