A Community Cure for a String Splitting Headache

A heartwarming tale of dogged perseverance and Community collaboration to solve some SQL Server string-related headaches.

Michael J Swart posted a blog this week that had me smiling in recognition and agreement, describing how an inquisitive Developer or DBA deals with a problem. It’s a three-step process, starting with discomfort and anxiety; a feeling that one doesn’t know as much about one’s chosen specialized subject as previously thought. It progresses through a phase of intense research and learning until finally one achieves breakthrough, blessed relief and renewed optimism. In this case, the discomfort was provoked by the mystery of massively high CPU when searching Unicode strings in SQL Server. Michael explored the problem via Stack Overflow, Google and Twitter #sqlhelp, finally leading to resolution and a blog post that shared what he learned.

Perfect; except that sometimes you have to be prepared to share what you’ve learned so far, while still mired in the phase of nagging discomfort. A good recent example of this recently can be found on our own blogs. Despite being a loud advocate of the lightning fast T-SQL-based string splitting techniques, honed to near perfection over many years by Jeff Moden and others, Phil Factor retained a dogged conviction that, in theory, shredding element-based XML using XQuery ought to be even more efficient for splitting a string to create a table.

After some careful testing, he found instead that the XML way performed and scaled miserably by comparison. Somewhat subdued, and with a nagging feeling that perhaps he was still missing “something”, he posted his findings. What happened next was a joy to behold; the community jumped in to suggest subtle changes in approach, using an attribute-based rather than element-based XML list, and tweaking the XQuery shredding. The result was performance and scalability that surpassed all other techniques.

I asked Phil how quickly he would have arrived at the real breakthrough on his own. His candid answer was “never”.

Both are great examples of the power of Community learning and the latter in particular the importance of being brave enough to parade one’s ignorance. Perhaps Jeff Moden will accept the string-splitting gauntlet one more time. To quote the great man: you’ve just got to love this community!

If you’ve an interesting tale to tell about being helped to a significant breakthrough for a problem by the community, I’d love to hear about it.