Correlated Subqueries in SQL

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Mark Raasveldt2023-05-26

Subqueries in SQL are a powerful abstraction that allow simple queries to be used as composable building blocks. They allow you to break down complex problems into smaller parts, and subsequently make it easier to write, understand and maintain large and complex queries.

DuckDB uses a state-of-the-art subquery decorrelation optimizer that allows subqueries to be executed very efficiently. As a result, users can freely use subqueries to create expressive queries without having to worry about manually rewriting subqueries into joins. For more information, skip to the Performance section.

Types of Subqueries

SQL subqueries exist in two main forms: subqueries as expressions and subqueries as tables. Subqueries that are used as expressions can be used in the SELECT or WHERE clauses. Subqueries that are used as tables can be used in the FROM clause. In this blog post we will focus on subqueries used as expressions. A future blog post will discuss subqueries as tables.

Subqueries as expressions exist in three forms.

  • Scalar subqueries
  • EXISTS
  • IN/ANY/ALL

All of the subqueries can be either correlated or uncorrelated. An uncorrelated subquery is a query that is independent from the outer query. A correlated subquery is a subquery that contains expressions from the outer query. Correlated subqueries can be seen as parameterized subqueries.

Uncorrelated Scalar Subqueries

Uncorrelated scalar subqueries can only return a single value. That constant value is then substituted and used in the query. As an example of why this is useful – imagine that we want to select all of the shortest flights in our dataset. We could run the following query to obtain the shortest flight distance:

SELECT MIN(distance)
FROM ontime;
min(distance)
31.0

We could manually take this distance and use it in the WHERE clause to obtain all flights on this route.

SELECT uniquecarrier, origincityname, destcityname, flightdate
FROM ontime
WHERE distance=31.0;
uniquecarrier origincityname destcityname flightdate
AS Petersburg, AK Wrangell, AK 2017-01-15
AS Wrangell, AK Petersburg, AK 2017-01-15
AS Petersburg, AK Wrangell, AK 2017-01-16

However – this requires us to hardcode the constant inside the query. By using the first query as a subquery we can compute the minimum distance as part of the query.

SELECT uniquecarrier, origincityname, destcityname, flightdate
FROM ontime
WHERE distance=(
     SELECT MIN(distance)
     FROM ontime
);

Correlated Scalar Subqueries

While uncorrelated subqueries are powerful, they come with a hard restriction: only a single value can be returned. Often, what we want to do is parameterize the query, so that we can return different values per row.

For example, suppose that we want to find all of the shortest flights for each carrier. We can find the shortest flight for a specific carrier using the following parameterized query:

PREPARE min_distance_per_carrier AS
SELECT MIN(distance)
FROM ontime
WHERE uniquecarrier=?;

We can execute this prepared statement to obtain the minimum distance for a specific carrier.

EXECUTE min_distance_per_carrier('UA');
min(distance)
67.0

If we want to use this parameterized query as a subquery, we need to use a correlated subquery. Correlated subqueries allow us to use parameterized queries as scalar subqueries by referencing columns from the outer query. We can obtain the set of shortest flights per carrier using the following query:

SELECT uniquecarrier, origincityname, destcityname, flightdate, distance
FROM ontime AS ontime_outer
WHERE distance=(
     SELECT MIN(distance)
     FROM ontime
     WHERE uniquecarrier=ontime_outer.uniquecarrier
);
uniquecarrier origincityname destcityname flightdate distance
AS Wrangell, AK Petersburg, AK 2017-01-01 31.0
NK Fort Lauderdale, FL Orlando, FL 2017-01-01 177.0
VX Las Vegas, NV Los Angeles, CA 2017-01-01 236.0

Notice how the column from the outer relation (ontime_outer) is used inside the query. This is what turns the subquery into a correlated subquery. The column from the outer relation (ontime_outer.uniquecarrier) is a parameter for the subquery. Logically the subquery is executed once for every row that is present in ontime, where the value for the column at that row is substituted as a parameter.

In order to make it more clear that the correlated subquery is in essence a parameterized query, we can create a scalar macro that contains the query using DuckDB's macros.

CREATE MACRO min_distance_per_carrier(param) AS (
     SELECT MIN(distance)
     FROM ontime
     WHERE uniquecarrier=param
);

We can then use the macro in our original query as if it is a function.

SELECT uniquecarrier, origincityname, destcityname, flightdate, distance
FROM ontime AS ontime_outer
WHERE distance=min_distance_per_carrier(ontime_outer.uniquecarrier);

This gives us the same result as placing the correlated subquery inside of the query, but is cleaner as we can decompose the query into multiple segments more effectively.

EXISTS

EXISTS can be used to check if a given subquery has any results. This is powerful when used as a correlated subquery. For example, we can use EXISTS if we want to obtain the last flight that has been flown on each route.

We can obtain a list of all flights on a given route past a certain date using the following query:

PREPARE flights_after_date AS
SELECT uniquecarrier, origincityname, destcityname, flightdate, distance
FROM ontime
WHERE origin=? AND dest=? AND flightdate>?;
EXECUTE flights_after_date('LAX', 'JFK', DATE '2017-05-01');
uniquecarrier origincityname destcityname flightdate distance
AA Los Angeles, CA New York, NY 2017-08-01 2475.0
AA Los Angeles, CA New York, NY 2017-08-02 2475.0
AA Los Angeles, CA New York, NY 2017-08-03 2475.0

Now in order to obtain the last flight on a route, we need to find flights for which no later flight exists.

