Adventures in Machine Learning

Unlocking the Power of Recursive Queries in SQL

Introduction to Recursive Queries

SQL is a powerful tool for managing and analyzing data, capable of handling both simple and complex queries. However, some queries require more advanced techniques to produce the desired result.

One such method is using recursive queries, which involves traversing a graph or hierarchy to access data. In this article, we will explore the concept of recursive queries and examine the WITH clause and Common Table Expressions (CTEs) as ways to create them.

By the end, readers will have a better understanding of how to tackle complex queries and harness the full potential of SQL.

Simple SQL queries versus complex queries

To understand the power of recursive queries, it’s essential to note the difference between simple SQL queries and complex queries. Simple SQL queries are straightforward and require minimal effort to retrieve information.

For example, retrieving a list of customers’ names and addresses from a database. However, complex queries involve multiple tables, relationships, and may require manipulating data across those tables to produce the desired output.

An example of this is finding all employees who supervise other employees in a recursive queries

Recursive Queries

Recursive queries’ primary use is querying hierarchical data, such as organization charts, family trees, and product hierarchies, where each record has a parent-child relationship. Recursive queries allow traversing through the hierarchical structure using recursion.

This means that the query calls itself repeatedly to drill down into the tree’s depth to retrieve the desired data. Recursive queries can also be helpful in querying graphs, such as social networks, where relationships between people are not as structured as in hierarchical data.

Instead, they have free-form relationships, which can be modeled as a graph. Recursive queries can traverse through the graph using a recursive algorithm that visits each node, collecting the data required.

Recursive queries can be challenging to understand and can be overwhelming for beginners. With some practice and an understanding of the underlying principles, you can master complex queries that you would have previously thought impossible.

WITH Clause and Common Table Expressions

The WITH clause and Common Table Expressions (CTEs) provide a powerful feature of SQL that enables the creation of recursive queries. They are a core SQL 99 feature that has become increasingly popular in recent years due to their usefulness.

Overview of Common Table Expressions (CTEs)

A Common Table Expression (CTE) is a temporary named result set that a query can reference repeatedly within itself, allowing recursion. CTEs can simplify complex queries by creating a named subquery, which can improve readability and maintainability.

When defining CTEs, you can use table expressions such as SELECT, INSERT, UPDATE, and DELETE.

Syntax of WITH clause

The WITH clause is used in SQL to define CTEs. With the WITH clause, you can create one or more CTEs. Here is an example:

WITH cteEmployee AS (
  -- Common table expressions definition 
SELECT * FROM cteEmployee;

The above code creates a CTE named “cteEmployee,” which can be referenced several times in the query that follows. The query retrieves all the data from the CTE when it’s called.

Example of using CTEs for a complicated query

Consider a database that contains employee information and their respective supervisors. Suppose you wanted to retrieve a list of employees that are up to three levels deep in the hierarchy, including their supervisor’s supervisor.

This would be a challenging task without the use of recursive queries. With the WITH clause and CTEs, you can create a recursive query that would retrieve all the employees up to three levels deep.

Here is an example code:

WITH EmployeeHierarchy(EmployeeID, Name, SupervisorID, Level)
  --Anchor member (recursive query starting point)
  SELECT EmployeeID, Name, SupervisorID, 1
  FROM Employees
  WHERE SupervisorID IS NULL
  --Recursive member
  SELECT E.EmployeeID, E.Name, E.SupervisorID, EH.Level+1
  FROM Employees AS E
  INNER JOIN EmployeeHierarchy AS EH
  ON E.SupervisorID = EH.EmployeeID
  WHERE EH.Level < 3
SELECT EmployeeID, Name, SupervisorID, Level
FROM EmployeeHierarchy;

The above query creates the CTE named “EmployeeHierarchy.” The anchor member retrieves the top-level employees that have no supervisors. The recursive member then joins the Employees table with the EmployeeHierarchy table to retrieve the next level of employees, and so on.

The output of the query will include all employees who meet the criteria specified in the query. This query can be easily modified to adjust the number of levels deep that employees are retrieved from.


Recursive queries, although challenging, are a powerful tool in SQL queries that can provide invaluable insight into hierarchical data structures and graphs. The WITH clause and CTEs further ease this task by creating an efficient and more straightforward syntax for running recursive queries.

By practicing this skill and understanding the underlying principles, beginner and advanced users of SQL can harness the full potential of the language in unlocking complex queries’ insights. We hope this article serves as a useful resource for readers looking to advance their SQL knowledge.

