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Structured Query Language (SQL) is the most popular computer language used to create, modify and retrieve data from relational database management systems. The language has evolved beyond its original purpose to support object-relational database management systems. It is an ANSI/ISO standard.



A seminal paper, "A Relational Model of Data for Large Shared Data Banks" (), by Dr. Edgar F. Codd, was published in June, 1970 in the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) journal, Communications of the ACM. Codd's model became widely accepted as the definitive model for database management systems (RDBMS).

During the 1970s, a group at IBM's San Jose research center developed a database system "System R" based upon Codd's model. Structured English Query Language (SQL due to a trademark dispute (the word 'SEQUEL' was held as a trade mark by the Hawker-Siddeley aircraft company of the UK).

In 1978, methodical testing commenced at customer test sites. Demonstrating both the usefulness and practicality of the system, this testing proved to be a success for IBM. As a result, IBM began to develop commercial products that implemented SQL based on their System R prototype, including SQL/DS (introduced in 1981), and DB2 (in 1983).

In 1979, Relational Software, Inc. (now Oracle Corporation) introduced the first commercially available implementation of SQL (Oracle actually beat IBM to market by two years by releasing their first commercial RDBMS) and soon, many other vendors developed dialects of it.

SQL was adopted as a standard by the ANSI (American National Standards Institute) in 1986 and ISO (International Organization for Standardization) in 1987. ANSI has declared that the official pronunciation for SQL is

The SQL standard has gone through a number of revisions:

Year Name Alias Comments
1986 SQL-86 SQL-87 First published by ANSI. Ratified by ISO in 1987.
1989 SQL-89
Minor revision.
1992 SQL-92 SQL2 Major revision.
1999 SQL:1999 SQL3 Added regular expression matching, recursive queries, triggers, non-scalar types and some object-oriented features. (The last two are somewhat controversial and not yet widely supported.)
2003 SQL:2003   Introduced XML-related features, , standardized sequences and columns with auto-generated values (including identity-columns).

(See Eisenberg et al.:  ().)

ISO () or ANSI (). A late draft is available as a zip archive () from Whitemarsh Information Systems Corporation (). The zip archive contains a number of PDF files that define the parts of the SQL:2003 specification.

  • the complexity and size of the SQL standard means that most databases do not implement the entire standard.
  • the standard does not specify database behavior in several important areas (e.g. indexes), leaving it up to implementations of the standard to decide how to behave.
  • the SQL standard precisely specifies the syntax that a conformant database system must implement. However, the standard's specification of the semantics of language constructs is less well-defined, leading to areas of ambiguity.
  • many database vendors have large existing customer bases; where the SQL standard conflicts with the prior behavior of the vendor's database, the vendor may be unwilling to break backward compatibility.
  • some believe the lack of compatibility between database systems is intentional in order to ensure vendor lock-in.

Description of SQL

SQL allows the specification of queries in a high-level, declarative manner. For example, to select rows from a database, the user need only specify the criteria that they want to search by; the details of performing the search operation efficiently is left up to the database system, and is invisible to the user.

Compared to general-purpose programming languages, this structure allows the user/programmer to be less familiar with the technical details of the data and how they are stored, and relatively more familiar with the information contained in the data. This blurs the line between user and programmer, appealing to individuals who fall more into the 'business' or 'research' area and less in the 'information technology' area. The original vision for SQL was to allow non-technical users to write their own database queries. While this has been realized to some extent, the complexity of querying an advanced database system using SQL can still require a significant learning curve.

SQL contrasts with the more powerful database-oriented fourth-generation programming languages such as Focus or SAS, however, in its relative functional simplicity and simpler command set. This greatly reduces the degree of difficulty involved in maintaining the worst SQL source code, but it also makes programming such questions as 'Who had the top ten scores?' more difficult, leading to the development of procedural extensions, discussed above. However, it also makes it possible for SQL source code to be produced (and optimized) by software, leading to the development of a number of natural language database query languages, as well as 'drag and drop' database programming packages with 'object oriented' interfaces. Often these allow the resultant SQL source code to be examined, for educational purposes, further enhancement, or to be used in a different environment.

SQL keywords

SQL keywords fall into several groups.

Data retrieval

The most frequently used operation in transactional databases is the data retrieval operation.

Data manipulation

First there are the standard Data Manipulation Language (DML) elements. DML is the subset of the language used to add, update and delete data.

Data transaction

Transaction, if available, can be used to wrap around the DML operations.

COMMIT and ROLLBACK interact with areas such as transaction control and locking. Strictly, both terminate any open transaction and release any locks held on data. In the absence of a BEGIN WORK or similar statement, the semantics of SQL are implementation-dependent.

Data definition

The second group of keywords is the Data Definition Language (DDL). DDL allows the user to define new tables and associated elements. Most commercial SQL databases have proprietary extensions in their DDL, which allow control over nonstandard features of the database system.

The most basic items of DDL are the CREATE and DROP commands.

Some database systems also have an ALTER command, which permits the user to modify an existing object in various ways -- for example, adding a column to an existing table.

Data control

The third group of SQL keywords is the Data Control Language (DCL). DCL handles the authorisation aspects of data and permits the user to control who has access to see or manipulate data within the database.

Its two main keywords are:

Criticisms of SQL

Technically, SQL is a declarative computer language for use with "relational databases". Theorists note that many of the original SQL features were inspired by, but in violation of, tuple calculus. Recent extensions to SQL achieved relational completeness, but have worsened the violations, as documented in The Third Manifesto.

In addition, there are also some criticisms about the practical use of SQL: