Noir SQL… Or, a Hardboiled Approach to Getting the Job Done

You can tell a lot about my state of mind by the books I’m reading. Lately, it’s Urban Fantasy with a Noir feel to it. Specifically, I’m reading Mike Carey’s Felix Castor series, and I just finished a book by Richard Kadrey called Sandman Slim: A Novel. I love the anti-hero. The protagonist who is gritty and dirty and has a few great scars is my kind of guy. He unapologetically breaks the rules and isn’t all, “it’s more about the journey than the destination.” For him, destination is what matters, no matter now you got there.

Lately, I feel a bit like the scarred anti-hero. I’m doing some things in a production environment that I’m not totally thrilled about, and I wish I could stop the line and do things the “right” way. I want to use SSIS to transform data. I want to encapsulate processes into neat, repeatable, parameterized modules. But, you know what? When there’s a same-day turnaround on a request, you make do. You go a little Noir on your T-SQL, know what I mean?

I want to show you two things that I’ve actually done in the past few weeks. No, given a nice, neat environment, this SQL might never have been written. Am I proud of it? Well, yes. Yes I am. At the end of the day, I got the customer what he needed. Was it pretty? No. I’m cool with that. Being the anti-hero is kind of fun every once in a while.

Fixed-Width Output

I needed to give a guy a text file in fixed-width format. I had a process from my predecessor that just wasn’t working. The file was already late. So here’s what I did. I’m using the AdventureWorks database to show an example.

	LEFT((ISNULL(Title,'')+SPACE(50)), 8)+
	LEFT((ISNULL(FirstName,'')+SPACE(100)), 20)+
	LEFT((ISNULL(LastName,'')+SPACE(100)), 30)+
	LEFT((ISNULL(MiddleName,'')+SPACE(100)), 5)+
	LEFT((ISNULL(EmailAddress,'')+SPACE(100)), 35)+
	LEFT((ISNULL(Phone,'')+SPACE(100)), 25)
FROM AdventureWorks.Person.Contact	;

The result:

Paste it into Notepad and see how it looks:

I save the text file and send it on. Pour myself a whiskey, neat, and light up an unfiltered Lucky Strike.  Okay, not really, but you know what I mean. 

A quick run-down:

ISNULL: If any of the values I’m concatenating are NULL, then the entire string will come back as NULL. I wrap all of my columns in ISNULL like so:

ISNULL(Title, ‘’)

This sets the value to an empty string if the value is NULL.

SPACE: This handy little string function will pad the given number of spaces onto the result you return. I want to make sure I end up with enough padded spaces to fill out the fixed-width portion of that column. So, I pad the output:

ISNULL(Title, ‘’)+SPACE(50)

This will give me the output from the Title column, plus 50 spaces.

LEFT: Now, not every value coming out of the database is going to have the exact same number of columns. So, I use the LEFT function to trim it down to the exact length I want. LEFT will take the left-most number of characters you tell it to. If I say,

LEFT((ISNULL(Title,”)+SPACE(50)), 8 )

I’m telling it to give me characters 1-8 that are returned. Since I’ve padded my output with spaces, it’ll be the result from the column, plus as many spaces as I need to pad the output to 8.

Pretty? No. Functional? Yes. Noir SQL? Absolutely.

Remove Unwanted Characters

Next up, I have a source file I use from another department. It comes in Excel format, and includes a phone number. I’m supposed to get something that looks like this: 1112223333. Nice, neat, simple. What do I get? A hodge-podge of phone number formats. I’m looking at something like this:

	PhoneNumber varchar(50)

INSERT INTO PhoneNumber(PhoneNumber)
	('1112223333'), ('(111) 222-3333'), ('111-222-3333'), ('111 222 3333'); 	

SELECT PhoneNumber
FROM PhoneNumber

Okay. So I need to clean these numbers up quickly. Destination, not journey, my friends. I’m the anti-hero. I import the data into SQL Server using the Import/Export utility so I can manipulate the data. Then, I run this nifty little REPLACE statement:

SELECT PhoneNumber,
	WHEN ISNUMERIC(PhoneNumber) = 0
					REPLACE(PhoneNumber, '-', ''),			--Strip out dashes
				' ', ''),							--Strip out spaces
			')', ''),								--Strip out close parenthesis
		'(', '')									--Strip out open parenthesis
		ELSE PhoneNumber
	END as FormattedPhoneNumber
FROM dbo.PhoneNumber

Check out the results:

Sweet. It’s quick, it’s dirty, and it saved me having to wait on the source data provider to clean things up on his end. I turn the query into an UPDATE statement, and I’ve got clean data to import.  Again, a run-down of the functions:

ISNUMERIC: Tells me whether the value I’m passing is qualifies as a number or not. NOTE: It recognizes hexadecimal as a number, so use carefully. I set up a CASE statement that asks if the value is numeric. If it is, that means I don’t have any characters like “(“, “)”, or “-“ in there. If not, I apply a nested REPLACE to the value.

REPLACE: Replace is awesome. I can say something like this: REPLACE(PhoneNumber, ‘-‘, ‘’). This is saying that if I find a dash, I want to replace it with an empty string. What’s really cool is that I can nest them. So, I can tell it to remove the dashes, then the spaces, then the open parenthesis, and finally the close parenthesis in one statement.

Bottom line: Sometimes things just have to get done. The difference between an anti-hero and a true antagonist is that we anti-heroes know to go back and do things the right way as soon as we get a moment to breathe. In the meantime, don’t apologize for leaving behind a few unmarked graves when you need to get the job done. We’re anti-heroes. We have the scars to prove it.

11 thoughts on “Noir SQL… Or, a Hardboiled Approach to Getting the Job Done

  1. Oh, absolutely SSIS is a better solution, and I’ll be rolling this whole process into a package when I get a moment to come back to it. The challenge is that sometimes you need quick & dirty instead of elegant & refined. No one should ever leave something like this out there for long.

  2. Great post and book choices! I love the Felix Castor series and preferred “Kill the Dead, Sandman Slim 2” over the first.

    • David – Thanks for coming out and reading the post, and especially for leaving a comment. I’m glad to hear that you’d recommend the next Sandman Slim book. Obviously you have good taste in literature. 🙂 I think the author did a great job setting up some interesting characters.

      As for the Felix Castor series, one of my favorite things about it is that it’s set in London. I keep learning new ways to insult people. The latest is “tosspot”.

      • The setting in London is what sold me. My FAVORITE city. Very descriptive and accurate always fun to try and walk the story.

  3. Very nice post Audrey, I write quite a few of these types of solutions and am also somewhat proud of them afterward because it was fast and works. As far as SSIS, sure, it might be a better way to go, but I’ve worked in environments where admins hate SSIS/DTS and in one case wouldn’t allow it to be used. So you can argue until you’re blue in the face, or you can pound out a TSQL solution and get the job done.

    • Noel,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment on the post. I hear ya; I once worked in a shop where we weren’t allowed to use stored procedures because my dev mgr had heard that “they were bad for performance”. Made for some interesting work-arounds.

  4. Very nicely done I work in a similar type company as PRGX and your correct sometime you just need to get it done. I do tons of ETL work with many one off solutions


  5. Noir T-SQL, I like it!

    A couple of years ago, I had occasion to nest about 62 of them (also to clean up a phone number field). Surprisingly, the performance wasn’t as horrific as we were expecting.

    The upside is that I did learn that SSMS eventually gives up on highlighting matching parentheses.

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