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I am trying to use a MERGE statement to insert or delete rows from a table, but I only want to act on a subset of those rows. The documentation for MERGE has a pretty strongly worded warning:

It is important to specify only the columns from the target table that are used for matching purposes. That is, specify columns from the target table that are compared to the corresponding column of the source table. Do not attempt to improve query performance by filtering out rows in the target table in the ON clause, such as by specifying AND NOT target_table.column_x = value. Doing so may return unexpected and incorrect results.

but this is exactly what it appears I have to do to make my MERGE work.

The data I have is a standard many-to-many join table of items to categories (e.g. which items are included in which categories) like so:

CategoryId   ItemId
==========   ======
1            1
1            2
1            3
2            1
2            3
3            5
3            6
4            5

What I need to do is to effectively replace all rows in a specific category with a new list of items. My initial attempt to do this looks like this:

MERGE INTO CategoryItem AS TARGET
USING (
  SELECT ItemId FROM SomeExternalDataSource WHERE CategoryId = 2
) AS SOURCE
ON SOURCE.ItemId = TARGET.ItemId AND TARGET.CategoryId = 2
WHEN NOT MATCHED BY TARGET THEN
    INSERT ( CategoryId, ItemId )
    VALUES ( 2, ItemId )
WHEN NOT MATCHED BY SOURCE AND TARGET.CategoryId = 2 THEN
    DELETE ;

This appears to be working in my tests, but I am doing exactly what MSDN explicitly warns me not to do. This makes me concerned that I will run into unexpected problems later on, but I cannot see any other way to make my MERGE only affect rows with the specific field value (CategoryId = 2) and ignore rows from other categories.

Is there a "more correct" way to achieve this same result? And what are the "unexpected or incorrect results" that MSDN is warning me about?

share|improve this question
    
Yes, the documentation would be more useful if it had a concrete example of "unexpected and incorrect results". –  AlexKuznetsov Dec 18 '12 at 15:28
1  
@AlexKuznetsov There is an example here. –  Paul White Dec 18 '12 at 23:04
    
@SQLKiwi thank you for the link - IMO the documentation would be much better if it was referred from the original page. –  AlexKuznetsov Dec 20 '12 at 4:00
    
@AlexKuznetsov Agreed. Unfortunately, the BOL reorganization for 2012 broke that, among many other things. It was linked quite nicely in the 2008 R2 documentation. –  Paul White Dec 20 '12 at 4:51

1 Answer 1

up vote 23 down vote accepted

The MERGE statement has a complex syntax and an even more complex implementation, but essentially the idea is to join two tables, filter down to rows that need to be changed (inserted, updated, or deleted), and then to perform the requested changes. Given the following sample data:

DECLARE @CategoryItem AS TABLE
(
    CategoryId  integer NOT NULL,
    ItemId      integer NOT NULL,

    PRIMARY KEY (CategoryId, ItemId),
    UNIQUE (ItemId, CategoryId)
);

DECLARE @DataSource AS TABLE
(
    CategoryId  integer NOT NULL,
    ItemId      integer NOT NULL

    PRIMARY KEY (CategoryId, ItemId)
);

INSERT @CategoryItem
    (CategoryId, ItemId)
VALUES
    (1, 1),
    (1, 2),
    (1, 3),
    (2, 1),
    (2, 3),
    (3, 5),
    (3, 6),
    (4, 5);

INSERT @DataSource
    (CategoryId, ItemId)
VALUES
    (2, 2);

Target

╔════════════╦════════╗
║ CategoryId ║ ItemId ║
╠════════════╬════════╣
║          1 ║      1 ║
║          2 ║      1 ║
║          1 ║      2 ║
║          1 ║      3 ║
║          2 ║      3 ║
║          3 ║      5 ║
║          4 ║      5 ║
║          3 ║      6 ║
╚════════════╩════════╝

Source

╔════════════╦════════╗
║ CategoryId ║ ItemId ║
╠════════════╬════════╣
║          2 ║      2 ║
╚════════════╩════════╝

The desired outcome is to replace data in the target with data from the source, but only for CategoryId = 2. Following the description of MERGE given above, we should write a query that joins the source and target on the keys only, and filter rows only in the WHEN clauses:

MERGE INTO @CategoryItem AS TARGET
USING @DataSource AS SOURCE ON 
    SOURCE.ItemId = TARGET.ItemId 
    AND SOURCE.CategoryId = TARGET.CategoryId
WHEN NOT MATCHED BY SOURCE 
    AND TARGET.CategoryId = 2 
    THEN DELETE
WHEN NOT MATCHED BY TARGET 
    AND SOURCE.CategoryId = 2 
    THEN INSERT (CategoryId, ItemId)
        VALUES (CategoryId, ItemId)
OUTPUT 
    $ACTION, 
    ISNULL(INSERTED.CategoryId, DELETED.CategoryId) AS CategoryId,
    ISNULL(INSERTED.ItemId, DELETED.ItemId) AS ItemId
;

This gives the following results:

╔═════════╦════════════╦════════╗
║ $ACTION ║ CategoryId ║ ItemId ║
╠═════════╬════════════╬════════╣
║ DELETE  ║          2 ║      1 ║
║ INSERT  ║          2 ║      2 ║
║ DELETE  ║          2 ║      3 ║
╚═════════╩════════════╩════════╝
╔════════════╦════════╗
║ CategoryId ║ ItemId ║
╠════════════╬════════╣
║          1 ║      1 ║
║          1 ║      2 ║
║          1 ║      3 ║
║          2 ║      2 ║
║          3 ║      5 ║
║          3 ║      6 ║
║          4 ║      5 ║
╚════════════╩════════╝

