Why Every Software Engineer Should Learn SQL

Table of Contents

Almost every single software application relies on storing data somewhere accessible. For small scripts and programs, this is often in the computer’s memory, or sometimes just as plain text or binary files on the local disk.

Larger applications, however, will almost certainly use a database that exists externally to the program itself, and the most popular technology of choice for databases these days is the relational database. Most relational databases can be queried using Structured Query Language (SQL), so it’s imperative for a software engineer to have more than just a basic understanding of SQL to write efficient code for interacting with databases.

If you’re thinking “oh, but I already know how to select data from my database, surely it’s not much harder than that”, think again! I’ve seen plenty of code that will use a for loop to accomplish a task that would be achieved much quicker and more simply with a SQL JOIN clause.

This article will use a very basic example to demonstrate just how powerful using SQL properly can be. The code for the article is written in Python using the SQLAlchemy ORM library, but I will include the raw SQL that the program intends to emulate to be more language-agnostic.

While the example and tests will seem simple, this is adapted from real code that I have seen in production, so pay attention!

TL;DR: the SQL JOIN implementation is much faster.

The Example

The example I will use is one of an online store. The database will contain a users table and an orders table, which will store information on the site’s users and any orders placed by those users. Each table has an ID column and the orders table contains a user_id column containing a foreign key that references the users table.



The Test Setup

As you can see, each order has a payment_status column, which contains a boolean for whether the order was paid successfully or not. The aim is to test a function that finds the users that have had at least one failed order and returns a set of User objects describing those users.

The test will be run against a local dockerised MySQL database, created using the following docker-compose.yml file:

The database will be preloaded with a number of users and orders generated using the Python faker library. The test will be run with every combination of 10, 100 and 1000 users and orders, and timed over 100 iterations using the Python timeit library.

In order to avoid inconsistencies used by database caching, each query will be prefixed with the SQL_NO_CACHE flag.

There will be two test functions. One will use a naive Python implementation that involves querying for failed orders, then looping over the results and running a select statement against the users table on each iteration to generate a set of User objects with at least one failed order. The second implementation will use SQL JOIN and DISTINCT to generate the same set of users in a single query.

The code for the functions can be seen below.



It should be fairly clear from the code that the implementation using the SQL JOIN will make only one database query, whereas the more naive Python implementation will make a minimum of 1 and a maximum of N queries where N is the number of rows in the orders table.

The Results

Unsurprisingly, the pure SQL implementation of the function is much, much faster than the implementation that relies on a Python for loop.

At 10 users and 10 orders, the Python function completed in 5.97ms, while the SQL implementation took only 1.04ms. As the number of rows in the orders table increased, and so did the runtimes, but things started looking a lot worse for Python.

At 10 users and 1000 orders, the SQL implementation was still sitting pretty at 1.28ms, while the Python implementation took 458.49ms per test! This is, of course, because the SQL implementation made only one database call whereas the Python implementation will have made ~500 calls.

Interestingly, the number of rows in the users column had very little impact on the Python implementation in terms of runtime but had a larger impact on the SQL implementation. This is likely due to the MySQL server having to do more work to find DISTINCT users in a larger list, whereas the Python version built the set object user by user.

The full results can be seen below, along with some charts showing how the performance of each function scaled with the number of rows in the database.

Benchmark output

n_users: 10, n_orders: 10
Python: 5.97ms, SQL: 1.04ms
n_users: 10, n_orders: 100
Python: 46.22ms, SQL: 1.22ms
n_users: 10, n_orders: 1,000
Python: 458.49ms, SQL: 1.28ms
n_users: 100, n_orders: 10
Python: 4.85ms, SQL: 0.96ms
n_users: 100, n_orders: 100
Python: 48.08ms, SQL: 1.40ms
n_users: 100, n_orders: 1,000
Python: 441.89ms, SQL: 2.53ms
n_users: 1,000, n_orders: 10
Python: 4.97ms, SQL: 1.04ms
n_users: 1,000, n_orders: 100
Python: 46.54ms, SQL: 1.57ms
n_users: 1,000, n_orders: 1,000
Python: 451.37ms, SQL: 5.75ms


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While both implementations above could certainly be optimised to squeeze out slightly more performance, the SQL implementation will win every single time. The best part is, the SQL used is actually very simple, and anyone can learn it!

There are plenty of free resources online for learning SQL, so if you’re a software engineer or an aspiring one, get out there and get studying! The benefits will be enormous.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy my article about my Python library, quiffen, which is used for parsing financial information from QIF files:

I can also be found on Medium, on Twitter and on LinkedIn, so if you have any questions, feel free to get chatting!


P.S., I’ve included the full code for the benchmarks I ran below, so have a go and play around with it all yourself!

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