What is NVL in SQL – Complete guide with example

What is NVL in SQL – Complete guide with example

Handling NULL values in SQL is a common hurdle that developers come across, especially when building robust and error-free database applications. Not addressing NULL values appropriately can lead to unexpected results, making the understanding of techniques to manage them crucial. One such technique in SQL is the use of the NVL function.

1. Introduction

Structured Query Language (SQL) is the backbone for interacting with relational databases. It provides a vast array of functions and operators to extract, manipulate, and manage data. But data is seldom perfect. There are instances where some data might be missing, leading to the representation of such data as NULL in SQL. The handling of these NULL values becomes crucial for maintaining data integrity and ensuring predictable outcomes from your SQL queries.

2. What is NULL in SQL?

In SQL, NULL is a special marker used in a table’s column to indicate that data is missing or unknown. It’s crucial to understand that NULL is not equivalent to zero, an empty string, or any other default value. It is a unique representation of the absence of value.

The Significance of NULL

NULL values in SQL provide a way to represent missing or unknown data. For instance, if you have a table of customers and one customer hasn’t provided their phone number, it would be inappropriate to set it to zero or an empty string. Instead, NULL signifies that the phone number is unknown or not provided.

Issues Due to NULL

While NULL is a vital concept, it can lead to several problems:

  1. Unexpected Results: SQL operations on NULL often yield NULL. For example, any arithmetic operation with NULL results in NULL.
  2. Complex Queries: Handling NULL requires extra care in WHERE clauses, potentially complicating the query.
  3. Aggregation Issues: Functions like SUM and AVG ignore NULL, which might lead to unexpected results if not accounted for.

SQL’s Treatment of NULL

SQL has a unique way of dealing with NULL values:

  • Comparing a value with NULL using = will always return false. For equality checks with NULL, the IS operator is used.
  • Logical operations involving NULL, such as AND or OR, follow a three-valued logic.
  • Most aggregate functions ignore NULL values.

3. Introduction to NVL Function

The NVL function in SQL is a means to handle NULL values effectively. It allows you to replace NULL values with a default or specified value. Primarily found in Oracle databases, NVL ensures that operations do not yield unpredictable results because of NULL values.

Comparison with Other Languages

Different SQL dialects have their versions of the NVL function:

  • Oracle: Uses NVL.
  • SQL Server: Uses ISNULL.
  • MySQL and PostgreSQL: Use COALESCE.

While the underlying principle remains the same, their usage and syntax may vary.

4. Syntax of NVL

The basic syntax of the NVL function in Oracle is:

NVL(expression1, replace_with_value)

Parameters of NVL

  • expression1: The value or column name that might contain a NULL.
  • replace_with_value: The value to return if expression1 is NULL.

5. How NVL Works

The NVL function checks the value of expression1. If it is NULL, NVL returns the value of replace_with_value. Otherwise, it returns the value of expression1.

Returning Non-NULL Values

The beauty of NVL lies in its simplicity. When faced with a potential NULL value, NVL will ensure that a non-NULL value gets returned:

SELECT NVL(phone_number, 'Not Provided') FROM customers;

In the above query, for any customer with a NULL phone number, “Not Provided” will be returned instead.

6. Practical Examples

When diving into the realm of SQL, the NVL function stands out as a versatile tool to handle NULL values. This section will provide you with hands-on, practical examples demonstrating the potential of NVL.

Basic Examples

Imagine you have a table named salaries with the columns name and bonus. The bonus column contains some NULL values for employees who haven’t earned any bonuses.

SELECT name, NVL(bonus, 0) AS effective_bonus
FROM salaries;

This query ensures that all NULL bonuses are replaced with 0.

Let’s say you have a users table, and some users have not provided their email. You want to have a default email placeholder:

SELECT username, NVL(email, '[email protected]') AS user_email
FROM users;

In a tasks table, some tasks might not have an end_date. Using NVL, you can set a future date as a placeholder:

SELECT task_name, NVL(end_date, TO_DATE('31-12-9999', 'DD-MM-YYYY')) AS target_end_date
FROM tasks;

Advanced Examples

Consider two tables – orders and products. Not all products have been ordered, but you want to list all products with their order quantities, setting unsold products to 0.

