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Working with records and pseudorecords in PL/SQL

Part 7 in a series of articles on understanding and using PL/SQL for accessing Oracle Database

By Steven Feuerstein | November 2020


PL/SQL 101 Series

PL/SQL is one of the core technologies at Oracle and is essential to leveraging the full potential of Oracle Database. PL/SQL combines the relational data access capabilities of the Structured Query Language with a flexible embedded procedural language, and it executes complex queries and programmatic logic run inside the database engine itself. This enhances the agility, efficiency, and performance of database-driven applications.

Steven Feuerstein, one of the industry’s best-respected and most prolific experts in PL/SQL, wrote a 12-part tutorial series on the language. Those articles, first published in 2011, have been among the most popular ever published on the Oracle website and continue to find new readers and enthusiasts in the database community. Beginning with the first installment, the entire series is being updated and republished; please enjoy!

The Oracle PL/SQL language was designed to be a portable, high-performance transaction processing language that is tightly integrated with the SQL database query language. It is rare, indeed, to find a PL/SQL program that does not either read from or make changes to tables in a database. Tables are made up of rows of data, each consisting of one or more columns, so it stands to reason that Oracle Database would make it as easy as possible to work with those rows of data inside a PL/SQL program. And it does precisely that through its implementation of the record.

A record is a composite data type, which means that it can hold more than one piece of information, as compared to a scalar data type, such as a number or string. It’s rare, in fact, that the data with which you are working is just a single value, so records and other composite data types are likely to figure prominently in your PL/SQL programs.

This article explores how you declare records, populate them with rows from a table, and even insert or change an entire row in a table by using a record. It also takes a look at user-defined record types, which enable you to work with records that are not necessarily related to a relational table.

Declare a record with %ROWTYPE

PL/SQL makes it very easy to declare records that have the same structure as a table, a view, or the result set of a cursor by offering the %ROWTYPE attribute.

Suppose I have an employees table in an application that looks like this:


SQL> DESCRIBE company_employees
 Name         Null?      Type
 ———————————  —————————— —————————————————
 EMPLOYEE_ID  NOT NULL   NUMBER(38)
 LAST_NAME               VARCHAR2(100)
 SALARY                  NUMBER

Each row in the table consists of three columns, and each column has its own data type. The following query retrieves all the columns in all the rows in the table:

SELECT employee_id, last_name, salary
FROM company_employees

Let’s say the task is to write a block of code that retrieves a single row of data from company_employees for an employee ID and then work with the column values in that row. I could declare a variable for each column and then fetch into those variables, as follows:


CREATE PROCEDURE process_employee (
  employee_id_in IN 
    company_employees.employee_id%TYPE)
IS
  l_employee_id   
     company_employees.employee_id%TYPE;
  l_last_name     
     company_employees.last_name%TYPE;
  l_salary        
     company_employees.salary%TYPE;
BEGIN
  SELECT employee_id,
         last_name,
         salary
    INTO l_employee_id,
         l_last_name,
         l_salary
    FROM company_employees
  WHERE employee_id = employee_id_in;
END;

(Note that my style is to use suffixes in my parameters to indicate their mode. Here _in indicates an IN parameter.)

That is, however, an awful lot of code to write, read, and maintain. A much better approach is to fetch that row of data into a record. The best way to declare that record is as follows:


CREATE PROCEDURE process_employee (
  employee_id_in IN 
     company_employees.employee_id%TYPE)
IS
  l_employee   company_employees%ROWTYPE;
BEGIN
  SELECT employee_id,
         last_name,
         salary
    INTO l_employee
    FROM company_employees
  WHERE employee_id = employee_id_in;
END;

When this procedure is compiled, PL/SQL looks up the structure of the company_employees table and defines a record that has a field for each column in the table, with the same name and data type. By using %ROWTYPE to declare the record, I also tell Oracle Database that this procedure depends on the company_employees table. If the database administrator changes the maximum length of the last_name column to 200, for instance, this procedure’s status will be changed to INVALID. When the procedure is recompiled, the compiler will update the definition of the record in this procedure to match the table’s new structure.

I can even shorten things further and write


CREATE PROCEDURE process_employee (
  employee_id_in IN 
     company_employees.employee_id%TYPE)
IS
  l_employee   company_employees%ROWTYPE;
BEGIN
  SELECT *
    INTO l_employee
    FROM company_employees
   WHERE employee_id = employee_id_in;
END;

The SELECT * syntax tells Oracle Database to fetch all the columns in the table.

