Set-Based vs Row-Based Database Code

In SQL Server, the terms “set-based” and “row-based” refer to different approaches or styles of writing SQL code to manipulate data. These styles have implications for performance, readability, and the way queries are processed. Let’s explore the differences between set-based and row-based code:

  1. Set-Based Code:
    • Operations on Sets: Set-based code focuses on performing operations on entire sets of data rather than individual rows. This is aligned with the relational nature of databases, where data is stored in tables.
    • Declarative: Set-based code is often more declarative, meaning you specify what you want to achieve without explicitly instructing how to do it. SQL is designed to work with sets of data, and set-based operations leverage this design.
    • Performance: Set-based operations are generally more efficient because they allow the database engine to optimize the query execution plan. The database engine can decide the most efficient way to retrieve and process the data.
  2. Row-Based Code:
    • Operations on Individual Rows: Row-based code, on the other hand, involves operations that are performed on individual rows one at a time. This style of coding is more procedural and might resemble how you would approach data manipulation in a programming language like a procedural language (e.g., C# or Java).
    • Imperative: Row-based code is often more imperative, specifying the step-by-step instructions to achieve a particular result. It may involve using cursors or loops to iterate through individual rows.
    • Performance Concerns: Row-based operations can be less efficient, especially when dealing with large datasets, as they might lead to more I/O operations and additional processing overhead.


Consider an example where you want to update the prices of all products in a certain category. A set-based approach would involve a single UPDATE statement that modifies all relevant rows at once:

UPDATE Products
SET Price = Price * 1.1
WHERE CategoryID = 2;

In contrast, a row-based approach might involve using a cursor to loop through each row and update it individually, which could be less efficient:


SELECT ProductID, Price
FROM Products
WHERE CategoryID = 2;

OPEN ProductCursor;

FETCH NEXT FROM ProductCursor INTO @ProductID, @Price;

    SET @Price = @Price * 1.1;

    UPDATE Products
    SET Price = @Price
    WHERE ProductID = @ProductID;

    FETCH NEXT FROM ProductCursor INTO @ProductID, @Price;

CLOSE ProductCursor;
DEALLOCATE ProductCursor;

In general, it’s recommended to use set-based operations whenever possible in SQL Server as they are usually more efficient and better aligned with the relational database paradigm. However, there may be cases where row-based operations are necessary or more practical, such as when working with procedural code or handling complex business logic that is not easily expressed in a set-based manner.

Thanks for reading!


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