Tips on Writing Portable SQL  

Updated 18 Sep 2003. Added Portable Native SQL section.

If you are writing an application that is used in multiple environments and operating systems, you need to plan to support multiple databases. This article is based on my experiences with multiple database systems, stretching from 4th Dimension in my Mac days, to the databases I currently use, which are: Oracle, FoxPro, Access, MS SQL Server and MySQL. Although most of the advice here applies to using SQL with Perl, Python and other programming languages, I will focus on PHP and how the ADOdb database abstraction library offers some solutions.

Most database vendors practice product lock-in. The best or fastest way to do things is often implemented using proprietary extensions to SQL. This makes it extremely hard to write portable SQL code that performs well under all conditions. When the first ANSI committee got together in 1984 to standardize SQL, the database vendors had such different implementations that they could only agree on the core functionality of SQL. Many important application specific requirements were not standardized, and after so many years since the ANSI effort began, it looks as if much useful database functionality will never be standardized. Even though ANSI-92 SQL has codified much more, we still have to implement portability at the application level.


The SELECT statement has been standardized to a great degree. Nearly every database supports the following:

SELECT [cols] FROM [tables]
  [WHERE conditions]
  [GROUP BY cols]
  [HAVING conditions]
  [ORDER BY cols]

But so many useful techniques can only be implemented by using proprietary extensions. For example, when writing SQL to retrieve the first 10 rows for paging, you could write...

Database SQL Syntax
DB2 select * from table fetch first 10 rows only
Informix select first 10 * from table
Microsoft SQL Server and Access select top 10 * from table
MySQL and PostgreSQL select * from table limit 10
Oracle 8i select * from (select * from table) where rownum <= 10

This feature of getting a subset of data is so useful that in the PHP class library ADOdb, we have a SelectLimit( ) function that allows you to hide the implementation details within a function that will rewrite your SQL for you:

$connection->SelectLimit('select * from table', 10);

Selects: Fetch Modes

PHP allows you to retrieve database records as arrays. You can choose to have the arrays indexed by field name or number. However different low-level PHP database drivers are inconsistent in their indexing efforts. ADOdb allows you to determine your prefered mode. You set this by setting the variable $ADODB_FETCH_MODE to either of the constants ADODB_FETCH_NUM (for numeric indexes) or ADODB_FETCH_ASSOC (using field names as an associative index).

The default behaviour of ADOdb varies depending on the database you are using. For consistency, set the fetch mode to either ADODB_FETCH_NUM (for speed) or ADODB_FETCH_ASSOC (for convenience) at the beginning of your code.

Selects: Counting Records

Another problem with SELECTs is that some databases do not return the number of rows retrieved from a select statement. This is because the highest performance databases will return records to you even before the last record has been found.

In ADOdb, RecordCount( ) returns the number of rows returned, or will emulate it by buffering the rows and returning the count after all rows have been returned. This can be disabled for performance reasons when retrieving large recordsets by setting the global variable $ADODB_COUNTRECS = false. This variable is checked every time a query is executed, so you can selectively choose which recordsets to count.

If you prefer to set $ADODB_COUNTRECS = false, ADOdb still has the PO_RecordCount( ) function. This will return the number of rows, or if it is not found, it will return an estimate using SELECT COUNT(*):

$rs = $db->Execute("select * from table where state=$state");
$numrows = $rs->PO_RecordCount('table', "state=$state");

Selects: Locking

SELECT statements are commonly used to implement row-level locking of tables. Other databases such as Oracle, Interbase, PostgreSQL and MySQL with InnoDB do not require row-level locking because they use versioning to display data consistent with a specific point in time.

Currently, I recommend encapsulating the row-level locking in a separate function, such as RowLock($table, $where):

$connection->BeginTrans( );
$connection->RowLock($table, $where); 
# some operation
if ($ok) $connection->CommitTrans( );
else $connection->RollbackTrans( );

Selects: Outer Joins

Not all databases support outer joins. Furthermore the syntax for outer joins differs dramatically between database vendors. One portable (and possibly slower) method of implementing outer joins is using UNION.

For example, an ANSI-92 left outer join between two tables t1 and t2 could look like:

SELECT t1.col1, t1.col2, t2.cola 
FROM t1 LEFT JOIN t2 ON t1.col = t2.col

This can be emulated using:

SELECT t1.col1, t1.col2, t2.cola FROM t1, t2 
WHERE t1.col = t2.col UNION ALL SELECT col1, col2, null FROM t1
WHERE t1.col not in (select distinct col from t2)

Since ADOdb 2.13, we provide some hints in the connection object as to legal join variations. This is still incomplete and sometimes depends on the database version you are using, but is useful as a general guideline:

$conn->leftOuter: holds the operator used for left outer joins (eg. '*='), or false if not known or not available.
$conn->rightOuter: holds the operator used for right outer joins (eg '=*'), or false if not known or not available.
$conn->ansiOuter: boolean that if true means that ANSI-92 style outer joins are supported, or false if not known.