SELECT uniquecarrier, origincityname, destcityname, flightdate, distance
FROM ontime AS ontime_outer
WHERE NOT EXISTS (
     SELECT uniquecarrier, origincityname, destcityname, flightdate, distance
     FROM ontime
     WHERE origin=ontime_outer.origin AND dest=ontime_outer.dest AND flightdate>ontime_outer.flightdate
);
uniquecarrier origincityname destcityname flightdate distance
AA Daytona Beach, FL Charlotte, NC 2017-02-27 416.0
EV Abilene, TX Dallas/Fort Worth, TX 2017-02-15 158.0
EV Dallas/Fort Worth, TX Durango, CO 2017-02-13 674.0

IN / ANY / ALL

IN can be used to check if a given value exists within the result returned by the subquery. For example, we can obtain a list of all carriers that have performed more than 250 000 flights in the dataset using the following query:

SELECT uniquecarrier
FROM ontime
GROUP BY uniquecarrier
HAVING COUNT(*) > 250000;

We can then use an IN clause to obtain all flights performed by those carriers.

SELECT *
FROM ontime
WHERE uniquecarrier IN (
     SELECT uniquecarrier
     FROM ontime
     GROUP BY uniquecarrier
     HAVING COUNT(*) > 250000
);

A correlated subquery can be useful here if we want to not count the total amount of flights performed by each carrier, but count the total amount of flights for the given route. We can select all flights performed by carriers that have performed at least 1000 flights on a given route using the following query.

SELECT *
FROM ontime AS ontime_outer
WHERE uniquecarrier IN (
     SELECT uniquecarrier
     FROM ontime
     WHERE ontime.origin=ontime_outer.origin AND ontime.dest=ontime_outer.dest
     GROUP BY uniquecarrier
     HAVING COUNT(*) > 1000
);

ANY and ALL are generalizations of IN. IN checks if the value is present in the set returned by the subquery. This is equivalent to = ANY(...). The ANY and ALL operators can be used to perform other comparison operators (such as >, <, <>). The above query can be rewritten to ANY in the following form.

SELECT *
FROM ontime AS ontime_outer
WHERE uniquecarrier = ANY (
     SELECT uniquecarrier
     FROM ontime
     WHERE ontime.origin=ontime_outer.origin AND ontime.dest=ontime_outer.dest
     GROUP BY uniquecarrier
     HAVING COUNT(*) > 1000
);

Performance

Whereas scalar subqueries are logically executed once, correlated subqueries are logically executed once per row. As such, it is natural to think that correlated subqueries are very expensive and should be avoided for performance reasons.

While that is true in many SQL systems, it is not the case in DuckDB. In DuckDB, subqueries are always decorrelated. DuckDB uses a state-of-the-art subquery decorrelation algorithm as described in the Unnesting Arbitrary Queries paper. This allows all subqueries to be decorrelated and executed as a single, much more efficient, query.

In DuckDB, correlation does not imply performance degradation.

If we look at the query plan for the correlated scalar subquery using EXPLAIN, we can see that the query has been transformed into a hash aggregate followed by a hash join. This allows the query to be executed very efficiently.

EXPLAIN SELECT uniquecarrier, origincityname, destcityname, flightdate, distance
FROM ontime AS ontime_outer
WHERE distance=(
     SELECT MIN(distance)
     FROM ontime
     WHERE uniquecarrier=ontime_outer.uniquecarrier
);
┌───────────────────────────┐
│         HASH_JOIN         │ 
│   ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─   │ 
│      uniquecarrier =      │ 
│       uniquecarrier       ├──────────────┐
└─────────────┬─────────────┘              │
┌─────────────┴─────────────┐┌─────────────┴─────────────┐
│         SEQ_SCAN          ││       HASH_GROUP_BY       │
│   ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─   ││   ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─   │
│           ontime          ││       uniquecarrier       │
└───────────────────────────┘│       min(distance)       │
                             └─────────────┬─────────────┘
                             ┌─────────────┴─────────────┐
                             │         SEQ_SCAN          │
                             │   ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─   │
                             │           ontime          │
                             └───────────────────────────┘
                             

We can see the drastic performance difference that subquery decorrelation has when we compare the run-time of this query in DuckDB with the run-time in Postgres and SQLite. When running the above query on the ontime dataset for 2017 with roughly ~4 million rows, we get the following performance results:

DuckDB Postgres SQLite
0.06s >48 Hours >48 Hours

As Postgres and SQLite do not de-correlate the subquery, the query is not just logically, but actually executed once for every row. As a result, the subquery is executed 4 million times in those systems, which takes an immense amount of time.

In this case, it is possible to manually decorrelate the query and generate the following SQL:

SELECT ontime.uniquecarrier, origincityname, destcityname, flightdate, distance
FROM ontime
JOIN (
     SELECT uniquecarrier, MIN(distance) AS min_distance
     FROM ontime
     GROUP BY uniquecarrier
) AS subquery 
ON (ontime.uniquecarrier=subquery.uniquecarrier AND distance=min_distance);

By performing the de-correlation manually, the performance of SQLite and Postgres improves significantly. However, both systems remain over 30x slower than DuckDB.

DuckDB Postgres SQLite
0.06s 1.98s 2.81s

Note that while it is possible to manually decorrelate certain subqueries by rewriting the SQL, it is not always possible to do so. As described in the Unnesting Arbitrary Queries paper, special join types that are not present in SQL are necessary to decorrelate arbitrary queries.

In DuckDB, these special join types will be automatically generated by the system to decorrelate all subqueries. In fact, DuckDB does not have support for executing subqueries that are not decorrelated. All subqueries will be decorrelated before DuckDB executes them.

Conclusion

Subqueries are a very powerful tool that allow you to take arbitrary queries and convert them into ad-hoc functions. When used in combination with DuckDB's powerful subquery decorrelation, they can be executed extremely efficiently, making previously intractable queries not only possible, but fast.