Cover by Jay A. Kreibich

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Brief Background

Although the first official SQL specification was published in 1986 by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the language traces its roots back to the early 1970s and the pioneering relational database work that was being done at IBM. Current SQL standards are ratified and published by the International Standards Organization (ISO). Although a new standard is published every few years, the last significant set of changes to the core language can be traced to the SQL:1999 standard (also known as “SQL3”). Subsequent standards have mainly been concerned with storing and processing XML-based data. Overall, the evolution of SQL is firmly rooted in the practical aspects of database development, and in many cases new standards only serve to ratify and standardize syntax or features that have been present in commercial database products for some time.

Declarative

The core of SQL is a declarative language. In a declarative language, you state what you want the results to be and allow the language processor to figure out how to deliver the desired results. Compare this to imperative languages, such as C, Java, Perl, or Python, where each step of a calculation or operation must be explicitly written out, leaving it up to the programmer to lead the program, step by step, to the correct conclusion.

The first SQL standards were specifically designed to make the language approachable and usable by “non-computer people”—at least by the 1980s definition of that term. This is one of the reasons why SQL commands tend to have a somewhat English-like syntax. Most SQL commands take the form verb-subject. For example, CREATE (verb) TABLE (subject), DROP INDEX, UPDATE table_name.

The almost-English, declarative nature of SQL has both advantages and disadvantages. Declarative languages tend to be simpler (especially for nonprogrammers) to understand. Once you get used to the general structure of the commands, the use of English keywords can make the syntax easier to remember. The fixed command structure also makes it much easier for the database engine to optimize queries and return data more efficiently.

The predefined nature of declarative statements can sometimes feel a bit limited, however—especially in a command-based language like SQL, where individual, isolated commands are constructed and issued one at a time. If you require a query that doesn’t fit into the processing order defined by the SELECT command, you may find yourself having to patch together nested queries or temporary tables. This is especially true when the problem you’re trying to solve is inherently nonrelational, and you’re forced to jump through extra hoops to account for that.

Despite its oddities and somewhat organic evolution, SQL is a powerful language with a surprisingly broad ability to express complex operations. Once you wrap your head around what makes SQL tick, you can often find moderately simple solutions to even the most off-the-beaten-path problems. It can take some adjustment, however, especially if your primary experience is with imperative languages.

Portability

SQL’s biggest flaw is that formal standardization has almost always followed common implementations. Almost every database product (including SQLite) has custom extensions and enhancements to the core language that help differentiate it from other products, or expose features or control systems that are not covered by the core SQL standard. Often these enhancements are related to performance enhancements, and can be difficult to ignore.

While this less-strict approach to language purity has allowed SQL to grow and evolve in very practical ways, it means that “real world” SQL portability is not all that practical. If you strictly limit yourself to standardized SQL syntax, you can achieve a moderate degree of portability, but normally this comes at the cost of lower performance and less data integrity. Generally, applications will write to the specific SQL dialect they’re using and not worry about cross-database compatibility. If cross-database compatibility is important to a specific application, the normal approach is to develop a core list of SQL commands required by the application, with minor tweaks for each specific database product.

SQLite makes an effort to follow the SQL standards as much as possible. SQLite will also recognize and correctly parse a number of nonstandard syntax conventions used by other popular databases. This can help with the portability issues.

SQL is not without other issues, but considering its lineage, it is surprisingly well suited for the task at hand. Love it or hate it, it is the relational database language of choice, and it is likely to be with us for a long time.

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