When you create records, you need to generate unique id's for each record. There are two common techniques: (1) auto-incrementing columns and (2) sequences.

Auto-incrementing columns are supported by MySQL, Sybase and Microsoft Access and SQL Server. However most other databases do not support this feature. So for portability, you have little choice but to use sequences. Sequences are special functions that return a unique incrementing number every time you call it, suitable to be used as database keys. In ADOdb, we use the GenID( ) function. It has takes a parameter, the sequence name. Different tables can have different sequences.

$id = $connection->GenID('sequence_name');
$connection->Execute("insert into table (id, firstname, lastname)
values ($id, $firstname, $lastname)");

For databases that do not support sequences natively, ADOdb emulates sequences by creating a table for every sequence.


Binding variables in an SQL statement is another tricky feature. Binding is useful because it allows pre-compilation of SQL. When inserting multiple records into a database in a loop, binding can offer a 50% (or greater) speedup. However many databases such as Access and MySQL do not support binding natively and there is some overhead in emulating binding. Furthermore, different databases (specificly Oracle!) implement binding differently. My recommendation is to use binding if your database queries are too slow, but make sure you are using a database that supports it like Oracle.

ADOdb supports portable Prepare/Execute with:

$stmt = $db->Prepare('select * from customers where custid=? and state=?');
$rs = $db->Execute($stmt, array($id,'New York'));

Oracle uses named bind placeholders, not "?", so to support portable binding, we have Param() that generates the correct placeholder (available since ADOdb 3.92):

$sql = 'insert into table (col1,col2) values ('.$DB->Param('a').','.$DB->Param('b').')';
# generates 'insert into table (col1,col2) values (?,?)'
# or        'insert into table (col1,col2) values (:a,:b)'
$stmt = $DB->Prepare($sql);
$stmt = $DB->Execute($stmt,array('one','two'));

Portable Native SQL

ADOdb provides the following functions for portably generating SQL functions as strings to be merged into your SQL statements (some are only available since ADOdb 3.92):

Function Description
DBDate($date) Pass in a UNIX timestamp or ISO date and it will convert it to a date string formatted for INSERT/UPDATE
DBTimeStamp($date) Pass in a UNIX timestamp or ISO date and it will convert it to a timestamp string formatted for INSERT/UPDATE
SQLDate($date, $fmt) Portably generate a date formatted using $fmt mask, for use in SELECT statements.
OffsetDate($date, $ndays) Portably generate a $date offset by $ndays.
Concat($s1, $s2, ...) Portably concatenate strings. Alternatively, for mssql use mssqlpo driver, which allows || operator.
IfNull($fld, $replaceNull) Returns a string that is the equivalent of MySQL IFNULL or Oracle NVL.
Param($name) Generates bind placeholders, using ? or named conventions as appropriate.
$db->sysDateProperty that holds the SQL function that returns today's date
$db->sysTimeStampProperty that holds the SQL function that returns the current timestamp (date+time).
$db->concat_operatorProperty that holds the concatenation operator
$db->lengthProperty that holds the name of the SQL strlen function.
$db->upperCaseProperty that holds the name of the SQL strtoupper function.
$db->randomProperty that holds the SQL to generate a random number between 0.00 and 1.00.
$db->substrProperty that holds the name of the SQL substring function.


DDL and Tuning

There are database design tools such as ERWin or Dezign that allow you to generate data definition language commands such as ALTER TABLE or CREATE INDEX from Entity-Relationship diagrams.

However if you prefer to use a PHP-based table creation scheme, adodb provides you with this feature. Here is the code to generate the SQL to create a table with:

  1. Auto-increment primary key 'ID',
  2. The person's 'NAME' VARCHAR(32) NOT NULL and defaults to '',
  3. The date and time of record creation 'CREATED',
  4. The person's 'AGE', defaulting to 0, type NUMERIC(16).

Also create a compound index consisting of 'NAME' and 'AGE':

$datadict = NewDataDictionary($connection);
$flds = " 
$sql1 = $datadict->CreateTableSQL('tabname', $flds);
$sql2 = $datadict->CreateIndexSQL('idx_name_age', 'tabname', 'NAME,AGE');

Data Types

Stick to a few data types that are available in most databases. Char, varchar and numeric/number are supported by most databases. Most other data types (including integer, boolean and float) cannot be relied on being available. I recommend using char(1) or number(1) to hold booleans.

