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I have a common scenario in app design, where I need to store an ordered list, and make the ordering easily accessible and adjustable via an application UI.

The ordering operations are simple and operate on only one item at a time - move to top, move to bottom, move up one position, or down one position. These positioning operations may be interspersed in with typical add / edit / delete list operations. For discussion, this is a single-user app and db store.

Because the objects can be highly complex, I'd like to avoid caching the entire list client-side, and tracking newly created objects in memory until a big save operation occurs.

I am using MS-SQL almost exclusively on these projects, and I'm wondering if there are db features, SQL features, or design patterns I should be using to better support the management of ordered lists.

My current approach is to use a DECIMAL column to store the list positions, which become fractional during the item move process. Then I sort the list and re-generate integer positions to normalize list. Following this operation, it's ready for another item move.

In an example implementation, I create a column named Seq for position tracking. Once decimal place is enough for the .5 storage.

[Seq] [decimal](10, 1) NOT NULL

When an item is re-positioned in the app UI,

  1. I UPDATE that record with new Seq value
  2. I retrieve the full table, sorted ascending by Seq and regenerate all Seq values in the table from a 1-based integer series

The new Seq value is easily calculated-

  • Move to top = 0
  • Move to bottom = MAX(Seq) + 1
  • Move up = subtract 1.5 from the current Seq value
  • Move down = add 1.5 to the current Seq value

As lists get longer, updates get slower, since I'm doing N UPDATE statements, where N is the number of rows in the table, so it seems only suitable for small tables.

  • Is there some kind of in-built capability for managing an ordered list in SQL or MS-SQL?
  • Is there a means to update multiple rows in one call?

A far more performant approach would be to allow more decimal places, and then position at the median of the two adjacent items, with no re-sequencing on the list.

  • Move to top = Min(Seq) - 1
  • Move to bottom = MAX(Seq) + 1
  • Move up = median of the 2 previous item Seq values
  • Move down = median of the 2 following item Seq values

This approach only requires one SELECT (containing 2 rows max) and one UPDATE.

However with enough re-positions I imagine the field would run out of decimal places. For example, if I start with items at positions 10 and 11, and keep moving items down the list from position 9, they'd be given sequences of 10.5, then 10.25, then 10.125. After 10 moves, the positions get lengthy... 10.0009765625.

UPDATE #1 - IMPROVED RE-SEQUENCING OF THE LIST

Regarding re-sequencing, I'm more caught up on row_number(), OVER, and WITH capabilities in MS-SQL. It's nice to find that there's a much smoother way to re-sequence the list in a single UPDATE operation;

with OrderedItems as 
(
    select
        ItemID,
        Seq,
        row_number() over (order by Seq asc) NewSeq
    from 
        Items
)
update OrderedItems
set Seq = NewSeq
  • The last is a technique used quite often, and that works. If you're afraid of "running out of decimals" you can refine it to detect when the average between the next two previous/following values cannot be distinguished from one of them (i.e.: you run out of decimals). When this happens, you should resequence as many rows up or down as needed... by using the same technique (i.e. assuming 2 decimals, you want to move between 1 and 1.01: (1, 1.01, 2.00) would result in (1, 1.005 1.01 2.0); do instead (1 1.25 1.50 2.0); you've spread the change to two rows instead of just one). – joanolo Jun 18 '17 at 12:32
  • With the extended technique, you don't need to renormalize. – joanolo Jun 18 '17 at 12:33
  • 1
    Thanks a lot @joanolo, those are some brilliant points. I like the simplicity of determining when resequencing is needed, and the technique of minimizing the resequence impact. Even in extremely large ordered lists, with frequent position shifts, that solution should weather a high volume of activity well. – memetican Jun 18 '17 at 13:08
3

The last is a technique used quite often, and that works. If you're afraid of running out of decimals you can refine it to detect when the average between the next two previous/following values cannot be distinguished from one of them (i.e.: you run out of decimals).

When this happens, you should resequence as many rows up or down as needed.

Let's assume you work with just 2 decimals, and you have two rows with Seq 1.00 and 1.01; the next value being 2.00. If you want to move a row using your technique between these two, you would have Seq = (1.00, 1.005, 1.01, 2.00). This would need more decimals than are available and, depending on the rounding rules, 1.005 would either be rounded to 1.00 or 1.01. In any case, you can detect that the inserted value is not distinguishable from either 1.00 or 1.01.

In that case, you need to "push down (or up) and make room". That is, you should change one more row, and have (1.00, 1.25, 1.50, 2.00). You've spread the change to two rows instead of just one.

This might need to be done recursively (or iteratively) if you ever run into a situation such as (1.01, 1.02, 1.03, 1.04, ...).

With this extensions to your original technique, you don't need to renormalize. This is taken care of only in an "as needed" basis, and scales quite well.

NOTEs:

  1. Implementing the algorithm might be a bit tricky, because you need to take into account when you're at the first or last rows, and how to handle those, and when your Seq numbers reach the maximum or minimum available values.

  2. The algorithm works with any number of decimals, including 0. That is, you can use it as well with integer values instead of decimal, which might prove more computing efficient, or, depending on how decimals are implemented, be also more space efficient.

