Recursive Query Using Common Table Expression

It is very common for applications to have hierarchical data, in other words data with a parent-child relationship among entities. A database designed for such cases involves storing the hierarchy relation between the components in the same table, in other words the record Id and its ParentId, which is nothing but the Id of the parent record that is in the same table . So when we are required to fetch the actual data , let's say, we need to get the data of employees with their names and manager names, then we use various ways to write the query. It could be using a self join, it could be using sub-queries or may involve the use of temporary tables and so on. Apart from these, there is one other easy way to do this, using the Common Table Expressions and we will be explaining this approach.

What a Common Table Expression is

A Common Table Expression (CTE) is just another way of storing temporary data, such as when we have a temporary table or table variables, but the main difference is that their scope of existence is only the immediate query following the CTE. We will not be going into much details about CTEs; our focus will be on explaining recursive queries using CTEs.

So before we explain this further, we will be explaining the structure of a CTE. Then we will create an example to demonstrate its use and explain how it works, as per the structure defined for it.

Structure/Syntax of a Common Table Expression:

WITH cte_name AS
(
query1 or anchor query
UNION ALL
query2 or recursive query
)

So, a CTE starts with the keyword WITH, followed by its name. Then we have two different queries that will be the core for getting the required data. They are divided into 2 parts.

Anchor query: This query is the starting point that acts as a base to enable the process of recursion in the CTE. We have a kind of a condition in this query, that makes it our starting point for the rest of the data fetching query. For example, to fetch hierarchical data, this query may have a where condition to get the first record. So this query basically provides the base data for the rest of the process for fetching the data.

Recursive query: After the anchor query is executed, the result set is generated by the anchor query as an input for the recursive query and is joined with the recursive query to generate new results. A new result set is created and is again joined with the recursive query and further results are generated. So this is added to the result set and is joined with the recursive query; that continues until all the records are processed or you can say until further joins return no data.

How Common Table Expressions work

We have had an overview of its structure, we will now be explaining how the CTE actually works. We will be explaining the process in 3 steps. When a SELECT statement is executed on a CTE, the first query executed is the anchor query. Since this is the starting point for getting the required data, we need to take care of how the base condition is to be applied so that we get the starting point for the rest of the recursion process. We will be using an example to get all the managers and employees workering under them. Then after those steps, we will explain the process in detail, using the same example.

Step 1:

We will write the anchor query as the first step. To get the list of all the employees under a manager, our anchor query should begin with the record where the ManagerId for the employee is null. This means, we are starting from the top of the hierarchy or management level to get the further data.

Step 2:

Now that we have the starting point, we will join it with the rest of the data using the Union condition.

Step 3:

We will write the recursive query, which means, we use the input of Step 1 for this step to apply a JOIN between the result set of Step 1 and the rest of the data in the table. So for the first time this recursive query is joined with an anchor query result set, we get the immediate workers under the manager at the top of the hierarchy, and this process proceeds with the results being added to the result set and joined with the main table.

Now to explain the process using an example. We will be using hierarchical data with an Employee-Manager relationship and try to get the names of the managers and employees working under them, using the CTE. For this we create a simple table with the 3 columns, EmpId, EmpName and ManagerId. Here, ManagerId is nothing but the EmpId of the same table.

After this we will add some dummy data like the following. Based on these entries we will try to get the name of the managers and the workers under them.

Recursive query

So as per the preceding data, we should have the following data:

  1. Mike is the manager of himself, in other words has no manager.
  2. Mike is the manager of Nathan and Greg
  3. Nathan is the manager of Dan and Jack
  4. Greg is the manager of Kile.

So now we will try to write the CTE based on the steps we explained. So our first step will be to create the anchor query.

Step 1:

We will start with the Manager at the top of the hierarchy and get his immediate workers. Since the top-level employee will not be have a manager, his ManagerId will be null. So this will be the base or anchor query with the where condition as follows:

Recursive query1

Now this is our base result set and will be the input for the recursive query.

Step 2:

We will be adding the UNION condition.

Step 3:

Run the anchor query and you will see that we have the name of the manager at the top-most level of the hierarchy. Now we need to get the immediate workers for it. To do so, we simply apply the JOIN with the rest of the data in the table with the condition:

EH1.ManagerId = HierarchyData.EmpId

Which says, get the employees from the table with the ManagerId equal to the EmployeeId of the record we have in the result set. This provides us the manager name for the employees having the manager name in the CTE result set. Our recursive query, when joined with the anchor query, will form the complete CTE and will look like the following:

Recursive query2

So when the recursive query executes, new results are generated and added to the previous result set. This result set is again joined with the existing table with the same ON condition specified above and this time we get the immediate workers of the second-level manager. In this way, this process continues to repeat until the complete result set is generated and we get the data, that we explained in the start of the article.

So this was all about the recursion using Common Table Expressions.