Different databases have different ways of representing dates and timestamps/datetime. ADOdb attempts to display all dates in ISO (YYYY-MM-DD) format. ADOdb also provides DBDate( ) and DBTimeStamp( ) to convert dates to formats that are acceptable to that database. Both functions accept Unix integer timestamps and date strings in ISO format.

$date1 = $connection->DBDate(time( ));
$date2 = $connection->DBTimeStamp('2002-02-23 13:03:33');

We also provide functions to convert database dates to Unix timestamps:

$unixts = $recordset->UnixDate('#2002-02-30#'); # MS Access date => unix timestamp

The maximum length of a char/varchar field is also database specific. You can only assume that field lengths of up to 250 characters are supported. This is normally impractical for web based forum or content management systems. You will need to be familiar with how databases handle large objects (LOBs). ADOdb implements two functions, UpdateBlob( ) and UpdateClob( ) that allow you to update fields holding Binary Large Objects (eg. pictures) and Character Large Objects (eg. HTML articles):

# for oracle 
$conn->Execute('INSERT INTO blobtable (id, blobcol) VALUES (1,empty_blob())'); 
# non-oracle databases
$conn->Execute('INSERT INTO blobtable (id, blobcol) VALUES (1, null)'); 

Null handling is another area where differences can occur. This is a mine-field, because 3-value logic is tricky.

In general, I avoid using nulls except for dates and default all my numeric and character fields to 0 or the empty string. This maintains consistency with PHP, where empty strings and zero are treated as equivalent, and avoids SQL ambiguities when you use the ANY and EXISTS operators. However if your database has significant amounts of missing or unknown data, using nulls might be a good idea.

ADOdb also supports a portable IfNull function, so you can define what to display if the field contains a null.

Stored Procedures

Stored procedures are another problem area. Some databases allow recordsets to be returned in a stored procedure (Microsoft SQL Server and Sybase), and others only allow output parameters to be returned. Stored procedures sometimes need to be wrapped in special syntax. For example, Oracle requires such code to be wrapped in an anonymous block with BEGIN and END. Also internal sql operators and functions such as +, ||, TRIM( ), SUBSTR( ) or INSTR( ) vary between vendors.

An example of how to call a stored procedure with 2 parameters and 1 return value follows:

	switch ($db->databaseType) {
	case 'mssql':
	  $sql = 'SP_RUNSOMETHING'; break;
	case 'oci8':
	  $sql = 
	  "declare RETVAL integer;begin :RETVAL := SP_RUNSOMETHING(:myid,:group);end;";
	  die('Unsupported feature');
	# @RETVAL = SP_RUNSOMETHING @myid,@group
	$stmt = $db->PrepareSP($sql);	
$db->Parameter($stmt,$id,'myid'); $db->Parameter($stmt,$group,'group'); # true indicates output parameter
$db->Parameter($stmt,$ret,'RETVAL',true); $db->Execute($stmt);

As you can see, the ADOdb API is the same for both databases. But the stored procedure SQL syntax is quite different between databases and is not portable, so be forewarned! However sometimes you have little choice as some systems only allow data to be accessed via stored procedures. This is when the ultimate portability solution might be the only solution: treating portable SQL as a localization exercise...

SQL as a Localization Exercise

In general to provide real portability, you will have to treat SQL coding as a localization exercise. In PHP, it has become common to define separate language files for English, Russian, Korean, etc. Similarly, I would suggest you have separate Sybase, Intebase, MySQL, etc files, and conditionally include the SQL based on the database. For example, each MySQL SQL statement would be stored in a separate variable, in a file called ''.

$sqlGetPassword = 'select password from users where userid=%s';
$sqlSearchKeyword = "SELECT * FROM articles WHERE match (title,body) against (%s)";

In our main PHP file:

# define which database to load...
$database = 'mysql';

$db = &NewADOConnection($database);
$db->PConnect(...) or die('Failed to connect to database');

# search for a keyword $word
$rs = $db->Execute(sprintf($sqlSearchKeyWord,$db->qstr($word)));

Note that we quote the $word variable using the qstr( ) function. This is because each database quotes strings using different conventions.

Final Thoughts

The best way to ensure that you have portable SQL is to have your data tables designed using sound principles. Learn the theory of normalization and entity-relationship diagrams and model your data carefully. Understand how joins and indexes work and how they are used to tune performance.

Visit the following page for more references on database theory and vendors: Also read this article on Optimizing PHP.

(c) 2002-2003 John Lim.