Background to T-SQL querying and programming

SQL Server architecture

This section will introduce you to the SQL Server architecture, the on-premises and cloud RDBMS flavors that Microsoft offers, the entities involved—SQL Server instances, databases, schemas, and database objects—and the purpose of each entity.

On-premises and cloud RDBMS flavors

Initially, Microsoft offered mainly one enterprise-level RDBMS—an on-premises flavor called Microsoft SQL Server. These days, Microsoft offers an overwhelming plethora of options as part of its data platform, which constantly keeps evolving. Within its data platform, Microsoft offers both on-premises, or box, solutions, and service-based cloud solutions.


The on-premises RDBMS flavor that Microsoft offers is called Microsoft SQL Server, or just SQL Server. This is the traditional flavor, usually installed on the customer’s premises. The customer is responsible for everything—getting the hardware, installing the software, patching, high availability and disaster recovery, security, and everything else.

The customer can install multiple instances of the product on the same server (more on this in the next section) and can write queries that interact with multiple databases. It is also possible to switch the connection between databases, unless one of them is a contained database (defined later).

The querying language used is T-SQL. You can run all the code samples and exercises in this book on an on-premises SQL Server implementation, if you want. See the Appendix for details about obtaining and installing SQL Server, as well as creating the sample database.


Cloud computing provides compute and storage resources on demand from a shared pool of resources. Microsoft’s RDBMS technologies can be provided both as private-cloud and public-cloud services. A private cloud is cloud infrastructure that services a single organization and usually uses virtualization technology. It’s typically hosted locally at the customer site, and maintained by the IT group in the organization. It’s about self-service agility, allowing the users to deploy resources on demand. It provides standardization and usage metering. The database engine is usually an on-premises engine, where T-SQL is used to manage and manipulate the data. SQL Server can run on either Windows or Linux, and therefore can be deployed on any private cloud, no matter the underlying OS platform.

As for the public cloud, the services are provided over the network and available to the public. Microsoft provides two forms of public RDBMS cloud services: infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and platform as a service (PaaS). With IaaS, you provision a virtual machine (VM) that resides in Microsoft’s cloud infrastructure. This offering is known as SQL Server on Azure VM. As a starting point, you can choose between several preconfigured VMs that already have a certain version and edition of SQL Server installed on them, and follow best practices. The hardware is maintained by Microsoft, but you’re responsible for maintaining and patching the software. It’s essentially like maintaining your own SQL Server installation—one that happens to reside on Microsoft’s hardware.

With PaaS, Microsoft provides the database cloud platform as a service. It’s hosted in Microsoft’s data centers. Hardware, software installation and maintenance, high availability and disaster recovery, and patching are all responsibilities of Microsoft. The customer is still responsible for index and query tuning, however.

Microsoft provides a number of PaaS database offerings. For OLTP systems as well as SMP-based data warehouses, it offers Azure SQL Database and Azure SQL Managed Instance. You can find a detailed comparison between these two PaaS offerings here: You will find that, for example, with the former you cannot perform cross-database/three-part name queries and with the latter you can, as well as other differences. Generally, the latter gives you closer parity with the on-premises flavor.

As mentioned, Microsoft uses the term Azure SQL to collectively refer to the three SMP-based cloud offerings: SQL Server on Azure VM, Azure SQL Database, and Azure SQL Managed Instance.

Note that Azure SQL Database and Azure SQL Managed Instance share the same code base with the latest version of SQL Server. So most of the T-SQL language surface is the same in both the on-premises and cloud environments. Therefore, most of the T-SQL you’ll learn about in this book is applicable to both environments. You can read about the differences that do exist—especially between SQL Server and Azure SQL Database—here: You should also note that the update and deployment rate of the cloud flavors are faster than that of the on-premises SQL Server product. Therefore, some T-SQL features might be exposed in the cloud first before they show up in the on-premises product.

As mentioned, Microsoft also provides a MPP-based PaaS offering called Azure Synapse Analytics as a cloud native data warehousing solution, with a distributed processing engine, that you query and manage with T-SQL.

SQL Server instances

In the on-premises product, an instance of SQL Server, as illustrated in Figure 1-6, is an installation of a SQL Server database engine or service. You can install multiple instances of SQL Server on the same computer. Each instance is completely independent of the others in terms of security and the data that it manages, and in all other respects. At the logical level, two different instances residing on the same computer have no more in common than two instances residing on two separate computers. Of course, same-computer instances do share the server’s physical resources, such as CPU, memory, and disk.


