Bad SQL. SQL anti patterns in OUTER joins

Explore the pitfalls of OUTER joins that even seasoned developers can stumble upon. Dive into INNER and OUTER join nuances due to INNER joins after OUTER joins. Automatically detect these anti patterns with FlowHigh
August 29, 2023

You often need to find both matched and unmatched rows between two or more tables. As we all know we use OUTER joins in SQL to achieve this.

However, there are many traps that inexperienced SQL developers fall into when working with OUTER joins. Some of these traps can be quite tricky and will lead to unintended, unexpected, or plain wrong results.

This blog post will show you how to bypass these dangerous mines and guide you safely through the SQL OUTER JOINs minefield.

Bad SQL! Don’t use INNER JOIN after OUTER JOIN.

The following query gets a list of unique customer names and unique stock items they have ordered.


This gives us 13 rows.

In the query, all joins are INNER JOINs, which means only customers with orders and corresponding order details and stock items are listed. If you’ve noticed a couple of customers missing from the result, it’s likely because they haven’t placed any orders.

So how do we identify customers who did not place orders? Exactly! We use an OUTER join.

Some developers might try the following query and are surprised that they get the same result as for the previous query with INNER joins.


This is super bad SQL. Why? It returns results that are unintended. The intention was to return all customers including those without orders. However, we only got customers with orders. Our query returned the wrong results or at least not the result we expected.

The LEFT OUTER JOIN between Customers and Orders does initially preserve any customers without any orders. But, as we then inner join ORDERS with ORDERLINES the rows with NULL values are removed. The INNER JOIN between ORDERS and ORDERLINES overrides the OUTER JOIN and implicitly converts it to an INNER JOIN.

Let’s see what happens when we convert all of our joins to LEFT OUTER joins


This gives us 20 rows.

While we now get all of the customers without orders we also get all of the orders without order lines and stock items. In other words we also preserved orders with no order lines and stock items. This may also be unintended.

What if we only want customers without orders but don’t want to show orders without orderlines at the same time?

The following query will work for this scenario.


We now get 15 rows. All of the customers without orders but ignoring orders without orderlines.

Some people prefer LEFT JOINs over RIGHT JOINs. We can rewrite the query as a LEFT JOIN with a subquery.


We get 15 rows. The same result as the query with the RIGHT OUTER JOIN.

Using FlowHigh UI to detect the anti pattern

As a DBA it is important that you detect anti patterns in SQL that lead to incorrect results.. We have created a module in FlowHigh to detect these and dozens of other anti patterns.

In this section, we’ll guide you through the process of using the FlowHigh UI to detect the anti pattern we covered earlier on.

Please note that FlowHigh is currently in Private Preview, and access can be requested from the Sonra website.

Follow these steps:

  • Access FlowHigh: Log in to FlowHigh’s web interface and select the “optimise sql” option from the left panel.
  • Submit the Query: Paste the SQL query into the editor and click “Optimise”.

FlowHigh’s analysis will identify instances of the anti pattern. If multiple anti patterns are detected in the same query, FlowHigh will highlight them individually.

We can get the details of each antipattern by clicking the highlighted number as shown in the figure above. Flowhigh will show the details of the anti pattern

Flowhigh will also offer a solution to this discovered antipattern.

Using FlowHigh SDK to detect the anti pattern

The SQL that inner joins a table after an OUTER join affects the correctness of the result set. Hence you want to closely monitor the SQL query history of your database for this particular anti pattern.

The FlowHigh SDK is very useful to programmatically detect anti patterns in your SQL code for automation purposes. As an example we can provide the sql discussed in this post as an input to FH and detect the bad SQL. We will use the below query:

Follow these steps to use the FlowHigh SDK:

  • Import the SDK: Begin by importing the required modules from the FlowHigh SDK in your Python script.
  • Instantiate FlowHighSubmissionClass: Create an instance of the FlowHighSubmissionClass by passing your SQL query to the constructor:
  • Retrieve Anti Patterns: Utilize the instantiated object to extract all anti pattern details present in your SQL code. By using the get_all_antipatterns() method, you’ll obtain a list of anti pattern instances detected within the query.


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To fully automate the detection of SQL anti patterns you can use the FlowHigh SDK to scan the query history of your database.

FlowHigh is currently in private preview. You can request access.

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