Recursive Structure of CTEs

Common Table Expressions (CTEs) make use of a recursive structure to retrieve data from hierarchical or sequential structures. In a recursive query, the structure is defined to include an anchor member and a recursive member.

The anchor member retrieves the starting record for the query, and the recursive member iteratively retrieves all records that pass the defined criteria until there are no more. The CTE then returns the entire result-set of the query.

Lets take an example of multiplication by 2. Here is the recursive CTE structure of the query:

WITH MultiplyByTwo ( n, result )
  -- anchor member
  SELECT 1, 2
  -- recursive member
  SELECT n+1, result*2
  FROM MultiplyByTwo
  WHERE n <= 10
SELECT n, result
FROM MultiplyByTwo;

The above code creates a CTE named “MultiplyByTwo.” The anchor member selects the first row of data where n = 1 and result = 2. The recursive member multiplies the value of the result column by 2 and adds 1 to the value of the n column each time.

This process continues until the value of n is greater than 10. Once the entire recursive structure has been traversed, the CTE returns all the calculated values for n and result defined in the query.

An additional example of recursive CTEs can be seen with the Fibonacci sequence. Here is the recursive CTE structure of the query:

WITH Fibonacci ( n, f1, f2 )
  -- anchor member
  SELECT 1, 0, 1
  -- recursive member
  SELECT n+1, f2, f1+f2
  FROM Fibonacci
  WHERE n <= 8
FROM Fibonacci;

In the above example, the CTE is named “Fibonacci.” The anchor member retrieves the first two values of the Fibonacci sequence, with n = 1, f1 = 0, and f2 = 1. The recursive member then adds the previous two values and retrieves the next Fibonacci value.

Once the entire recursive structure has been traversed, the CTE returns all calculated values for f1 defined in the query. Recursive structures are a fundamental building block of CTEs, providing a powerful and efficient way to query hierarchical or sequential structures.

Graph Traversal with Recursive Queries

The graph traversal problem is a fundamental query type used to traverse and analyze graphs, such as social networks, web links, and neural networks. Typically, to solve the graph traversal problem, a recursive structure is implemented in a SQL query to traverse the graph and retrieve information.

When working with graphs, it’s essential to understand that large graphs can significantly increase query times and therefore are a common bottleneck when processing data. A common strategy to optimize performance is by creating an external view to represent the graph structure, simplifying SQL queries and minimizing join operations.

Let’s take a simple example of creating an external view. Assume we have a graph consisting of two tables: nodes and edges where each edge has a source and destination node ID.

We can create an external view simply by selecting all the edges along with their corresponding source and destination nodes:

SELECT edge.*, AS source_name, AS dest_name
FROM edges AS edge
JOIN nodes AS source_node ON = edge.source
JOIN nodes AS dest_node ON = edge.destination;

With the graph view created, we can now focus on traversing the graph to calculate the shortest path between nodes. To find the shortest path, we can make use of a common algorithm called Dijkstra’s algorithm.

Below is an example implementation using a recursive CTE structure:

WITH RECURSIVE ShortestPath (node, cost, path)
AS (
  -- anchor member
  SELECT 5, 0, CAST('5' AS VARCHAR(1000))
  -- recursive member
  SELECT edges.destination, edges.cost + ShortestPath.cost, CONCAT(path, ' -> ', CAST(edges.destination AS VARCHAR(1000)))
  FROM ShortestPath
  JOIN graph AS edges ON ShortestPath.node = edges.source
  WHERE path NOT LIKE CONCAT('%->', CAST(edges.destination AS VARCHAR(1000)), '%')
  AND (ShortestPath.cost + edges.cost) <= 10
SELECT path, cost
FROM ShortestPath
WHERE node = 1;

The above example uses a recursive CTE named ShortestPath, which calculates the shortest path from node 5 to node 1. The anchor member selects node 5 with a cost of 0 and a path equal to 5.

The recursive member then joins the edges to the graph view and updates the cost and path accordingly until the destination node is reached. In conclusion, recursive queries in SQL are a valuable tool for traversing and manipulating hierarchical and sequential data structures, including graphs.

The inclusion of external views provides an efficient way to optimize query performance and simplify SQL query structures. Through the use of recursive CTEs, querying graphs can be implemented using efficient methods such as Dijkstra’s algorithm.

Hierarchical Queries in Oracle

One of the most useful features of SQL is the ability to retrieve hierarchies of data stored in hierarchical databases. Hierarchical databases typically organize data in a tree-like structure, with each item or record being linked to its parent item in a single direction.