I can also use %ROWTYPE to declare a record that has the same structure as a SELECT statement in a cursor. This is especially helpful for fetching either a subset of columns from a table or columns from multiple tables. Here’s an example:


DECLARE
   CURSOR no_ids_cur
   IS
      SELECT last_name, salary
        FROM company_employees;

   l_employee   no_ids_cur%ROWTYPE;

(Note that I usually add a “_cur” suffix to the names of my explicitly declared cursors.)

Whenever you are fetching data from a cursor into PL/SQL variables, you should declare a record based on that cursor with %ROWTYPE and fetch into that record. This way, when and if the SELECT list of the cursor changes, the number and type of fields in the record will change accordingly and everything will stay in sync.

Working with record variables

Once you have declared a record in your block, you can both read and change the record’s value. You can do this at the record level or by referencing individual fields of that record, with the same dot notation used in SQL to refer to the column of a table. Thus, if I declare a record as follows:

DECLARE
l_employee company_employees%ROWTYPE;

I will be able to display the value of the last_name field of l_employee in the executable section of the block as follows:

DBMS_OUTPUT.put_line (
l_employee.last_name);

I can change the value of a field with an assignment operator:

l_employee.last_name := 'Picasso';

I can also perform the following record-level operations:

  • Set a record to NULL. This simple assignment will set the values of all fields to NULL.

    l_employee := NULL;
  • Assign one record to another.
    
    DECLARE
       l_employee1 company_employees%ROWTYPE;
       l_employee2 company_employees%ROWTYPE;
    BEGIN
       l_employee1 := l_employee2;
    END;
    
    

Populating records with data

Most of the time when you work with records, you will be assigning a row from a table to a record. You can also, however, assign values directly to individual fields, or even to the record as a whole, by using the PL/SQL assignment operator (:=). Let’s look at examples of the ways to populate a record.

  • Declare a record with the same structures as those of the company_employees table and then fill the record with the contents of one row from that table:

    
    DECLARE
      l_employee  company_employees%ROWTYPE;
    BEGIN
      SELECT *
        INTO l_employee
        FROM company_employees
       WHERE employee_id = 100;
    END;
    
    
  • Declare a cursor that fetches the last name and salary of all employees. Then use %ROWTYPE to declare a record that contains two fields: l_employee.last_name and l_employee.salary. Finally, open the cursor, fetch one row into the record, and close the cursor.
    
    DECLARE
      CURSOR no_ids_cur
      IS
         SELECT last_name, salary
           FROM company_employees;
    
      l_employee   no_ids_cur%ROWTYPE;
    BEGIN
      OPEN no_ids_cur;
      FETCH no_ids_cur INTO l_employee;
      CLOSE no_ids_cur;
    END;
    /
    
    
  • Populate a record by using native dynamic SQL. (Note: The SELECT statement is not dynamic; this is just to show that it is possible to populate a record with an EXECUTE IMMEDIATE . . . INTO statement.)
    
    DECLARE
      l_employee  company_employees%ROWTYPE;
    BEGIN
      EXECUTE IMMEDIATE
         'SELECT * FROM company_employees'
         INTO l_employee;
    END;
    
    
  • Populate the fields of a record by using assignments.
    
    DECLARE
      l_employee  company_employees%ROWTYPE;
    BEGIN
      l_employee.last_name := 'Renoir';
      l_employee.salary := 1500;
    END;
    
    
    Even though I defined the record based on the table, I do not have to set the values of the record’s fields from the table. I might, for example, want to insert a new row into the employees table by using the record.
  • Assign one record to another. Oracle Database supports record-level assignments and even the assignment of NULL to a record.
    
    DECLARE
      l_old_employee  company_employees%ROWTYPE;
      l_new_employee  company_employees%ROWTYPE;
    BEGIN
      l_new_employee := l_old_employee;
      l_old_employee := NULL;
    END;
    
    

Cursor FOR loops and implicitly declared records

Suppose I want to write a program to display the last names of all employees. An elegant and simple way to do this in PL/SQL is to take advantage of the cursor FOR loop, which I discussed in part 2 of this series, Controlling the flow of execution in PL/SQL. The cursor FOR loop is a variation on the numeric FOR loop, which looks like this:


FOR index IN low_value .. high_value
LOOP
   loop_body_statements
END LOOP;

The index is implicitly declared by Oracle Database as an integer and can be referenced only inside the body of this loop.

A cursor FOR loop has a similar structure but replaces a numeric range with a query:


FOR index IN ( SELECT_statement )
LOOP
   loop_body_statements
END LOOP;

Oracle Database also implicitly declares this loop index as well, but in the case of a cursor FOR loop, it declares the index as a record by using %ROWTYPE against the query in the loop header.