SELECT p.product_name, NVL(o.quantity, 0) AS ordered_quantity
FROM products p
LEFT JOIN orders o ON p.product_id = o.product_id;

Aggregate Functions:
For an employee table, you might want to calculate the average bonus. However, some bonuses are set to NULL:

SELECT department, NVL(AVG(bonus), 0) AS average_bonus
FROM employee
GROUP BY department;

This ensures that departments with no bonuses don’t skew the results.

7. Common Use Cases for NVL

NVL is widely utilized in SQL for a myriad of reasons:

Defaulting Missing Data

For instance, in an e-commerce application, not all products have ratings. To handle these scenarios:

SELECT product_name, NVL(rating, 'Not yet rated') AS product_rating
FROM products;

Data Transformation

Transforming data during retrieval, especially when considering a user-friendly display, is crucial. If there’s a users table storing birth dates, and some are missing:

SELECT username, NVL(TO_CHAR(birth_date, 'DD-MM-YYYY'), 'Birthdate not set') AS display_date
FROM users;

Avoiding Arithmetic Errors

When performing arithmetic operations, NULL values can result in undesirable outcomes. In a sales table:

SELECT month, NVL(sales, 0) * 0.1 AS commission
FROM monthly_sales;

This ensures that a NULL sale doesn’t result in a NULL commission.

Conditional Aggregations

In situations where you want to calculate aggregates based on certain conditions, NVL can come in handy:

SELECT department,
SUM(NVL(CASE WHEN job_role = 'Manager' THEN salary ELSE NULL END, 0)) AS total_manager_salaries
FROM employees
GROUP BY department;

8. Comparing NVL with Other NULL Handling Functions

SQL offers a plethora of functions for handling NULL values. Let’s dive deep into how they compare with NVL.


COALESCE is similar to NVL, but it can handle multiple arguments. It returns the first non-NULL value from the list:

SELECT COALESCE(col1, col2, col3, 'All are NULL') AS result
FROM your_table;


NULLIF returns NULL if two expressions are equal; otherwise, it returns the first expression:

SELECT NULLIF(col1, 'UnwantedValue') AS result
FROM your_table;


NVL2 is an extension of NVL. If the first expression is not NULL, it returns the second; otherwise, it returns the third:

SELECT NVL2(col1, 'Has value', 'Is NULL') AS result
FROM your_table;

Comparison Table

Function Description Example
NVL Replaces NULL with specified value. NVL(col, 'default')
COALESCE Returns the first non-NULL from a list. COALESCE(col1, col2, 'default')
NULLIF Returns NULL if two values are equal. NULLIF(col, 'unwantedValue')
NVL2 Returns second value if first is non-NULL, else third. NVL2(col, 'Has value', 'Is NULL')

9. Performance Considerations

Using NVL impacts the performance of your SQL queries.

Efficiency of NVL

Generally, NVL is efficient, but it does entail a computational overhead, especially when used extensively in large datasets.

Tips for Optimization

  • Use NVL judiciously. If a column rarely contains NULL values, using NVL might be overkill.
  • Indexes won’t be used if columns wrapped in NVL are part of the WHERE clause. If performance is a concern, reconsider the query structure.

10. Potential Pitfalls and Misunderstandings

Despite its usefulness, some misconceptions surround NVL.

Replacing All NULLs

Remember, blindly replacing all NULL values might not always be the best approach. NULL signifies the absence of a value, which can be semantically different from a default value.

Data Type Mismatches

Ensure that the replacement value’s data type matches the column’s. Mismatches can lead to errors:

-- This will error if 'salary' is a number
SELECT NVL(salary, 'Not provided') FROM employees;

Overuse of NVL

Relying too heavily on NVL can lead to convoluted SQL queries that are hard to maintain and debug. Always strive for a balance.

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