Dealing with very very long string lists using Database 12.2


Lots Of Pieces String

Oracle RDBMS 11gR2 introduced the LISTAGG function for working with string values. It can be used to aggregate values from groups of rows and return a concatenated string where the values are typically separated by a comma or semi-colon - you can determine this yourself within the code by supplying your own separator symbol.

Based on the number of posts across various forums and blogs, it is widely used by developers. However, there is one key issue that has been highlighted by many people: when using LISTAGG on data sets that contain very large strings it is possible to create a list that is too long. This causes the following overflow error to be generated:
ORA-01489: result of string concatenation is too long.
Rather annoyingly for developers and DBAs, it is very difficult to determine ahead of time if the concatenation of the values within the specified LISTAGG measure_expr will cause an ORA-01489 error. Many people have posted workarounds to resolve this problem - including myself. Probably the most elegant and simple solution has been to use the 12c MATCH_RECOGNIZE feature, however, this required use of 12c Release 1 which was not always available to all DBAs and/or developers.

If you want to replicate the problem and you have access to the sample SH schema then try executing this query:
SELECT
g.country_region,
LISTAGG(c.cust_first_name||' '||c.cust_last_name, ',') WITHIN GROUP (ORDER BY c.country_id) AS Customer
FROM customers c, countries g
WHERE g.country_id = c.country_id
GROUP BY country_region
ORDER BY country_region;
All the samples in this post use our sample SH schema. Once we release the on-premise version of 12.2 you will be able to download the Examples file for your platform from the database home page on OTN. I have a published a tutorial on LiveSQL so you can play with all the new keywords covered in this post.

What have we changed in 12.2?

One way of resolving ORA-01489 errors is to simply increase the size of VARCHAR2 objects.

Larger object sizes

The size limit for VARCHAR2 objects is determined by the database parameter MAX_STRING_SIZE. You can check the setting in your database using the following command:
show parameter MAX_STRING_SIZE
in my demo environment this returns the following:
NAME            TYPE   VALUE
--------------- ------ --------
max_string_size string STANDARD
Prior to Oracle RDBMS 12.1.0.2 the upper limit for VARCHAR2 was 4K. With Oracle RDBMS 12.1.0.2 this limit has been raised to 32K. This increase may solve a lot of issues but it does require a change to the database parameter MAX_STRING_SIZE. By setting MAX_STRING_SIZE = EXTENDED this enables the new 32767 byte limit.
ALTER SYSTEM SET max_string_size=extended SCOPE= SPFILE;
However, with the increasing interest in big data sources it is clear that there is still considerable potential for ORA-01489 errors as you use the LISTAGG feature within queries against extremely large data sets.

What is needed is a richer syntax within the LISTAGG function and this has now been implemented as part of Database 12c Release 2.

Better list management

With 12.2 we have made it easier to manage to lists that are likely to generate an error because they are too long. There are a whole series of new keywords that can be used:
  • ON OVERFLOW ERROR
  • ON OVERFLOW TRUNCATE
  • WITH COUNT vs. WITHOUT COUNT
Let’s look a little closer at each of these features…..


1. Keeping Pre-12.2 functionality
If you want to your existing code to continue to return an error if the string is too long then the great news is that this is the default behaviour. When the length of the LISTAGG string exceeds the VARCHAR2 limit then the standard error will be returned:
ERROR at line xxx:
ORA-01489: result of string concatenation is too long

However, where possible I would recommend adding “ON OVERFLOW ERROR” to your LISTAGG code to make it completely clear that you are expecting an error when an overflow happens:
SELECT 
g.country_region,
LISTAGG(c.cust_first_name||’ ‘||c.cust_last_name, ‘,' ON OVERFLOW ERROR) WITHIN GROUP (ORDER BY c.country_id) AS Customer
FROM customers c, countries g
WHERE g.country_id = c.country_id
GROUP BY country_region
ORDER BY country_region;
So it’s important to note that by default the truncation features are disabled and you will need to change any existing code if you don’t want to raised an error.