The following block uses a cursor FOR loop to fetch only the last name of each employee, deposit that name into a record, and then display the value of the last_name field of that record:


BEGIN
   FOR employee_rec
      IN (SELECT last_name
            FROM company_employees
           ORDER BY last_name)
   LOOP
      DBMS_OUTPUT.put_line (
         employee_rec.last_name);
   END LOOP;
END;
/

Passing records as parameters

You can define parameters based on record types, and you can therefore pass records as arguments to subprograms. Suppose I need to write a procedure that displays an employee. I could implement it as follows:


CREATE PROCEDURE show_employee (
  employee_id_in   IN 
    company_employees.employee_id%TYPE,
  last_name_in     IN 
    company_employees.last_name%TYPE,
  salary_in        IN 
    company_employees.salary%TYPE)
IS
BEGIN
  DBMS_OUTPUT.put_line (
        employee_id_in
     || '-'
     || last_name_in
     || '-'
     || salary_in);
END;

I can also avoid having to declare each of those individual parameters (imagine manually declaring every parameter in a 100-column table!) by passing a record:


CREATE PROCEDURE show_employee (
   employee_in IN 
      company_employees%ROWTYPE)
IS
BEGIN
   DBMS_OUTPUT.put_line (
         employee_in.employee_id
      || '-'
      || employee_in.last_name
      || '-'
      || employee_in.salary);
END;
/

Of course, as new columns are added to the table, their contents will not automatically be displayed by this procedure. So, when you use %ROWTYPE to pass arguments to subprograms, make sure to review the subprogram logic after any change to the table.

Inserting and updating rows with records

As you have seen, PL/SQL makes it very easy to populate a record from a row in a table. But what if you want to change the contents of a row in a table by using a record? PL/SQL offers special syntax in both the INSERT and UPDATE statements so that you can easily use records to perform those data manipulation language (DML) operations as well.

The most common form of an INSERT statement is

INSERT INTO table_name (column_list)
VALUES (expression_list)

where column_list is the list of columns that will be populated on insert and expression_list is the list of expressions that will be assigned to their respective columns.

If I want to provide a value for each column in a table that has, say, 500 columns, writing and managing that code can become quite tedious. Inserting with a record comes in very handy in such a scenario:

Code Listing 1: Insert of a single row with each column specified


DECLARE
   l_employee_id   company_employees.employee_id%TYPE
      := 500;
   l_last_name     company_employees.last_name%TYPE
      := 'Mondrian';
   l_salary        company_employees.salary%TYPE
      := 2000;
BEGIN
   INSERT
     INTO company_employees (employee_id,
                          last_name,
                          salary)
   VALUES (
             l_employee_id,
             l_last_name,
             l_salary);
END; 

To perform a record-level insert, simply leave off the parentheses around the record in the VALUES clause. Listing 1 demonstrates an insert of a single row into the company_employees table that specifies each column individually. The following demonstrates the same insert, using a record:


DECLARE
   l_employee   company_employees%ROWTYPE;
BEGIN
   l_employee.employee_id := 500;
   l_employee.last_name := 'Mondrian';
   l_employee.salary := 2000;

   INSERT
     INTO company_employees 
   VALUES l_employee;
END;
/

If you ever find yourself typing what feels like an endless list of variables in the VALUES clause of your INSERT statement, try using a record instead.

For updates, use SET ROW to update all the columns in a row from the record:


DECLARE
  l_employee  company_employees%ROWTYPE;
BEGIN
  l_employee.employee_id := 500;
  l_employee.last_name := 'Mondrian';
  l_employee.salary := 2000;

  UPDATE company_employees
     SET ROW = l_employee
   WHERE employee_id = 100;
END;

Remember: This UPDATE sets the value of every column in the table, including the primary key, so use the SET ROW syntax with great care.

User-defined record types

You’ve seen how to declare a record variable based on a table or a cursor by using the %ROWTYPE attribute. You can also declare your own, user-defined record types by using the TYPE . . . RECORD statement. These user-defined record types come in handy when you find yourself declaring “sets” of individual variables, for example:


DECLARE
   l_name1           VARCHAR2 (100);
   l_total_sales1    NUMBER;
   l_deliver_pref1   VARCHAR2 (10);
   --
   l_name2           VARCHAR2 (100);
   l_total_sales2    NUMBER;
   l_deliver_pref2   VARCHAR2 (10);

Instead, why not create your own record type and then declare two records:


DECLARE
   TYPE customer_info_rt IS RECORD
   (
      name           VARCHAR2 (100),
      total_sales    NUMBER,
      deliver_pref   VARCHAR2 (10)
   );

   l_customer1   customer_info_rt;
   l_customer2   customer_info_rt;

(Note that when I declare types, I use a root “t” suffix and then add the “type of type.” Here I added “_rt” for record type.)

