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Subquery or join?

Some tasks can be performed in two ways, both by joins and subqueries. Under what situations should we opt for...


Write your query using a subquery instead of a join when it is easier for you to understand what the purpose or intent of the query is. Remember, you not only have to write it, you may have to come back six months later and figure out what it's doing! I'll demonstrate with two examples:

Example 1

Do you prefer:

select a.foo, a.bar
  from table1 a
  join table2 b
    on a.id = b.id
   and b.qux = '937'
    by a.foo, a.bar


select foo, bar
  from table1 
 where id in
       ( select id
           from table2
          where qux = '937' )

Example 2

Do you prefer:

select a.foo, a.bar
  from table1 a
left outer
  join table2 b
    on a.id = b.id
   and b.qux = '937'
 where b.id is null


select foo, bar
  from table1 
 where not exists
       ( select 1
           from table2
          where id = table1.id
            and qux = '937' )

Ordinarily, when writing SQL, you should not be concerned with performance. Instead, you should focus all your intellect on ensuring that you get the correct results, and let the database optimizer figure out how to satisfy the query. So the first consideration is whether the join and subquery techniques actually do both produce the same correct results in either example.

The other consideration is maintainability. The first example returns rows from table1 with matching qualified rows in table2, while the second example returns only rows without qualified matches. Now consider how you would have to modify each query in both examples to add another condition, to return only those rows from table1 that also have a qualifying matching row in table3. You may discover that the join technique is severely limiting.

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This was last published in October 2003

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Yes, subqueries can improve code readability, but if you are concerned about performance, be sure to always test and profile every approach (subquery or join) so that you can make a better decision. Sometimes you have to help the optimizer.

For more info about subqueries, check out this article:

Subqueries in Oracle SQL