SQL Window Functions by Example

Window Functions in SQL

Interested in how SQL window functions work? We use some simple examples to get you started.

sql window functions tutorial

SQL window functions are a bit different; they compute their result based on a set of rows rather than on a single row. In fact, the “window” in “window function” refers to that set of rows.

Window functions are similar to aggregate functions, but there is one important difference. When we use aggregate functions with the GROUP BY clause, we “lose” the individual rows. We can’t mix attributes from an individual row with the results of an aggregate function; the function is performed on the rows as an entire group. This is not the case when we use window functions: we can generate a result set with some attributes of an individual row together with the results of the window function. This is good for new SQL developers to keep in mind. So let’s examine some simple SQL window functions in action.

Window Functions in Action

Window functions can be called in the SELECT statement or in the ORDER BY clause. However, they can never be called in the WHERE clause. You’ll notice that all the examples in this article call the window function in the SELECT column list.

Our first example will use the Employeetable:

employee_id full_name department salary
100 Mary Johns SALES 1000.00
101 Sean Moldy IT 1500.00
102 Peter Dugan SALES 2000.00
103 Lilian Penn SALES 1700.00
104 Milton Kowarsky IT 1800.00
105 Mareen Bisset ACCOUNTS 1200.00
106 Airton Graue ACCOUNTS 1100.00

We will begin with RANK, which is one of the simplest window functions. It returns the position of any row inside the partition. Let’s use it to rank salaries within departments:

		RANK() OVER (PARTITION BY department ORDER BY salary DESC) 
			AS dept_ranking,
FROM employee;

We can see the results below:

What if we want to have the same report but with all the top-ranking employees first, then all second-ranking employees, and so on? Well, we’ll give you this challenge to figure out on your own.  Share your ideas in the comments section!

Now suppose we want to know where each employee’s salary ranks in relation to the top salary of their department. This calls for a math expression, like:

employee_salary / max_salary_in_depth

The next query will show all employees ordered by the above metric; the employees with the lowest salary (relative to their highest departmental salary) will be listed first:

SELECT  employee_id, 
	     salary / MAX(salary) OVER (PARTITION BY department ORDER BY salary DESC) 
			AS salary_metric
FROM employee

windowing is based on SQl

Other Window Functions Examples

Let’s switch from an employee-salary database to the following train schedule database:

Train_id Station Time
110 San Francisco 10:00:00
110 Redwood City 10:54:00
110 Palo Alto 11:02:00
110 San Jose 12:35:00
120 San Francisco 11:00:00
120 Redwood City Non Stop
120 Palo Alto 12:49:00
120 San Jose 13:30:00

Suppose we want to add a new column called “time to next station”. To obtain this value, we subtract the station times for pairs of contiguous stations. We can calculate this value without window functions, but that can be very complicated.  It’s simpler to do it using the LEAD window function.  This function compares values from one row with the next row to come up with a result.  In this case, it compares the values in the “time” column for a station with the station immediately after it.

This is what the query looks like:

	time as "station_time",
	lead(time) OVER (PARTITION BY train_id ORDER BY time) - time 
		AS time_to_next_station
FROM train_schedule;

Note that we calculate the LEAD window function by using an expression involving an individual column and a window function; this is not possible with aggregate functions.

Here are the results of that query:

In the next example, we will add a new column that shows how much time has elapsed from the train’s first stop to the current station. We will call it “elapsed travel time”. The MIN window function will obtain the trip’s start time and we will subtract the current station time:

	time as "station_time",
	time - min(time) OVER (PARTITION BY train_id ORDER BY time) 	
								AS elapsed_travel_time,
	lead(time) OVER (PARTITION BY train_id ORDER BY time) - time 
								AS time_to_next_station
FROM train_schedule;

Notice the new column in the result table:

Learn More About SQL Window Functions!

Window functions are not well-known aspects of SQL, but their power and flexibility make them very important. There are clauses (e.g. PARTITION BY and WINDOW FRAME) and topics that we didn’t cover in this article, but don’t let that stop you! You can learn more about SQL window functions using our blog and the Window Functions course in Vertabelo Academy. Start today!

window functions in sql

Ignacio is a database consultant from Buenos Aires, Argentina. He’s worked for 15 years as a database consultant for IT companies like Informix and IBM. These days, he teaches databases at Sarmiento University and works as a PostgreSQL independent SQL consultant. A proud father of four kids with 54 years in his backpack, Ignacio plays soccer every Saturday afternoon, enjoying every match as if it’s his last one.