The execution plan is: Merge plan

Notice both tables are scanned fully. We might think this inefficient, because only rows where CategoryId = 2 will be affected in the target table. This is where the warnings in Books Online come in. One misguided attempt to optimize to touch only necessary rows in the target is:

MERGE INTO @CategoryItem AS TARGET
USING 
(
    SELECT CategoryId, ItemId
    FROM @DataSource AS ds 
    WHERE CategoryId = 2
) AS SOURCE ON
    SOURCE.ItemId = TARGET.ItemId
    AND TARGET.CategoryId = 2
WHEN NOT MATCHED BY TARGET THEN
    INSERT (CategoryId, ItemId)
    VALUES (CategoryId, ItemId)
WHEN NOT MATCHED BY SOURCE THEN
    DELETE
OUTPUT 
    $ACTION, 
    ISNULL(INSERTED.CategoryId, DELETED.CategoryId) AS CategoryId,
    ISNULL(INSERTED.ItemId, DELETED.ItemId) AS ItemId
;

The logic in the ON clause is applied as part of the join. In this case, the join is a full outer join (see this Books Online entry for why). Applying the check for category 2 on the target rows as part of an outer join ultimately results in rows with a different value being deleted (because they do not match the source):

╔═════════╦════════════╦════════╗
║ $ACTION ║ CategoryId ║ ItemId ║
╠═════════╬════════════╬════════╣
║ DELETE  ║          1 ║      1 ║
║ DELETE  ║          1 ║      2 ║
║ DELETE  ║          1 ║      3 ║
║ DELETE  ║          2 ║      1 ║
║ INSERT  ║          2 ║      2 ║
║ DELETE  ║          2 ║      3 ║
║ DELETE  ║          3 ║      5 ║
║ DELETE  ║          3 ║      6 ║
║ DELETE  ║          4 ║      5 ║
╚═════════╩════════════╩════════╝

╔════════════╦════════╗
║ CategoryId ║ ItemId ║
╠════════════╬════════╣
║          2 ║      2 ║
╚════════════╩════════╝

The root cause is the same reason predicates behave differently in an outer join ON clause than they do if specified in the WHERE clause. The MERGE syntax (and the join implementation depending on the clauses specified) just make it harder to see that this is so.

The guidance in Books Online (expanded in the Optimizing Performance entry) offers guidance that will ensure the correct semantic is expressed using MERGE syntax, without the user necessarily having to understand all the implementation details, or account for the ways in which the optimizer might legitimately rearrange things for execution efficiency reasons.

The documentation offers three potential ways to implement early filtering:

Specifying a filtering condition in the WHEN clause guarantees correct results, but may mean that more rows are read and processed from the source and target tables than is strictly necessary (as seen in the first example).

Updating through a view that contains the filtering condition also guarantees correct results (since changed rows must be accessible for update through the view) but this does require a dedicated view, and one that follows the odd conditions for updating views.

Using a common table expression carries similar risks to adding predicates to the ON clause, but for slightly different reasons. In many cases it will be safe, but it requires expert analysis of the execution plan to confirm this (and extensive practical testing). For example:

WITH TARGET AS 
(
    SELECT * 
    FROM @CategoryItem
    WHERE CategoryId = 2
)
MERGE INTO TARGET
USING 
(
    SELECT CategoryId, ItemId
    FROM @DataSource
    WHERE CategoryId = 2
) AS SOURCE ON
    SOURCE.ItemId = TARGET.ItemId
    AND SOURCE.CategoryId = TARGET.CategoryId
WHEN NOT MATCHED BY TARGET THEN
    INSERT (CategoryId, ItemId)
    VALUES (CategoryId, ItemId)
WHEN NOT MATCHED BY SOURCE THEN
    DELETE
OUTPUT 
    $ACTION, 
    ISNULL(INSERTED.CategoryId, DELETED.CategoryId) AS CategoryId,
    ISNULL(INSERTED.ItemId, DELETED.ItemId) AS ItemId
;

This produces correct results (not repeated) with a more optimal plan:

Merge plan 2

The plan only reads rows for category 2 from the target table. This might be an important performance consideration if the target table is large, but it is all too easy to get this wrong using MERGE syntax.

Sometimes, it is easier to write the MERGE as separate DML operations. This approach can even perform better than a single MERGE, a fact which often surprises people.

DELETE ci
FROM @CategoryItem AS ci
WHERE ci.CategoryId = 2
AND NOT EXISTS 
(
    SELECT 1 
    FROM @DataSource AS ds 
    WHERE 
        ds.ItemId = ci.ItemId
        AND ds.CategoryId = ci.CategoryId
);

INSERT @CategoryItem
SELECT 
    ds.CategoryId, 
    ds.ItemId
FROM @DataSource AS ds
WHERE
    ds.CategoryId = 2;
share|improve this answer
    
Your first example I think was particularly helpful; I've updated my source query to add in the category ID I'm interested in (which isn't part of the source data normally) so that it can safely be added to my ON clause and it appears to work fine. Thanks! –  Michael Edenfield Dec 18 '12 at 14:26
2  
Same here, Paul, I also split MERGE into separate commands for better performance. –  AlexKuznetsov Dec 18 '12 at 15:29
1  
Not only better performance, but logical simplicity. Excellent. I also split the MERGE into two statements and it simplified the task tremendously. (Same problem: 3 different sources being imported, needed to remove only the one that was being worked on.) –  Dave Oct 9 '13 at 0:11

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