  • I like this approach quite a bit. There's a fair bit of overhead code, but I should be able to isolate it well into a C# helper class. I'll add a quick spec above. Having said that, it still feels like I must be missing an obvious feature in SQL / MS-SQL specifically designed to support list ordering. – memetican Jun 18 '17 at 23:48
  • Relational algebra, in which SQL is based, knows a lot about sets, but doesn't have a concept for order, so: no lists. This might be one reason. Another being that ordering things manually (i.e.: arbitrarily) is quite rare compared to all other ORDER BYs. – joanolo Jun 18 '17 at 23:53
  • @memetican has anyone written such C# helper classes? :D – kavun Oct 23 '18 at 15:41
  • @kavun I would imagine so but I have not seen anything generic. It’s relatively easy to implement yourself, and you get the ability to make it specific to your own design and use cases then. Most likely you can write it in less time than it would take to find and adapt pre-existing code- however you might google “sorted list patterns” or e.g. “sql server linked list patterns” to find something specific to your platform.. – memetican Oct 23 '18 at 20:39
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My first suggestion would be to tweak the existing processes. Then I'll describe a re-design.

I don't think you need to re-sequence the whole set on every write. As long as you're prepared to accept gaps in the sequence and different numbers of decimal places you can avoid many executions.

For DELETE there is no need to change the sequences of the other rows. Just accept the gap in the numbers.

I take it the user cannot UPDATE the sequence directly so this is a non-issue.

For Move Up / Down simply swap the sequence numbers of the rows involved -- two single-row updates.

For Move Top allow the sequence to become negative. This may look weird but the computer will handle it just fine. Similarly for Move Bottom just let the sequence become large.

INSERT is the only tricky one. Now you cannot rely on neat additions of 0.5. Since we may now have gaps you have to split the sequences of adjoining rows (or add/ subtract 1 for inserting at the top/ bottom). As you say this could produce numbers with many decimal places. I don't think this is a concern, however. These numbers are not for human consumption (they're not, right?). Only the computer has to deal with them. By expanding the sequence to NUMERIC(38,28) you can have up to 90 adjacent inserts before the differences degenerate to zero. Since NUMERIC is exact (as opposed to FLOAT) there is no chance of increasingly small numbers being confused with each other. The application can track the number of decimal places in a newly-added sequence and trigger the re-sequencing when required.

The task which re-distributes the sequence numbers can be taken out of the interactive user session. A separate asynchronous process can take care of this. It can run on a schedule if writes are infrequent or be triggered after a certain number of user edits.

Further it does not need to touch every row in every execution. Only rows after the changed rows need ever receive a new sequence number. Yes, a "move to top" action will affect all rows but a "move to bottom" will not require any further updating.

If many rows are inserted consecutively it is likely their sequences will become increasingly small: 10.5, 10.25, 10.125 ... 10.0009765625. If you know which rows have changed since the last re-sequencing (if there is a last_updated column, for instance) the impact of re-sequencing can be further reduced. Take the FLOOR() of the lowest changed sequence number and CEILING() of the highest changed, then evenly distribute the changes between those limits. This will not return every sequence to an integer but it will reduce the number of decimal places involved. Fewer rows will be touched by the UPDATE.


My suggestion for a re-design would be to use a linked list, or better still a doubly-linked list. Remove the sequence column. The table becomes

MyTable
  Id    int not null primary key
  Prev  int null
  Next  int null

The first row has Prev value of NULL. The last row has a Next value of NULL. All other rows have a valid Id in both columns pointing at the respective rows.

Changing ordering is then an exercise in pointer management. At most four rows are updated. Say we have rows and "Next" foreign keys A -Next-> B -Next-> C -Next-> D.

To DELETE C we update B and
update B set Next = D
update D set Prev = B

To move C to top:
update A set Prev = C
update C set Prev = NULL, Next = A
update B set Next = D
update D set Prev = B

Ideally Prev and Next would be declared as Foreign Keys. Each would have a UNIQUE constraint, too. This makes writing the above UPDATE statements tricky as every statement has to respect the constraints at all times. It may be easier to construct, the movements as a series of DELETEs and INSERTs.

Constructing the list could be achieved through a recursive CTE. Over time it is likely the sequence and the clustered key diverge. CTE performance will not be great in this case. As the use-case is for interactive user display I imagine the list is paged. So a recursive query over a page worth's of rows (100 rows?) will still be quick. Separate CTEs can be written for paging forward (following the Next links) and backward (following the Prev links).

  • +1 for your point about NUMERIC(38,28), I hadn't considered rounding impacts on some decimal types. I also like the swap approach rather than shift-and-adjust, as it minimizes the need to re-allocate, with minimal overhead. As it happens in these UI's, new records are almost never inserted, and generally appended to the end. In that simplest scenario, employing swaps mean that decimal values would never even occur. Regarding the linked list approach, simplicity is key here, so having to replace simple SELECT's with recursive CTE's probably isn't very desirable in our scenario – memetican Jun 21 '17 at 2:27

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