How do you mimic Access’ Ignore Null index behavior in SQL Server?

What is meant here is the Microsoft Access feature to create unique indexes on columns that can contain two or more NULLs. SQL Server does not allow a duplicate entry in an index that is created as UNIQUE. Consider this:

CREATE TABLE Table1
(cID INT PRIMARY KEY
 , c1 INT NULL)
CREATE UNIQUE NONCLUSTERED INDEX ix_test ON Table1(c1)
INSERT INTO Table1
SELECT 1,1
UNION ALL
SELECT 2,NULL
UNION ALL
SELECT 3,NULL
DROP TABLE Table1

This yields:

Server: Msg 2601, Level 14, State 3, Line 5
Cannot insert duplicate key row in object ‘Table1′ with unique index ‘ix_test’.
The statement has been terminated.

Using a UNIQUE constraint is not even better.

CREATE TABLE Table1
(cID INT PRIMARY KEY
 , c1 INT NULL
 CONSTRAINT c_c1 UNIQUE)
INSERT INTO Table1
SELECT 1,1
UNION ALL
SELECT 2,NULL
UNION ALL
SELECT 3,NULL
DROP TABLE Table1

Server: Msg 2627, Level 14, State 2, Line 4
Violation of UNIQUE KEY constraint ‘c_c1′. Cannot insert duplicate key in object ‘Table1′.
The statement has been terminated.

Since we cannot use an already existing functionality, we have to develop our own here. Basically we have 4 different methods to choose from. Let’s have a look at them.

Use an Indexed View

SET NOCOUNT ON
CREATE TABLE Table1
(cID INT PRIMARY KEY
 , c1 INT NULL)
GO
CREATE VIEW Table1_Unique_Non_NULL
 WITH SCHEMABINDING
 AS
  SELECT c1
   FROM dbo.Table1
   WHERE c1 IS NOT NULL
GO
CREATE UNIQUE CLUSTERED INDEX uc1 ON Table1_Unique_Non_NULL(c1)
INSERT INTO Table1
SELECT 1,1
UNION ALL
SELECT 2,NULL
UNION ALL
SELECT 3,NULL
SET NOCOUNT OFF
SELECT * FROM Table1_Unique_Non_NULL
DROP VIEW dbo.Table1_Unique_Non_NULL
DROP TABLE Table1

c1
———–
1

(1 row(s) affected)

As you can see, the second NULL value is ignored and gets inserted. However, try to insert a row like:

INSERT INTO Table1 SELECT 4,1

Server: Msg 2601, Level 14, State 3, Line 1
Cannot insert duplicate key row in object ‘Table1_Unique_Non_NULL’ with unique index ‘uc1′.
The statement has been terminated.

Use a Constraint on a Computed Column

SET NOCOUNT ON
CREATE TABLE Table1
(cID INTEGER PRIMARY KEY
 , c1 INTEGER NULL
 , foolme AS (CASE WHEN c1 IS NULL THEN cID END)
 , CONSTRAINT cc1 UNIQUE (c1,foolme)
)

INSERT INTO Table1
SELECT 1, 1
UNION ALL
SELECT 2, NULL
UNION ALL
SELECT 3, NULL
SET NOCOUNT OFF
SELECT * FROM Table1
DROP TABLE Table1

cID c1 foolme
———–  ———–  ———–
2 NULL 2
3 NULL 3
1 1 NULL

(3 row(s) affected)

Again, this method lets you insert multiple NULL values into c1. However, trying to insert the same row as in our first method also yields a constraint violation error.

INSERT INTO Table1 SELECT 4,1

Server: Msg 2627, Level 14, State 2, Line 1
Violation of UNIQUE KEY constraint ‘cc1′. Cannot insert duplicate key in object ‘Table1′.
The statement has been terminated.

Use a Trigger

SET NOCOUNT ON
CREATE TABLE Table1
(cID INTEGER PRIMARY KEY
 , c1 INTEGER NULL
)
GO
CREATE TRIGGER IgnoreNulls
ON Table1 FOR UPDATE, INSERT
AS
  IF EXISTS
   (SELECT *
    FROM Inserted AS I
    JOIN Table1 AS t1
     ON I.c1 = t1.c1 AND I.cID<>t1.cID)
   BEGIN
    ROLLBACK TRAN
    RAISERROR(‘Duplicates are not allowed!’,16,1)
   END
GO
INSERT INTO Table1
SELECT 1, 1
UNION ALL
SELECT 2, NULL
UNION ALL
SELECT 3, NULL
SET NOCOUNT OFF
SELECT * FROM Table1
DROP TABLE Table1

cID c1
———–  ———–
1 1
2 NULL
3 NULL

(3 row(s) affected)

Again, multiple NULLs are allowed, but every non-NULL value needs to be UNIQUE. (You can test this out by yourself. It is not shown here.)

Split the Table

Every now and then, you might see someone suggesting that we split this table in two. To do this, we would move the column in question to the new table and make it PRIMARY KEY of that table. Then we would create a 1:1 relation between both tables. This approach is not discussed here. While it might be a feasible solution when implemented right from the beginning in your database and in your application, it is clearly a laborious task when you want to implement such a feature once your database and application have gone into production.

Which Method to Choose?

The first method (Use an Indexed View) is very fast and offers in addition the advantage of being reusable for other purposes. The second method (Use a Constraint on a Computed Column) will also offer very good performance as it enforces integrity at a very low level, thus uses highly optimized machine code. The third method (Use a Trigger) is likely to be the slowest. A decision between the first and the second method depends on your specific requirements. Now that you’ve seen what solutions you have at hand, do some testing in your own environment to determine which of these two methods to use.




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