Adventures in Machine Learning

Mastering Recursive CTEs: Best Practices and Examples

Exploring the World of CTEs in SQL Server

Structured Query Language (SQL) is used to manage data in relational databases, and CTEs (Common Table Expressions) are a powerful tool that makes SQL more functional and easier to use. CTEs allow database analysts and developers to write elegant, concise queries that are easier to understand and maintain.

In this article, we will provide an overview of CTEs in SQL Server. We will look at how to use basic CTEs and then explore how to use recursive CTEs. We will also provide practical examples to give readers a better understanding of how these concepts are used.

Basics of CTEs in SQL Server

A CTE is a temporary named result set that you can reference within a SELECT, INSERT, UPDATE, or DELETE statement. CTEs can be thought of as a virtual table that allows you to build complex queries using simpler, more manageable components.

CTEs can be defined using the WITH clause, followed by a SELECT statement. The WITH clause starts with the keyword WITH and is followed by the name of the CTE.

The SELECT statement follows this definition. For example, let’s create a CTE that lists the top 5 sales employees in the sales department:

WITH top_5_sales_employees

AS (

SELECT TOP 5 EmployeeName, Sales

FROM Employees

WHERE Department= ‘Sales’




FROM top_5_sales_employees;

In this query, we defined a CTE named top_5_sales_employees. This CTE selects the top 5 sales employees from the Employees table, filtering by the department of sales.

The main SELECT statement references this CTE to display the results.

How to Use Recursive CTEs in SQL Server

Recursive CTEs are a powerful data structure that is used to store hierarchical data. Recursive CTEs can be used to represent organizational charts, family trees, or any other data that has a parent-child relationship.

Recursive CTEs work by joining a table to itself multiple times until the desired level of depth is reached.

To use a recursive CTE, we need to have a base case and a recursive case.

The base case is the initial condition, and the recursive case is used to define the logic for retrieving additional rows.

Here is an example query that uses recursive CTEs to display the hierarchical structure of an organization:

WITH employee_hierarchy(EmployeeName, ManagerName, Level)

AS (

SELECT EmployeeName, ManagerName, 0 AS Level

FROM Employees



SELECT e.EmployeeName, e.ManagerName, eh.Level + 1

FROM employee_hierarchy eh

INNER JOIN Employees e ON eh.EmployeeName = e.ManagerName


SELECT EmployeeName, ManagerName, Level

FROM employee_hierarchy;

In this example, the base case selects employees who do not have a manager. The recursive case selects employees whose manager’s name matches the employee’s name in the previous iteration.

The Level column is used to keep track of the depth of the hierarchy.

Final Thoughts

CTEs are a powerful tool that can help you write efficient and maintainable SQL code. Understanding how to use both basic and recursive CTEs can help you build elegant solutions to complex problems.

By using CTEs in your queries, you can provide a clear and concise way to retrieve and process data in SQL Server.

Tips for Writing Recursive CTEs in SQL Server

Recursive CTEs can be a powerful tool for SQL developers looking to manipulate hierarchical data. As with any technology, understanding the best practices for using recursive CTEs can help you get the most out of this tool.

Here are some essential tips for writing recursive CTEs in SQL Server.

Importance of the Anchor Member

The anchor member is the base case of the recursive CTE and defines the starting point of the recursion. It is essential to ensure that the anchor member returns a finite set of rows; otherwise, the recursive CTE may never terminate.

For example, if there is a possibility of a loop in the data, the query may continue to execute indefinitely. Therefore, it is crucial to include a proper filter or WHERE clause in the anchor member to ensure that the query terminates in a reasonable time.

Matching Columns in Recursive and Anchor Members

It is essential that the anchor member and the recursive member have the same number of columns with the same data type. The column types must match to let SQL Server know which columns to use for the join.

If the number of columns or data type does not match, the query will not parse and will result in an error.


The recursive member must use the UNION ALL operator to join itself to the output of the anchor member. UNION ALL is used instead of UNION because it retains any duplicated rows, which may occur in recursive queries.

Beware of Infinite Loops

Recursive CTEs should be written in such a way that the query is guaranteed to terminate. Infinite loops can occur when the recursive member is not correctly defined and results in an endless loop, causing the query to continue indefinitely.

One way to prevent infinite loops is to include a termination check in the recursive member. The termination check limits the number of iterations that the recursive member runs.

If after a certain number of runs, the query does not meet the termination check, it will return an error.

Recursive CTEs in SQL Server – More Examples

Here are a few examples of how recursive CTEs can be used to traverse complex data structures. Example 1: Recursive CTE for a Transportation Network

Suppose we have a database of transportation networks containing information about the routes between different cities.

We can use a recursive CTE to find all the cities that are reachable from a selected city. The anchor member selects the first city, and the recursive member joins the anchor member to the routes table to find the next reachable city.

