The Buffer Pool
Using Nulls in DB2
By Craig S. Mullins
A null represents missing or unknown information at the
column level. If a column “value” can be null, it can mean one of two things:
the attribute is not applicable for certain occurrences of the entity, or the
attribute applies to all entity occurrences, but the information may not always
be known. Of course, it could be a combination of these two situations, too.
A null is not the same as 0
or blank. Null means no entry has been made for the column and it implies that
the value is either unknown or not applicable.
Because DB2 supports null
you can distinguish between a deliberate entry of 0 (for numerical columns) or a
blank (for character columns) and an unknown or inapplicable entry (NULL for
both numerical and character columns). Null indicates that the user did not
explicitly make an entry or has explicitly entered NULL for the column. For
example, a null value in the Price column of the ITEM table in some database
does not mean that the item is being given away for free; instead it means that
the price is not known or has not yet been set.
Nulls sometimes are
inappropriately referred to as “null values.” Using the term value to describe a
null is inaccurate because a null implies the lack of a value. Therefore, simply
use the term null or nulls (without appending the term “value” or “values” to
A Few Examples
When are nulls useful?
Well, defining a column as NULL provides a place holder for data you might not
yet know. For example, when a new employee is hired and is inserted into the EMP
table, what should the employee termination date column be set to? I don’t know
about you, but I wouldn’t want any valid date to be set in that column for my
employee record. Instead, null can be used to specify that the termination date
is currently unknown.
Let’s consider another
example. Suppose that we also capture employee’s hair color when they are hired.
Consider three potential entity occurrences: a man with black hair, a woman with
unknown hair color, and a bald man. The woman with the unknown hair color and
the bald man both could be assigned as null, but for different reasons. The
woman’s hair color would be null meaning presently unknown; the bald man’s hair
color could be null too, in this case meaning not applicable.
How could you handle this
without using nulls? You would need to create special values for the HairColor
column that mean “bald” and “unknown.” This is possible for a CHAR column like
HairColor. But what about a DB2 DATE column? All occurrences of a column
assigned as a DATE data type are valid dates. It might not be possible to use a
special date value to mean “unknown.” This is where using nulls is most
DB2 does not differentiate
between nulls that signify unknown data and those that signify inapplicable
data. This distinction must be made by the program logic of each application.
Keep in mind, though, that
using null to indicate “not applicable” can be an indication of improper
database design. By properly modeling and normalizing your data structures you
can usually eliminate the need to use nulls to indicate that a column is
inapplicable for a specific row. For example, consider the following table:
CREATE TABLE EMP
(EMPNO INTEGER NOT NULL,
LAST_NAME CHAR(20) NOT NULL,
FIRST_NAME CHAR(15) NOT NULL,
STREET_ADDR CHAR(30) NOT NULL WITH DEFAULT,
CITY CHAR(12) NOT NULL WITH DEFAULT,
STATE CHAR(2) NOT NULL WITH DEFAULT,
POSTAL_CODE CHAR(10) NOT NULL WITH DEFAULT,
EMP_TYPE CHAR(1) NOT NULL
CHECK(EMP_TYPE IN 'F', 'C', 'P'),
In this case, we have a
code in the EMP_TYPE column that can contain F (full-time), C (contractor), or P
(part-time). We also have a SALARY column that is populated for full-time and
part-time employees, but is set to null for contractors; and a BILLING_RATE
column that is populated for contractors but set to null for full-time and
part-time employees. Additionally, the HIRE_DATE column is set to null for
Well, here we have three
columns that are set to null (or not) based on other values in the table. We can
design our way out of this problem by creating a separate table for employees
and contractors. If additional columns were needed for full-time employees that
did not apply part-time employees we might even split the employee table into
two: one for full-time and another for part-time. After doing so, there is no
more need to use null for inapplicable data.
DB2 represents null in a
special “hidden” column known as an indicator variable. An indicator variable is
defined to DB2 for each column that can accept nulls. The indicator variable is
transparent to an end user, but must be provided for when programming in a host
language (such as COBOL or PL/I).
The null indicator is used
by DB2 to track whether its associated column is null or not. A positive value
or a value of 0 means the column is not null and any actual value stored in the
column is valid. If a CHAR column is truncated on retrieval because the host
variable is not large enough, the indicator value will contain the original
length of the truncated column. A negative value indicates that the column is
set to null. If the value is -2 then the column was set to null as the result of
a data conversion error.
Let’s take a moment to
clear up a common misunderstanding right here: nulls NEVER save storage space in
DB2 for OS/390 and z/OS. Every nullable column requires one additional byte of
storage for the null indicator. So, a CHAR(10) column that is nullable will
require 11 bytes of storage per row – 10 for the data and 1 for the null
indicator. This is the case regardless of whether the column is set to null or
DB2 for Linux, Unix, and
Windows has a compression option that allows columns set to null to save space.
Using this option causes DB2 to eliminate the unused space from a row where
columns are set to null. This option is not available on the mainframe, though.