2. New ON OVERFLOW TRUNCATE… keywords
If you want to truncate the list of values at the 4K or 32K boundary then you need to use the newly added keywords ON OVERFLOW TRUNCATE as shown here:
SELECT 
g.country_region,
LISTAGG(c.cust_first_name||’ ‘||c.cust_last_name, ‘,' ON OVERFLOW TRUNCATE) WITHIN GROUP (ORDER BY c.country_id) AS Customer
FROM customers c, countries g
WHERE g.country_id = c.country_id
GROUP BY country_region
ORDER BY country_region;

when truncation occurs we will truncate back to the next full value at which point you can control how you tell the user that the list has been truncated. By default we append three dots ‘…’ to the string as indicator that truncation has occurred but you can override this as follows:
SELECT 
g.country_region,
LISTAGG(c.cust_first_name||’ ‘||c.cust_last_name, ‘,’ ON OVERFLOW TRUNCATE ‘***) WITHIN GROUP (ORDER BY c.country_id) AS Customer
FROM customers c, countries g
WHERE g.country_id = c.country_id
GROUP BY country_region
ORDER BY country_region;

If you want to keep the existing pre-12.2 behaviour where we return an error if the string is too long then you can either rely on the default behaviour or explicitly state that an error should be returned (always a good idea to avoid relying on default behaviour in my opinion) by using the keywords:
SELECT 
g.country_region,
LISTAGG(c.cust_first_name||’ ‘||c.cust_last_name, ‘,' ON OVERFLOW ERROR) WITHIN GROUP (ORDER BY c.country_id) AS Customer
FROM customers c, countries g
WHERE g.country_id = c.country_id
GROUP BY country_region
ORDER BY country_region;
which will now generate the normal error message - i.e. replicates the pre-12.2 behaviour:
ORA-01489: result of string concatenation is too long
01489. 00000 - "result of string concatenation is too long"
*Cause: String concatenation result is more than the maximum size.
*Action: Make sure that the result is less than the maximum size.
 of course you can simply omit the new keywords and get the same behaviour:
SELECT 
g.country_region,
LISTAGG(c.cust_first_name||’ ‘||c.cust_last_name, ‘,') WITHIN GROUP (ORDER BY c.country_id) AS Customer
FROM customers c, countries g
WHERE g.country_id = c.country_id
GROUP BY country_region
ORDER BY country_region;
which, as before, generates the normal error message - i.e. replicates the pre-12.2 behaviour:
ORA-01489: result of string concatenation is too long
01489. 00000 - "result of string concatenation is too long"
*Cause: String concatenation result is more than the maximum size.
*Action: Make sure that the result is less than the maximum size.

3. How many values are missing?
If you need to know how many values were removed from the list to make it fit into the available space then you can use the keywords ‘WITH COUNT’ - this is the default behaviour. Alternatively if you don’t want a count at the end of the truncated string you can use the keywords ‘WITHOUT COUNT’, which is the default behaviour.
SELECT 
g.country_region,
LISTAGG(c.cust_first_name||’ ‘||c.cust_last_name, ‘,’ ON OVERFLOW TRUNCATE ‘***’ WITH COUNT) WITHIN GROUP (ORDER BY c.country_id) AS Customer
FROM customers c, countries g
WHERE g.country_id = c.country_id
GROUP BY country_region
ORDER BY country_region;

4. Do we split values when truncation occurs?
No. When determining where to force the truncation we take into account the full length of each value. Therefore, if you consider the example that we have been using which creates a list of customer names within each country we will always include the customer full name  “Keith Laker” (i.e. first name + last name). There has to be enough space to add the complete string (first+last name) to the list otherwise the whole string, “Keith Laker” is removed and the truncation indicator is inserted. It’s not possible for the last value in the string to be only the first name where the last name has been truncated/removed.

5. How do we calculate the overall length of the string values?
The characters to indicate that an overflow has occurred are appended at the end of the list of values, which in this case if the default value of three dots “. . .”.  The overflow functionality traverses backwards from the maximum possible length to the end of the last complete value in the LISTAGG clause, then it adds the user-defined separator followed by the user defined overflow indicator, followed by output from the ’WITH COUNT’ clause which adds a counter at the end of a truncated string to indicate the number of values that have been removed/truncated from the list.

Summary
With Database 12c Release 2 we have tackled the ORA-01489 error in two ways: 1) increased the the size of VARCHAR2 objects to 32K and 2) extended functionality of LISTAGG to allow greater control over the management of extremely long lists. Specifically there are several new keywords:
  • ON OVERFLOW TRUNCATE
  • ON OVERFLOW ERROR (default behaviour)
  • WITH COUNT
  • WITHOUT COUNT  (default behaviour)
Hopefully this new functionality will mean that all those wonderful workarounds for dealing with “ORA-01489: result of string concatenation is too long“ errors that have been created over the years can now be replaced by standard SQL functionality. Don't forget to try the tutorial on livesql - it's a completely free service, all you need to do is register for an account.

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