Determined on Determinism

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I’m feeling very determined on this one. Yes I have a lot of determination to inform blog readers about determinism, and yes I have run out of words that sound like DETERMINISTIC. But one of the most common misconceptions I see for PL/SQL functions is that developers treat them as if they were “extending” the existing database kernel. By this I mean that developers often assume that wherever an existing in-built function (for example TO_NUMBER or SUBSTR etc) could be used, then a PL/SQL function of their own creation will work in the exactly the same way.

Often that will be the case, but the most common scenario I see tripping up people is using PL/SQL functions within SQL statements. Consider the following simple example, where a PL/SQL function is utilizing the in-built SYSTIMESTAMP and TO_CHAR functions.


SQL> create or replace
  2  function f(i varchar2) return varchar2 is
  3  begin
  4    return i||'-'||to_char(systimestamp,'HH24MISS:FF');
  5    --dbms_lock.sleep(0.5);
  6  end;
  7  /

Function created.

Let us compare the output from the function when used within a SQL statement, with the results from same built-in functions used directly from the SQL statement.


SQL> select rownum, to_char(systimestamp,'HH24MISS:FF') x1, f(rownum) x2
  2  from   dual
  3  connect by level <= 9;

    ROWNUM X1                             X2
---------- ------------------------------ ------------------------------
         1 181557:351000                  1-181557:351000000
         2 181557:351000                  2-181557:361000000
         3 181557:351000                  3-181557:361000000
         4 181557:351000                  4-181557:364000000
         5 181557:351000                  5-181557:364000000
         6 181557:351000                  6-181557:366000000
         7 181557:351000                  7-181557:366000000
         8 181557:351000                  8-181557:372000000
         9 181557:351000                  9-181557:372000000

9 rows selected.

A direct call to SYSTIMESTAMP is fixed for the duration of the execution of a SQL statement, but this is NOT the case for the SYSTIMESTAMP call made within the PL/SQL function. The PL/SQL function is being called multiple times during the single execution of the SQL statement, and hence each execution is totally entitled to return a “fresh” result from SYSTIMESTAMP.

Moreover, the database makes no guarantees that a PL/SQL function will be called once per row encountered in a SQL statement, so if your PL/SQL function changes session state in some way (for example, a package variable) then you can never assume that there will be a 1-to-1 relationship between rows processed and PL/SQL function executions.

The only way to be sure that you won’t get unexpected results from PL/SQL function calls within SQL is for those functions to be deterministic, and responsibility for that lies entirely with the developer not with the database. So please don’t think that the solution to this is just throwing in the DETERMINISTIC keyword. You need to inspect your code and ensure you won’t get spurious results from that PL/SQL function when used from SQL.

2 comments

    1. DETERMINISTIC lets the database know that for the same set of inputs, the same output is guaranteed, This lets the database avoid unnecessary calls to the function. Obviously if a function returns something related to systimestamp, then its unlikely to be deterministic.

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