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Oracle Built-in Functions

Oracle Tips by Burleson Consulting

Oracle offers a wealth of built-in functions (BIFs) that are used to transform table column data. These functions are extremely useful to the SQL developers and programmers because they can avoid having to perform cumbersome translations of incoming column values from Oracle. In many cases, Oracle BIFs are used to translate column data into the appropriate datatype (e.g. update customer set date_of_birth = to_date(‘03-35-1956’,’MM-DD-YYYY’);) [invalid date], and BIFs are also used to re-format non-displayable native datatypes such as DATE into readable formats. It is also common to use Oracle BIFs inside SQL that queries for table values.

While there are many dozens of Oracle BIFs for everything from date manipulation to string conversion, we will focus on some of the most common BIFs used in SQL queries and see how they simplify the query and affect the execution plan for the SQL. We will also examine the impact of BIFs on the execution plans for SQL statements and see how function-based indexing can improve the speed of these queries.

Here is a list of some frequently used Oracle SQL BIFs:

  • to_char – The to_char function is especially useful for translating DATE datatypes and converting numeric columns to character representations.

  •  upper – The upper function is often used in queries that search text columns and ensure that retrievals of case-sensitive data are properly serviced.

  • lower – The lower function is used to convert text to a lowercase representation and is quite useful when searching for strings in text.

  • substr – The substr function is used to extract sub-strings in a large character column. This is commonly used to extract  subsets from large character datatype columns such as subsets of telephone numbers.

  • decode – The decode function is used to translate values in an SQL statement from a cryptic abbreviation to a readable value. For example, the decode function can translate two-digit State names into the full name of the State.

From the perspective of Oracle SQL tuning, we must remember that these BIFs will often cause the SQL optimizer to perform a full-table scan unless a function-based index is created to match the BIF.

The most common example of an Oracle BIF is the use of the to_char function to translate a column with a DATE datatype. For example, the following query will display the number of STATSPACK snapshots that occurred in the month of January.

   to_char(snap_time,'Mon') = 'Jan'

If we were using a generic index on the snap_time column, the to_char function would not be able to utilize the DATE index. However, with the use of built-in functions, an index can be built on to_char(snap_time,’Mon’) and the SQL query could avoid a full-table scan.

This is an excerpt from "Oracle High-Performance SQL Tuning" by Donald K. Burleson, published by Oracle Press.

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