FIGURE 1-6 Multiple instances of SQL Server on the same computer

You can set up one of the multiple instances on a computer as the default instance, whereas all others must be named instances. You determine whether an instance is the default or a named one upon installation; you cannot change that decision later. To connect to a default instance, a client application needs to specify the computer’s name or IP address. To connect to a named instance, the client needs to specify the computer’s name or IP address, followed by a backslash (\), followed by the instance name (as provided upon installation). For example, suppose you have two instances of SQL Server installed on a computer called Server1. One of these instances was installed as the default instance, and the other was installed as a named instance called Inst1. To connect to the default instance, you need to specify only Server1 as the server name. To connect to the named instance, you need to specify both the server and the instance name: Server1\Inst1.

There are various reasons why you might want to install multiple instances of SQL Server on the same computer, but I’ll mention a couple of them here. One reason, mainly historic, is to save on support costs. For example, to test the functionality of features in response to support calls or reproduce errors that users encounter in the production environment, the support department needs local installations of SQL Server that mimic the user’s production environment in terms of version, edition, and service pack of SQL Server. If an organization has multiple user environments, the support department needs multiple installations of SQL Server. Rather than having multiple computers, each hosting a different installation of SQL Server that must be supported separately, the support department can have one computer with multiple installed instances. Of course, nowadays you can meet the same needs with container or virtualization technologies. It’s just that SQL Server instances were available before virtualization and container technologies took off.

As another example, consider people like me who teach and lecture about SQL Server. For us, it is convenient to be able to install multiple instances of SQL Server on the same laptop. This way, we can perform demonstrations against different versions of the product, showing differences in behavior between versions, and so on.

As a final example, also mainly historic, providers of database services sometimes need to guarantee their customers complete security separation of their data from other customers’ data. At least in the past, the database provider could have a very powerful data center hosting multiple instances of SQL Server, rather than needing to maintain multiple less-powerful computers, each hosting a different instance. Nowadays, cloud solutions and advanced container and virtualization technologies make it possible to achieve similar goals.


You can think of a database as a container of objects such as tables, views, stored procedures, and other objects. Each instance of SQL Server can contain multiple databases, as illustrated in Figure 1-7. When you install SQL Server, the setup program creates several system databases that hold system data and serve internal purposes. After you install SQL Server, you can create your own user databases that will hold application data.


FIGURE 1-7 An example of multiple databases on a SQL Server instance

The system databases that the setup program creates include master, msdb, model, tempdb, and Resource. A description of each follows:

  • master The master database holds instance-wide metadata information, the server configuration, information about all databases in the instance, and initialization information.

  • model The model database is used as a template for new databases. Every new database you create is initially created as a copy of model. So if you want certain objects (such as user-defined data types) to appear in all new databases you create, or certain database properties to be configured in a certain way in all new databases, you need to create those objects and configure those properties in the model database. Note that changes you apply to the model database will not affect existing databases—only new databases you create in the future.

  • tempdb The tempdb database is where SQL Server stores temporary data such as work tables, sort and hash table data when it needs to persist those, row versioning information, and so on. SQL Server allows you to create temporary tables for your own use, and the physical location of those is in tempdb. Note that this database is destroyed and re-created as a copy of the model database every time you restart the instance of SQL Server.

  • msdb The msdb database is used mainly by a service called SQL Server Agent to store its data. SQL Server Agent is in charge of automation, which includes entities such as jobs, schedules, and alerts. SQL Server Agent is also the service in charge of replication. The msdb database also holds information related to other SQL Server features, such as Database Mail, Service Broker, backups, and more.

  • Resource The Resource database is a hidden, read-only database that holds the definitions of all system objects. When you query system objects in a database, they appear to reside in the sys schema of the local database, but in actuality their definitions reside in the Resource database.

In SQL Server and Azure SQL Managed Instance, you can connect directly to the system databases master, model, tempdb, and msdb. In Azure SQL Database, you can connect directly only to the system database master. If you create temporary tables or declare table variables (more on this topic in Chapter 12, “Programmable objects”), they are created in tempdb, but you cannot connect directly to tempdb and explicitly create user objects there.

You can create multiple user databases (up to 32,767) within an instance. A user database holds objects and data for an application.

You can define a property called collation at the database level that will determine default language support, case sensitivity, and sort order for character data in that database. If you do not specify a collation for the database when you create it, the new database will use the default collation of the instance (chosen upon installation).