With this approach, you do more than avoid writing repetitive statements. You also document that those three pieces of information are all related to a customer. And once you’ve “moved up” to using a record, you can pass that record as an argument or perform record-level operations, further reducing the volume of code needed to implement your requirements.

Another excellent situation to use the TYPE . . . RECORD statement to create your own record type is when a field of your record needs to be a PL/SQL-specific type, such as BOOLEAN. If you use %ROWTYPE, the data types of all the fields will be constrained to such types.

Here’s an example of a record type that contains two BOOLEAN fields:


DECLARE
  TYPE user_preferences_rt IS RECORD
  (
     show_full_name   BOOLEAN,
     autologin        BOOLEAN
  );

l_user   user_preferences_rt;

Records are, themselves, PL/SQL-specific data types, so another nice feature of user-defined record types is that you can define a record type as a field in another record type. In the declaration section below, I have created one record type that holds the different numeric elements that make up a telephone number. I then create another record to hold the various telephone numbers for a salesperson:


DECLARE
   TYPE phone_rt IS RECORD
   (
      area_code    PLS_INTEGER,
      exchange     PLS_INTEGER,
      phn_number   PLS_INTEGER,
      extension    PLS_INTEGER
   );

   TYPE contact_rt IS RECORD
   (
      day_phone#    phone_rt,
      eve_phone#    phone_rt,
      cell_phone#   phone_rt
   );

   l_sales_rep contact_rt;

Pseudorecords in database triggers

Row-level triggers defined on tables can reference pseudorecords named NEW and OLD (you can override these default names with the REFERENCING clause of the trigger). They are called pseudorecords because they are similar in structure to a record defined on a table with %ROWTYPE but are restricted in their usage.

Both of the pseudorecords contain a field for every column in the table on which the trigger is defined. When you execute an INSERT or UPDATE statement, the NEW pseudorecord’s fields contain the “post” values of the columns (the values after the INSERT or UPDATE has taken place).

When you execute a DELETE or UPDATE statement, the OLD pseudorecord’s fields contain the “pre” values of the columns—how the row looks before the statement executes.

I can, for example, use pseudorecords to validate business rules, determine whether a column value has changed, and more. In the following trigger, I enforce a salary freeze; no one is allowed to get a raise during these tough economic times:


CREATE OR REPLACE TRIGGER 
  company_employees_freeze_trg
  BEFORE INSERT
  ON company_employees
  FOR EACH ROW
DECLARE
BEGIN
  IF :NEW.salary > :OLD.salary
  THEN
     RAISE_APPLICATION_ERROR (
       -20000,
       'Salary freeze in effect: '||
       ' no increases allowed!');
   END IF;
END company_employees_freeze_trg;

There are, however, record features that do not apply to pseudorecords. I cannot, for example, pass a pseudorecord as an argument to a subprogram, even if the parameter for that subprogram is defined as tablename%ROWTYPE, where tablename is the name of the table that causes the trigger to be fired.

Composite data types to the rescue!

PL/SQL’s support for records, one of several composite data types, enables you to write code that is simple, clean, and easy to maintain. Rather than work with long lists of variables or parameters, you can work with a record that contains all that information. User-defined records offer the flexibility to construct your own composite data type, reflecting program-specific requirements that may not be represented by a relational table.

In the next article in this PL/SQL 101 series, I will explore another key composite data type, the collection. Collections, PL/SQL’s implementation of array-like structures, are used in some of the most important performance-related PL/SQL features, including FORALL and BULK COLLECT.

Dig deeper

Illustration: Wes Rowell

Steven Feuerstein

Steven Feuerstein

Steven Feuerstein is an expert on the Oracle PL/SQL language, having written ten books on PL/SQL, including Oracle PL/SQL Programming and Oracle PL/SQL Best Practices (all published by O’Reilly Media). Steven has been developing software since 1980. He was one of the original Oracle ACE Directors and wrote regularly for Oracle Magazine, which named him the PL/SQL Developer of the Year in both 2002 and 2006. He is also the first recipient of ODTUG’s Lifetime Achievement Award (2009).