Some time ago, Phil Factor wrote his booklet ‘SQL Code Smells’, collecting together a whole range of SQL Coding practices that could be considered to indicate the need for a review of the code. It was published as 119 code smells, even though there were 120 of them at the time. Phil Factor has continued to collect them and the current state of the art is reflected in this article. SQL Prompt is committed to cover as many as possible of them. Phil has also updated his book which you can download here.

Once you’ve done a number of SQL code-reviews, you’ll be able to spot signs in the code that indicate all might not be well. These ‘code smells’ are coding styles that, while not bugs, suggest design problems with the code.

Kent Beck and Massimo Arnoldi seem to have coined the term ‘Code Smell’ in the ‘Once And Only Once’ page of www.C2.com, where Kent also said that code ‘wants to be simple’. Kent Beck and Martin Fowler expand on the issue of code challenges in their essay ‘Bad Smells in Code’, published as Chapter 3 of the book Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code (ISBN 978-0201485677).

Although there are generic code smells, SQL has its own particular habits that will alert the programmer to the need to refactor code. (For grounding in code smells in C#, see ‘Exploring Smelly Code’ and ‘Code Deodorants for Code Smells’ by Nick Harrison.) Plamen Ratchev’s wonderful article Ten Common SQL Programming Mistakes’ lists some of these code smells along with out-and-out mistakes, but there are more. The use of nested transactions, for example, isn’t entirely incorrect, even though the database engine ignores all but the outermost, but their use does flag the possibility the programmer thinks that nested transactions are supported.

If you are moving towards continuous delivery of database applications, you should automate as much as possible the preliminary SQL code-review. It’s a lot easier to trawl through your code automatically to pick out problems, than to do so manually. Imagine having something like the classic ‘lint’ tools used for C, or better still, a tool similar to Jonathan ‘Peli’ de Halleux’s Code Metrics plug-in for .NET Reflector, which finds code smells in .NET code.

In describing all these code-smells in a booklet, I’ve been very constrained on space to describe each code-small. Some code-smells would require a whole article to explain them properly. Fortunately, SQL Server Central and Simple-Talk have, between them, published material on almost all these code smells, so if you get interested, please explore these essential archives of information.

One can be a bit defensive about SQL code smells. I will cheerfully write very long stored procedures, even though they are frowned upon. I’ll even use dynamic SQL on occasion. You should use code smells only as an aid. It is fine to ‘sign them off’ as being inappropriate in certain circumstances. In fact, whole classes of code smells may be irrelevant for a particular database. The use of proprietary SQL, for example, is only a code smell if there is a chance that the database will be ported to another RDBMS. The use of dynamic SQL is a risk only with certain security models. Ultimately, you should rely on your own judgment. As the saying goes, a code smell is a hint of possible bad practice to a pragmatist, but a sure sign of bad practice to a purist.

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