Tutorial Instructions

SQL Tricks for More Effective CRUD

Over and over when I look at applications for performance, the lesson I learn and re-learn is, do more things right inside the database.

What's CRUD?

Create, read, update, delete! All the things you do to a table or collection of tables to work with your ever-changing data.

Most CRUD examples, and most CRUD thinking, tend to focus on one table at a time. That's easy to understand. It's also unrealistic. Even the simplest application will be working with several interlinked normalized tables.

Here's our working example tables.

SQL to Create Tables

Get started by creating some tables.

DROP TABLE customers, invoices, items; CREATE TABLE customers ( customer_id SERIAL PRIMARY KEY, name TEXT NOT NULL UNIQUE ); CREATE TABLE invoices ( invoice_id SERIAL PRIMARY KEY, customer_id BIGINT REFERENCES customers (customer_id) ); CREATE TABLE items ( item_id SERIAL PRIMARY KEY, invoice_id BIGINT REFERENCES invoices (invoice_id), name TEXT NOT NULL );

Very Simple CRUD

Use of SQL for data management often begins and ends with SQL commands that work on only one table at a time. For example, populating our customers table.

INSERT INTO customers (name) VALUES ('Ben');

Did you know you can populate multiple records from a single insert statement? This has a bunch of performance benefits:

  • the server only has to figure out the columns and column types once, and that overhead is shared over all the data rows inserted
  • there is only one transaction block for the whole insert, to again the overhead is shared over multiple rows
  • you look super cool when you do this!
INSERT INTO customers (name) VALUES ('Peter'), ('Paul'), ('Mary');

For updates and deletes, again the common practice is to work a row at a time, a table at a time.

UPDATE customers SET name = 'Jen' WHERE name = 'Ben'; DELETE FROM customers WHERE name = 'Jen';

Super Complex CRUD

One of the complexities/annoyances of filling out a normalized relational model is getting the keys to neatly match up across multiple tables.

Usually the model uses a serial key to auto-populate the primary keys, but that means the fresh keys for new rows have to be read back somehow when creating other rows that reference the key.

Here's a query that both creates an invoice, and also adds in some items that refer to that invoice, in a single SQL call.

Note the use of the RETURNING clause, to get back a result set of, in this case, all the newly created invoice_id keys.

WITH new_invoice AS ( /* Add a fresh invoice and return the newly created id */ INSERT INTO invoices (customer_id) SELECT customer_id FROM customers WHERE name = 'Mary' RETURNING invoice_id ) /* Add the items, using the new invoice id */ INSERT INTO items (name, invoice_id) SELECT n.name, new_invoice.invoice_id FROM new_invoice CROSS JOIN (VALUES ('Purple Automobile'), ('Yellow Automobile')) AS n(name);

I'm going to leverage RETURNING and arrays to quickly fill in data for all the customers.

Crazy SQL to Populate Tables

WITH i AS ( /* Insert three new invoices for each customer */ /* returning the invoice_id for each one */ INSERT INTO invoices (customer_id) SELECT customer_id FROM customers CROSS JOIN generate_series(1,3) RETURNING invoice_id ) /* Insert three new items for each invoice */ /* Each items is a "colored vehicle", with a */ /* distinct color for each item on an invoice, */ /* and a single kind of vehicle for each invoice */ INSERT INTO items (invoice_id, name) SELECT i.invoice_id, Format('%s %s', c, (ARRAY['Train', 'Plane', 'Automobile'])[i.invoice_id % 3 + 1]) AS name FROM unnest(ARRAY['Red', 'Blue', 'Green']) AS c CROSS JOIN i;


Joining together the tables to read out results can be done really tersely with the PostgreSQL USING clause for the joins. The USING clause is available when the source and target join tables use the same column name for the join key.

SELECT * FROM customers JOIN invoices USING (customer_id) JOIN items USING (invoice_id) WHERE customers.name = 'Paul' ORDER BY customers.name, invoice_id;

We can see from this query that Paul is really into automobiles, and that he buys one of each color, on each invoice.

 invoice_id | customer_id | name | item_id |       name
          2 |           2 | Paul |      11 | Blue Automobile
          2 |           2 | Paul |       2 | Red Automobile
          2 |           2 | Paul |      20 | Green Automobile
          5 |           2 | Paul |      14 | Blue Automobile
          5 |           2 | Paul |       5 | Red Automobile
          5 |           2 | Paul |      23 | Green Automobile
          8 |           2 | Paul |       8 | Red Automobile
          8 |           2 | Paul |      26 | Green Automobile
          8 |           2 | Paul |      17 | Blue Automobile

In fact, Peter, Paul and Mary are all collecting different kinds of vehicles.

SELECT DISTINCT customers.name, split_part(items.name, ' ', 2) AS vehicle FROM customers JOIN invoices USING (customer_id) JOIN items USING (invoice_id);
 name  |  vehicle
 Paul  | Automobile
 Peter | Plane
 Mary  | Train

Do you need to do joins to get these answers? No, you could pull all the records out into your client program and summarize them there with client logic, but it would be a lot slower.

Keeping the logic inside the database allows the system to plan the fastest execution of the query, and avoids a lot of network transport overhead and chatter, which is very expensive.


OK, now we want to change the color of all Mary's blue items to purple!

The "one table at a time" method might be:

  • Begin a SQL transaction
  • Query the customers table to get Mary's customer_id
  • Query the invoices table to get all the invoice_id associated with Mary
  • Update the items table to flip all the blue items to purple for Mary's invoices.
  • Commit the transaction

But that's three queries! Just intuitively, it will be slower than one query, so what does a single query look like?

/* Target table to change */ UPDATE items /* Change to apply to target rows */ SET name = replace(items.name, 'Blue', 'Purple') /* Other relations to use in finding target rows */ FROM customers, invoices /* Restriction on relations to find just target rows */ WHERE customers.customer_id = invoices.customer_id AND invoices.invoice_id = items.invoice_id AND customers.name = 'Mary' AND items.name ~ '^Blue';

The main challenge is relating the items to the customer "Mary" which is way over in the customers table. But by adding the customers and invoices table, we can build a path from "Mary" to her items, and then restrict the target rows to just the blue items.


Peter has gone off the color red, so we are going to remove the red items from just his invoices.

Just as with the update problem, we could multi-step the problem: find Peter's customer_id, find associated invoices, find associated items, delete the red ones. But that would be silly, it can all be done in one step.

DELETE FROM items USING invoices, customers WHERE items.invoice_id = invoices.invoice_id AND invoices.invoice_id = customers.customer_id AND customers.name = 'Peter' AND items.name ~ 'Red';

The SQL keywords are a little different (DELETE specifies non-target relations with the USING keyword, while UPDATE uses FROM) but the principle is identical.

Identify the relations needed to connect the filters you want to apply (in this case, a customer of "Peter" and an item name that starts with "Red") and then join those relations together via their foreign keys in the WHERE clause.


  • Doing things in the database is faster!
    • The database knows more about the data, thanks to planner statistics and other metadata.
    • The database is closer to the data than any client program.
    • Getting data to client programs is costly.
    • The database is happy to work on full relations and affect multiple records at a time. That's faster than one-at-a-time logic in a client.

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