What is an SQL Aggregate?

In our previous articles we had a look at What is an SQL relation? and What is a SQL JOIN?. Today, I want to show you what is an aggregate in SQL.

You might have heard about Map/Reduce when Google made it famous, or maybe some years before, or maybe some years later. The general processing functions map and reduce where invented a very long time ago. The novelty from the advertising giant was in using them in a heavily distributed programming context.

With map you apply the same processing to every object in a collection. With reduce, you compute a result per collection of object. In SQL we know how to do that too, and we call that an aggregate.

Here is an example query that we used already:

-- name: list-albums-by-artist
-- List the album titles and duration of a given artist
  select album.title as album,
         sum(milliseconds) * interval '1 ms' as duration
    from album
         join artist using(artistid)
         left join track using(albumid)
   where artist.name = 'Red Hot Chili Peppers'
group by album
order by album;

In this query we build a new relation that compose new objects from three existing collections: ALBUM, ARTIST, and TRACK. The resulting relation is a collection of rich objects with properties from the three input relations.

From this new collection of objects, we want to compute the duration of the albums, and we have the duration of each track. So we want a SUM of each track duration, per album. Have a look at the query result:

│         album         │           duration           │
│ Blood Sugar Sex Magik │ @ 1 hour 13 mins 57.073 secs │
By The Way            │ @ 1 hour 8 mins 49.951 secs  │
│ Californication       │ @ 56 mins 25.461 secs        │
(3 rows)

The result is pretty obvious. From the relation built from albums, artists, and tracks only the album name has been kept. For each album, the query adds a computed value, DURATION.

The duration is defined as sum(milliseconds) * interval '1 ms'. The SUM aggregate is a function that operates on a collection of objects, and provides a single result per group. The group is defined with the SQL construct GROUP BY and here that’s the album, so we get a SUM per album. The milliseconds property comes from the TRACK relation, so we get a sum of the milliseconds of all the tracks of each album.

That’s almost all there is to know about aggregates in SQL! When using them more, you will want to dive into more details, such as COUNT(*) and COUNT(1) and the initial value that depend on the specific aggregate you’re using and their behavior when confronted to NULL values. That’s for another article though!

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