Hierarchical queries allow users to traverse the database and retrieve the entire hierarchy starting from any item or group of items. Oracle SQL provides support for hierarchical queries using the CONNECT BY clause.

When used as part of a SELECT statement, the CONNECT BY clause instructs Oracle to traverse the hierarchy starting from the specified root item and retrieve the entire hierarchy. For example, consider a table of employees with each employee’s supervisor specified in a parent-employee relationship.

CREATE TABLE employees (
  employee_id INTEGER PRIMARY KEY,
  name VARCHAR(255) NOT NULL,
  supervisor_id INTEGER REFERENCES employees(employee_id)

To retrieve the hierarchy, we can use the following query:

SELECT employee_id, name, supervisor_id, LEVEL
FROM employees
START WITH employee_id = 1 
CONNECT BY PRIOR employee_id = supervisor_id;

The above query retrieves all employees with their supervisor’s information and displays the hierarchy with indented levels. It’s important to note that Oracle does not support recursive WITH queries that are commonly used in other relational database management systems.

MySQL’s Lack of Support for Recursive Queries

MySQL, one of the most popular relational database management systems, does not support the WITH clause commonly used for recursive queries. As a result, many MySQL users have been limited in the types of complex queries they can run.

MySQL does offer some workarounds to achieve the desired results when recursive querying is needed.

One approach is to use a stored function or a stored procedure to handle the recursion.

A stored procedure can perform a series of SELECT statements until the desired output is reached. This workaround isn’t ideal as it can lead to slow performance and less maintainable code.

Another approach is to use temporary tables. Temporary tables are created, and data is added to them using SELECT statements; this allows a chain of queries to retrieve the required data.

Once the desired result is obtained, the temporary table can be deleted. Despite workarounds being possible, many MySQL users have voiced their concern over the lack of support for recursive queries.

Feature requests to support the WITH clause have been submitted, with some requests dating back several years. However, these requests have yet to be integrated into the MySQL system.

In conclusion, recursive queries are a powerful tool in SQL that allows users to efficiently traverse hierarchical and sequential structures. While Oracle SQL provides support for hierarchical queries using the CONNECT BY clause, it does not support recursive WITH queries.

MySQL lacks support for the WITH clause entirely, leaving users to rely on inefficient workarounds or hope that feature requests are integrated soon. As relational databases continue to evolve, it’s important for developers to stay up-to-date with the latest features and limitations of their preferred systems.

Conclusion and Recap

In this article, we explored the concept of recursive queries and how they can be used to traverse hierarchical and sequential structures. We also looked at different relational database management systems’ support for recursive queries and the limitations experienced by certain systems.

We began by discussing the difference between simple and complex SQL queries. We then introduced the concept of recursive queries and explored their potential uses.

We highlighted the importance of understanding the recursive structure of Common Table Expressions (CTEs) to ensure that queries are as efficient as possible. We moved on to discuss how Oracle SQL and MySQL support recursive queries, with Oracle providing support for hierarchical queries using the CONNECT BY clause, and MySQL lacking support for the WITH clause.

We then looked at the workarounds available to MySQL users to create recursive queries, including using stored functions and temporary tables. In conclusion, recursive queries are a powerful tool that can help users traverse hierarchical and sequential structures and retrieve the data they need.

It’s important to use CTEs and understand their recursive structure to ensure that queries are as efficient as possible. While some relational database management systems have limitations when it comes to recursive queries, it’s important to stay up-to-date with the latest features and workarounds available to overcome these limitations.

We encourage readers to practice using recursive queries to retrieve hierarchical and sequential data structures. With practice, users can unlock complex queries’ insights that they previously thought impossible.

With the ability to traverse graphs, model free-form relationships, and retrieve information across hierarchical data structures, recursive queries provide an invaluable tool for advanced database management and analysis. In summary, this article explored the power and importance of recursive queries in SQL.

We discussed the differences between simple and complex queries and introduced the concept of recursive queries. We examined the recursive structure of Common Table Expressions (CTEs) and provided examples of their use in calculating multiplication by 2 and the Fibonacci sequence.

We also discussed the limitations experienced by certain relational database management systems, including Oracle’s lack of support for recursive WITH queries and MySQL’s lack of support for the WITH clause. We encourage readers to practice using recursive queries to unlock complex queries’ insights and see the full potential of SQL for advanced database management and analysis.

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