Handling NULL and Empty Values in SQL Server

There are many times were we need to handle NULL and “empty” values in SQL Server. Note however, that there is a difference between a NULL and an “empty” value.

In this example we will examine the above cases and ways of handling it, when developing data processes in SQL Server.

 

Create a Sample Table with Some Data

Consider the following table:

CREATE TABLE [dbo].[table_A]
(
[id] [int] NOT NULL,
[name] [varchar](50) NULL,
CONSTRAINT [PK_table_A] PRIMARY KEY CLUSTERED([id] ASC)
) ON [PRIMARY];
GO

 

Let’s populate the table with some data:

INSERT INTO table_A(id,[name])
VALUES (1,'A'), (2,'B'), (3,''), (4,NULL);
GO

Note that the third record (id=3) contains an empty string for the column “name”.
Also note that the fourth (id=4) record contains a NULL value for the same column.


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Identifying the Issue with NULL and Empty Values

Let’s see how can we handle the two above “special” cases.

First of all if we select all the records from table_A we will get:

select id, name from table_A;
GO

 

Result:

Handling NULL and Empty Values in SQL Server - Article on SQLNetHub by Artemakis Artemiou

 

Handling the Issue of NULL and Empty Values

Then let’s try to handle the record having the NULL value and set as a new value the string “NewValue” for the result set of our select statement.

SQL Server provides 2 functions for doing this; (i) the ISNULL; and (ii) the COALESCE.
Even though the two functions are quite similar, still they have some differences:

(1) ISNULL takes only two parameters as input; (a) the expression to be checked and (b) the replacement value

(2) COALESCE takes N parameters as input (N>=2). By having N expressions as input parameters it returns the first expression that IS NOT NULL. If only all expressions are NULL it then returns a NULL value. It is like a more enhanced version of ISNULL.

Let’s try to handle the above scenario with these two functions.

 

Using ISNULL

--USE of ISNULL
SELECT id,ISNULL([name],'NewValue') FROM table_A;
GO

 

Result:

Handling NULL and Empty Values in SQL Server - Article on SQLNetHub by Artemakis Artemiou

 

Using COALESCE

--USE of COALESCE
SELECT id,COALESCE([name],'NewValue','NewValue2') FROM table_A;
GO

 

Result:

Handling NULL and Empty Values in SQL Server - Article on SQLNetHub by Artemakis Artemiou

 

Hmmm, we can see that even though for the record with id=4 we got the “NewValue” string instead of NULL, the record with id=3 still returned an empty string value.

In this case it seems that the ISNULL and COALESCE functions had no effect on the third record’s result. This was expected because that record does not contain a NULL value but an empty value instead. An empty value cannot be considered as a NULL of course.

So, how do we deal with this? How can we handle empty string values?

Unfortunately there is not a “magic” formula for that. The only suggestion is not to use empty strings but use NULL values instead which can be handled by the ISNULL, NULLIF and COALESCE functions.

 

Introducing a Custom Function for Handling Null and Empty Values

Additionally you can always create your own user-defined scalar-valued function that can deal with the issue of the empty string values. In my example, I created the following function and called it IsEmpty:

CREATE FUNCTION isEmpty
(
-- Input Parameters
@input as varchar(250),
@newValue varchar(250)
)
-- Output parameter
RETURNS varchar (250)
AS
BEGIN

-- First handle the case where the input value is a NULL
Declare @inputFiltered as varchar(250)
set @inputFiltered=ISNULL(@input,'')

-- The main logic goes here
RETURN (case rtrim(ltrim(@inputFiltered)) when '' then rtrim(ltrim(@newValue)) else rtrim(ltrim(@inputFiltered)) end)
END
GO

My function takes as input two parameters; (a) the input string and (b) the replacement string.

Then by using a combination of the ISNULL function and the CASE statement it handles both NULL and EMPTY string values. Though, the above user-defined function just handles strings and not any other expressions.

Now if we try running the IsEmpty function for the same example we get the following:

SELECT id, dbo.isEmpty([name],'NewValue') FROM table_a;
GO

 

Result:

Handling NULL and Empty Values in SQL Server - Article on SQLNetHub by Artemakis Artemiou

 

Well, I guess that’s it! 🙂

You can find more information regarding the above mentioned built-in SQL Server functions that deal with NULLs on the following MSDN Library links: ISNULL, NULLIF, COALESCE.

 

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5 thoughts on “Handling NULL and Empty Values in SQL Server”

  1. gr8 article . heads off to you not bcoz what u did but bcoz what u did is needed by me a lot. i am searching and hitting towards blackhole of web but not getting that particular star(ur article). at last i found my moon. thanks again my dear friend .

  2. The NULLIF returns NULL indeed for your example, however as NULLIF compared a single character (blank space), the ISNULL function replaces that one character with the first character of 'xyz'.

    For example, if you run:

    SELECT ISNULL(NULLIF('aaa','aaa'),'xyz')
    SELECT ISNULL(NULL,'xyz')

    You will see that the output is the same.

    A way to overcome such issues is to use the COALESCE function:
    SELECT COALESCE(NULLIF('',''),'xyz')

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