WITH reachable_cities

AS (


FROM Cities

WHERE CityName = ‘New York’


SELECT r.CityName

FROM reachable_cities rc

INNER JOIN Routes r ON rc.CityName = r.StartCityName



FROM reachable_cities;

Example 2: Using Recursive CTE for Task Dependencies in a Project

Suppose we have a database of projects that contain various tasks and their dependencies. We can use a recursive CTE to find all the tasks that depend on a selected task and the amount of time required to complete this task.

WITH dependent_tasks

AS (

SELECT TaskName, TimeRequired

FROM Tasks

WHERE TaskName = ‘Task A’


SELECT t.TaskName, t.TimeRequired

FROM dependent_tasks dt

INNER JOIN Tasks t ON dt.TaskName = t.Dependency



FROM dependent_tasks;

In this query, the anchor member selects the starting task, which is Task A, and retrieves the time required to complete the task. In the recursive member, we join the anchor member to the tasks table on the dependency column to find all the tasks that depend on Task A, and their time requirements.


In conclusion, by following best practices for writing recursive CTEs, developers can create elegant and efficient SQL Server queries to manipulate hierarchical data. Recursive CTEs offer a powerful means of traversing complex data structures, such as organizational charts, transportation networks, and project dependencies.

By harnessing the full power of recursive CTEs, developers can achieve better performance, maintainability, and efficiency in their SQL code. Recursive CTEs (Common Table Expressions) are a powerful tool for managing hierarchical data structures in SQL Server.

Recursive CTEs can help to solve complex problems like structuring employee hierarchies, managing product categories, understanding social networks, and tracking task dependencies. In this article, we will explore some of the areas where Recursive CTEs can be useful, and provide some best practices for writing efficient and accurate queries.

How Recursive CTEs Can Be Useful

Recursive CTEs are especially useful for representing hierarchical data structures, such as employee hierarchies, product categories, social networks, and task dependencies. With a recursive CTE, you can define the relationships between parent and child elements in a simple, easy-to-understand manner, no matter how complex the structure may be.

For example, consider building a query to represent the product category hierarchy in an e-commerce platform. If we had to represent the product categories structurally, this would involve creating a separate table for each level of the hierarchy.

With a recursive CTE, we can represent the entire hierarchy in a single table with columns for the category name, parent category ID, and category ID.

Another example where Recursive CTEs are useful is in employee hierarchies.

Employee hierarchies are often complex data structures, as many organizations have multi-level hierarchies. A recursive CTE can help to represent these hierarchies in an efficient and accurate manner.

Best Practices for Writing Efficient and Accurate Queries

While Recursive CTEs are a powerful tool for working with hierarchical data structures, there are some best practices that developers should follow to ensure that their queries are efficient, reliable, and accurate. 1.

Define a clear base case: A base case represents the initial state of the recursive CTE. Define the initial conditions that help control the recursion.

If the base case is not properly defined, the query may return unexpected results or exceed the maximum recursion depth and fail to execute. 2.

Termination check: Recursion can be very time-consuming. A recursive CTE can sometimes get stuck in an endless loop, failing to terminate, and ultimately crashing the database.

Therefore, it is essential to add a termination check to the recursive member. The termination check limits the number of iterations that the query runs to prevent endless loops.

3. Column mapping: With Recursive CTEs, column mapping should be done correctly.

Column mapping ensures that columns of the correct data type are matched between the recursive member and the anchor member. If the column types do not match, SQL Server will throw an error, and the query will fail to run.

Always check that the number of columns and their data types match in both the anchor member and recursive member clauses. 4.

Choosing UNION ALL: When building a recursive CTE, it is important to understand the difference between using UNION and UNION ALL. UNION ALL is appropriate for recursive queries because it preserves duplicates, which may arise in recursive queries, without unnecessary overhead.

5. Choosing the right data structure: Know how your data is connected and choose the best data structure for the task.

Recursive CTEs work well with tree-like or hierarchy structures, where there is one-to-many relationships between items. In other cases, traditional join queries or other SQL constructs will work better.


Recursive CTEs are a flexible tool that SQL developers can use to build powerful and efficient queries, particularly for hierarchical data structures. By following best practices, SQL developers can improve query performance, make their queries more accurate, and avoid issues such as infinite loops.

As data structures continue to grow more complex, the ability to work with hierarchical data structures becomes more essential than ever before. Therefore, investing time to learn Recursive CTEs and adapt them to your database can give SQL developers a critical tool to meet these growing data challenges.

In conclusion, Recursive CTEs are an essential tool for managing hierarchical data structures in SQL Server. They can provide a flexible and efficient way to model and interact with complex data sets like employee hierarchies, product categories, social networks, and task dependencies.

To maximize the benefits of Recursive CTEs, it is important to follow the best practices like defining a clear base case, adding a termination check, mapping columns correctly, and choosing the right data structure. With the powerful tool of recursive CTEs, SQL developers can build accurate, efficient, and scalable solutions for their database challenges, and they make managing the data easier and flexible.

Popular Posts