Troubles with Nulls, Views from the Users

Etienne Toussaint, Paolo Guagliardo, Leonid Libkin, Juan Sequeda

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Incomplete data, in the form of null values, has been extensively studied since the inception of the relational model in the 1970s. Anecdotally, one hears that the way in which SQL, the standard language for relational databases, handles nulls creates a myriad of problems in everyday applications of database systems. To the best of our knowledge, however, the actual shortcomings of SQL in this respect, as perceived by database practitioners, have not been systematically documented, and it is not known if existing research results can readily be used to address the practical challenges.

Our goal is to collect and analyze the shortcomings of nulls and their treatment by SQL, and to re-evaluate existing research in this light. To this end, we designed and conducted a survey on the everyday usage of null values among database users. From the analysis of the results we reached two main conclusions. First, null values are ubiquitous and relevant in real-life scenarios, but SQL's features designed to deal with them cause multiple problems. The severity of these problems varies depending on the SQL features used, and they cannot be reduced to a single issue. Second, foundational research on nulls is misdirected and has been addressing problems of limited practical relevance. We urge the community to view the results of this survey as a way to broaden the spectrum of their researches and further bridge the theory-practice gap on null values.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages13
JournalProceedings of the VLDB Endowment (PVLDB)
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2022

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