1.1 What Is SQL?

SQL is a special-purpose language used to define, access, and manipulate data. SQL is nonprocedural, meaning that it describes the necessary components (i.e., tables) and desired results without dictating exactly how those results should be computed. Every SQL implementation sits atop a database engine, whose job it is to interpret SQL statements and determine how the various data structures in the database should be accessed to accurately and efficiently produce the desired outcome.

The SQL language includes two distinct sets of commands: Data Definition Language (DDL) is the subset of SQL used to define and modify various data structures, while Data Manipulation Language (DML) is the subset of SQL used to access and manipulate data contained within the data structures previously defined via DDL. DDL includes numerous commands for handling such tasks as creating tables, indexes, views, and constraints, while DML is comprised of just five statements:


Adds data to a database.


Modifies data in a database.


Removes data from a database.


Adds and/or modifies data in a database. MERGE is part of the 2003 ANSI SQL standard.


Retrieves data from a database.

Some people feel that DDL is the sole property of database administrators, while database developers are responsible for writing DML statements, but the two are not so easily separated. It is difficult to efficiently access and manipulate data without an understanding of what data structures are available and how they are related; likewise, it is difficult to design appropriate data structures without knowledge of how the data will be accessed. That being said, this book deals almost exclusively with DML, except where DDL is presented to set the stage for one or more DML examples. The reasons for focusing on just the DML portion of SQL include:

  • DDL is well represented in various books on database design and administration as well as in SQL reference guides.

  • Most database performance issues are the result of inefficient DML statements.

  • Even with a paltry five statements, DML is a rich enough topic to warrant not just one book, but a whole series of books.

Anyone who writes SQL in an Oracle environment should be armed with the following three books: a reference guide to the SQL language, such as Oracle in a Nutshell (O'Reilly); a performance-tuning guide, such as Optimizing Oracle Performance (O'Reilly); and the book you are holding, which shows how to best utilize and combine the various features of Oracle's SQL implementation.

So why should you care about SQL? In this age of Internet computing and n-tier architectures, does anyone even care about data access anymore? Actually, efficient storage and retrieval of information is more important than ever:

  • Many companies now offer services via the Internet. During peak hours, these services may need to handle thousands of concurrent requests, and unacceptable response times equate to lost revenue. For such systems, every SQL statement must be carefully crafted to ensure acceptable performance as data volumes increase.

  • We can store a lot more data today than we could just a few years ago. A single disk array can hold tens of terabytes of data, and the ability to store hundreds of terabytes is just around the corner. Software used to load or analyze data in these environments must harness the full power of SQL to process ever-increasing data volumes within constant (or shrinking) time windows.

Hopefully, you now have an appreciation for what SQL is and why it is important. The next section will explore the origins of the SQL language and the support for the SQL standard in Oracle's products.