To run T-SQL code against a database, a client application needs to connect to a SQL Server instance and be in the context of, or use, the relevant database. The application can still access objects from other databases by adding the database name as a prefix. That’s the case with both SQL Server and Azure SQL Managed Instance. Azure SQL Database does not support cross-database/three-part name queries.

In terms of security, to be able to connect to a SQL Server instance, the database administrator (DBA) must create a login for you. The login can be tied to your Microsoft Windows credentials, in which case it is called a Windows authenticated login. With a Windows authenticated login, you can’t provide login and password information when connecting to SQL Server, because you already provided those when you logged on to Windows. The login can be independent of your Windows credentials, in which case it’s called a SQL Server authenticated login. When connecting to SQL Server using a SQL Server authenticated login, you will need to provide both a login name and a password.

The DBA needs to map your login to a database user in each database you are supposed to have access to. The database user is the entity that is granted permissions to objects in the database.

SQL Server supports a feature called contained databases that breaks the connection between a database user and an instance-level login. The user (Windows or SQL authenticated) is fully contained within the specific database and is not tied to a login at the instance level. When connecting to SQL Server, the user needs to specify the database he or she is connecting to, and the user cannot subsequently switch to other user databases.

So far, I’ve mainly mentioned the logical aspects of databases. If you’re using Azure SQL Database or Azure SQL Managed Instance, your only concern is that logical layer. You do not deal with the physical layout of the database’s data and log files, tempdb, and so on. But if you’re using SQL Server (including SQL Server on Azure VM), you are responsible for the physical layer as well. Figure 1-8 shows a diagram of the physical database layout.


FIGURE 1-8 Database layout

The database is made up of data files, transaction log files, and optionally checkpoint files holding memory-optimized data (part of a feature called In-Memory OLTP, which I describe shortly). When you create a database, you can define various properties for data and log files, including the file name, location, initial size, maximum size, and an autogrowth increment. Each database must have at least one data file and at least one log file (the default in SQL Server). The data files hold object data, and the log files hold information that SQL Server needs to maintain transactions.

Although SQL Server can write to multiple data files in parallel, it can write to only one log file at a time, in a sequential manner. Therefore, unlike with data files, having multiple log files does not result in a performance benefit. You might need to add log files if the disk drive where the log resides runs out of space.

Data files are organized in logical groups called filegroups. A filegroup is the target for creating an object, such as a table or an index. The object data will be spread across the files that belong to the target filegroup. Filegroups are your way of controlling the physical locations of your objects. A database must have at least one filegroup called PRIMARY, and it can optionally have other user filegroups as well. The PRIMARY filegroup contains the primary data file (which has an .mdf extension) for the database, and the database’s system catalog. You can optionally add secondary data files (which have an .ndf extension) to PRIMARY. User filegroups contain only secondary data files. You can decide which filegroup is marked as the default filegroup. Objects are created in the default filegroup when the object creation statement does not explicitly specify a different target filegroup.

The SQL Server database engine includes a memory-optimized engine called In-Memory OLTP. You can use this feature to integrate memory-optimized objects, such as memory-optimized tables and natively compiled modules (procedures, functions, and triggers), into your database. To do so, you need to create a filegroup in the database marked as containing memory-optimized data and, within it, at least one path to a folder. SQL Server stores checkpoint files with memory-optimized data in that folder, and it uses those to recover the data every time SQL Server is restarted.

Schemas and objects

When I said earlier that a database is a container of objects, I simplified things a bit. As illustrated in Figure 1-9, a database contains schemas, and schemas contain objects. You can think of a schema as a container of objects, such as tables, views, stored procedures, and others.


FIGURE 1-9 A database, schemas, and database objects

You can control permissions at the schema level. For example, you can grant a user SELECT permissions on a schema, allowing the user to query data from all objects in that schema. So security is one of the considerations for determining how to arrange objects in schemas.

The schema is also a namespace—it is used as a prefix to the object name. For example, suppose you have a table named Orders in a schema named Sales. The schema-qualified object name (also known as the two-part object name) is Sales.Orders. You can refer to objects in other databases by adding the database name as a prefix (three-part object name), and to objects in other instances by adding the instance name as a prefix (four-part object name). If you omit the schema name when referring to an object, SQL Server will apply a process to resolve the schema name, such as checking whether the object exists in the user’s default schema and, if the object doesn’t exist, checking whether it exists in the dbo schema. Microsoft recommends that when you refer to objects in your code you always use the two-part object names. If multiple objects with the same name exist in different schemas, you might end up getting a different object than the one you wanted.