Every column defined to a DB2 table must be designated as
either allowing or disallowing nulls. A column is defined as nullable – meaning
it can be set to NULL – in the table creation DDL. Null is the default if
nothing is specified after the column name. To prohibit the column from being
set to NULL you must explicitly specify NOT NULL after the column name. In the
following sample table, COL1 and COL3 can be set to null, but not COL2, COL4, or
CREATE TABLE SAMPLE1
COL2 CHAR(10) NOT NULL,
COL4 DATE NOT NULL WITH DEFAULT,
COL5 TIME NOT NULL);
In SELECT statements,
testing for null is accomplished differently than testing for other “values.”
You cannot specify WHERE COL = NULL, because this does not make any sense.
Remember, null is a lack of a value, so the column does not equal anything.
Instead, you would have to code WHERE COL IS [NOT] NULL.
In INSERT statements NULL
can be specified in the VALUES clause to indicate that a column is to be set to
NULL; but in UPDATE statements you can use the equality predicate (=) to assign
a column to NULL.
When inserting data, if the
user fails to make an entry in a column that allows nulls, DB2 supplies the NULL
as a default (unless another default value exists). If an attempt to insert NULL
is made against a column defined as NOT NULL, the statement will fail.
Now that you have a good understanding of the basics of
nulls, let’s review some guidelines for their usage.
Whenever possible, avoid nulls in columns that must
participate in arithmetic logic (for example, DECIMAL money values), and
especially when functions will be used. The AVG, COUNT DISTINCT, SUM, MAX, and
MIN functions omit column occurrences set to null. The COUNT(*) function,
however, does not omit columns set to null because it operates on rows. Thus,
AVG is not equal to SUM/COUNT(*) when the average is being computed for a column
that can contain nulls. To clarify with an example, if the COMM column is
nullable, the result of the following query:
is not the same as for this query:
So to avoid confusion, avoid nulls in columns involved in
math functions whenever possible.
When DATE, TIME, and TIMESTAMP columns can be unknown,
consider creating them as nullable. DB2 checks to ensure that only valid dates,
times, and timestamps are placed in columns defined as such. If the column can
be unknown, it must be defined to be nullable because the default for these
columns is the current date, current time, and current timestamp (unless
explicitly defined otherwise using the DEFAULT clause). Null, therefore, is the
only viable option for the recording of missing dates, times, and timestamps
(unless you pick a specific valid date that is not used by your applications to
For every other column, determine whether nullability can
be of benefit before allowing nulls. Consider these rules of operation:
When a nullable column participates in an
ORDER BY or GROUP BY clause, the returned nulls are grouped at the high end
of the sort order.
Nulls are considered to be equal when
duplicates are eliminated by SELECT DISTINCT or COUNT (DISTINCT column).
A unique index considers nulls to be
equivalent and disallows duplicate entries because of the existence of
nulls, unless the WHERE NOT NULL clause is specified in the index.
For comparison in a SELECT statement, two
null columns are not considered equal. When a nullable column participates
in a predicate in the WHERE or HAVING clause, the nulls that are encountered
cause the comparison to evaluate to UNKNOWN.
When a nullable column participates in a
calculation, the result is null.
Columns that participate in a primary key
cannot be null.
To test for the existence of nulls, use the
special predicate IS NULL in the WHERE clause of the SELECT statement. You
cannot simply state WHERE column = NULL. You must state WHERE
column IS NULL.
It is invalid to test if a column is < NULL,
<= NULL, > NULL, or >= NULL. These are all meaningless because null is the
absence of a value.
Examine these rules closely. ORDER BY, GROUP BY,
DISTINCT, and unique indexes consider nulls to be equal and handle them
accordingly. The SELECT statement, however, deems that the comparison of null
columns is not equivalence, but unknown. This inconsistent handling of nulls is
an anomaly that you must remember when using nulls. The following are several
sample SQL queries and the effect nulls have on them.
SELECT JOB, SUM(SALARY)
GROUP BY JOB;
This query returns the average salary for each type of
job. All instances in which JOB is null will group at the bottom of the output.
SELECT EMPNO, PROJNO, ACTNO, EMPTIME
WHERE EMSTDATE = EMENDATE;
This query retrieves all occurrences in which the project
start date is equal to the project end date. This information is clearly
erroneous, as anyone who has ever worked on a software development project can
attest. The query does not return any rows in which either dates or both dates
are null for two reasons: (1) two null columns are never equal for purposes of
comparison, and (2) when either column of a comparison operator is null, the
result is unknown.
SET MGRNO = NULL
WHERE MGRNO = '000010';
This query sets the MGRNO column to null wherever MGRNO
is currently equal to '000010' in the DEPT table.
When creating tables, treat nullable columns the same as
you would any other column. Some DBAs advise you to place nullable columns of
the same data type after non-nullable columns. This is supposed to assist in
administering the null columns, but it does not really help – and it might hurt.
Sequencing nullable columns in this manner provides no clear benefit and should
Nulls are clearly one of
the most misunderstood features of DB2 – indeed, of most SQL database systems.
Although nulls can be confusing, you cannot bury your head in the sand and
ignore nulls if you choose to use DB2 as your DBMS. Understanding what nulls
are, and how best to use them, can help you to create usable DB2 databases and
design useful and correct queries in your DB2 applications.
From IDUG Solutions Journal, December
Craig S. Mullins, All rights reserved.