As the name suggests, relational databases are best at storing and retrieving relational data. That’s the kind of data that fits neatly into multiple tables, each consisting of rows and columns of relatively homogeneous data, all related through mechanisms such as foreign keys. Most of the material in this course covers relational data, since SQL Server is a relational database system.
But the reality is that sometimes you have chunks of data that don’t fit neatly into the relational model. One example of commonly used non-relational data is hierarchical data. This is data that defines some kind of hierarchy, such as an organizational chart or part subassemblies to build a complex object like an automobile. If the structure is rigidly set with a limited number of levels, you can do a decent job of representing the hierarchy using a table for each level, or other techniques. But it can be very difficult to represent the hierarchy if the structure needs to be flexible.
You can always store hierarchical data outside of SQL Server, but over the years, people have come up with various ways of adapting hierarchical data to fit the relational model. Some of these include:
- Table self-joins: In a table self-join, you use a single table to contain the hierarchical data. The table has a foreign key to itself—thus the name “self-join”—to reference another row in the table. A good example of this is the Northwind Employees table, which has a ReportsTo foreign key field to identify the person to whom an employee reports. You can use that field to construct the Northwind sales organizational chart.
- XML: XML data is inherently hierarchical, consisting of elements that entirely contain one or more child elements in a structured hierarchy. SQL Server 2005 introduced XML as a native data type, and Microsoft integrated it well with relational data. XML is handy because you have a great deal of flexibility in how you define the hierarchy. But you have to learn specialized methods to work with the data, and searching and sorting on the data can be problematic.
- Roll your own: SQL Server 2005 also introduced the capability to create your own custom data types using the .NET Common Language Runtime (CLR). Many people took advantage of this feature to create their own hierarchical data type, with all the features to support their needs. SQLCLR types support properties and methods, so the type could implement behaviors as well as custom data structures to support hierarchical data. Such custom types were far from trivial to implement, and it took a lot of work to get it right.
Because developers and administrators frequently need to store and work with hierarchical data in SQL Server, Microsoft introduced the HierarchyID data type in SQL Server 2008. This is a compact object you can use to manage hierarchical data using materialized paths. It is compact in that it uses very little storage, and it materializes paths and manages the hierarchy for you. It is a System CLR type, which means that Microsoft implements it via .NET code.
Because it is a system type, you don’t have to enable custom SQLCLR code in a database before using the HierarchyID data type, as you must for your own custom SQLCLR code.
You can use the HierarchyID type to represent organization charts, map a file directory system on your hard drive, create an assembly part chart with subassemblies, represent project tasks, and for many other uses. The type has rich support with methods that provide many ways to maintain the hierarchy, such as making arbitrary insertions and deletions, as well as relocating sections of the hierarchy to other places.
There is no magic to the HierarchyID. Although SQL Server gives you everything you need to maintain the integrity of the hierarchy, it doesn’t automatically enforce hierarchical relationships. You have to do that in your code, using the tools that are part of the data type. The HierarchyID type also does not guarantee uniqueness, but you can enforce uniqueness in other ways, such as with a unique constraint on a HierarchyID field in a table.
This post is an excerpt from the online courseware for our Microsoft SQL Server 2012 Developer course written by expert Don Kiely.
Don Kiely is a featured instructor on many of our SQL Server and Visual Studio courses. He is a nationally recognized author, instructor and consultant who travels the country sharing his expertise in SQL Server and security.