Large varchar columns can lead to huge ESRI exports when using ogr2ogr

I was recently using ogr2ogr to convert, on the fly, some data in a PostGIS to other standard formats (ESRI and MapInfo). The ESRI export in particular had some problems–it took about 4 minutes for the export of an table with 11K rows and 37 columns, and it generated a 700M dbf file. This file was then zipped (with the other config files), and in around 6 minutes was compressed to a 7M zip file, that was sent to the browser. Now, you can imagine how thrilled a user would be to wait 10 minutes for an export. Apache was timing out (the default timeout is 5 min) and I was at a loss as to how to address the performance issue.

I mentioned this to a colleague who has significantly more experience with GIS tools, and he pointed out that in the source table there were several varchar(4000) fields. Now, in PostgreSQL, [i]f the string to be stored is shorter than the declared length … values of type character varying [varchar] will simply store the shorter string. But the ESRI export does not do that–each varchar(4000) field was padded to a length of 4000, even though none of the fields approached that length.

The solution? A few simple select max(length(colname)) from table and alter table statements, and the varchar(4000)columns were decreased in size. The dbf file decreased to a 50M file, uncompressed, and the entire zip file decreased to 5M. As you can guess, the download time was slashed.

Update 2/16: The kind members of the GDAL mailing list pointed me to a document listing all the limitations of the ESRI driver for ogr2ogr.  Check out the “Creation Issues Section”.

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Installing the median user defined function on MySQL

I just re-read “How To Lie With Statistics”, which is so good I think it should be required reading in every middle school. In it, the author makes the point that there are three kinds of ‘averages’: arithmetic mean, median and mode (here I am, contributing to Wikipedia’s dominance, due to my laziness in looking up alternative definitions of statistical concepts). In general, the median is the most informative average, because it’s not skewed by a small number of outliers.But mysql (and other databases I’ve worked on) don’t natively supprt the medan, whereas I believe most support average (by which they mean ‘arithmetic mean’). Sure, you can use a stored procedure (as suggested here for PostgreSQL. However, I’m working with MySQL 4, which does not support stored procs. However, there is another solution: user defined functions. These seem like stored procedures, except you have to write them in C (or C++).

Now, I’m not a C programmer. Luckily, someone has written and released a set of mysql user defined functions that include median (as well as many other statistical manipulations). The bad news is that it hasn’t been updated for years. The good news is that with a bit of luck and many downloads, I was able to get the median function working on mysql, both on windows as a dll, and on linux as a shared library. To repeat, I am not a C programmer, so if you see any head thumping errors below, please let me know and I’ll update this document.

First off, I was working with these versions of mysql: c:\Program Files\MySQL\MySQL Server 4.1\bin\mysql.exe Ver 14.7 Distrib 4.1.10a, for Win95/Win98 (i32) and mysql Ver 14.7 Distrib 4.1.7, for pc-linux (i686)

To get median working on windows, you need to:

  1. Download the mysql-udf tarball.
  2. patch the files if you’re running a version of mysql greater than 4.1.1. patch available here, or the patched tarball is here.
  3. Download and install Visual C++ Express. (If you have a C compiler on Windows, you can skip this step and the next. Oh, and the ones following that will probably be different. (Here’s a blog post about creating a UDF using Visual Studio C++ 2003.)
  4. Download and install the platform SDK; I only followed through step 3. If you don’t, you’ll get ‘windows.h’ errors when you try to compile the UDF.
  5. Untar the myslq-udf tarball. Patch if needed.
  6. Install the mysql header files. I was able to do this via the Windows Installer, which let me modify my existing mysql installation; I had to add the ‘C Include Files / Lib Files’ feature.
  7. Create a new directory. Copy from the untarred directory to this new directory.
  8. Create a new file in that directory called udf_median.def. This file contains all the methods the UDF is exporting. Or you can just download the file I used here.
  9. Open Visual C++ Express
  10. Choose File / New / Project From Existing Code. Hit Next. Browse to the directory you just created. Create a name for the project. Hit Finish
  11. Edit the file and comment out the #ifdef HAVE_DLOPEN line as well as the corresponding #endif. If I didn’t do this, I kept getting link errors, as I guess everything between those preprocessor directives was not being compiled.
  12. Add the mysql include files: right click on the project and choose properties. Expand ‘Configuration Properties’ then ‘C/C++’ and click ‘General’. On the right, add an include directory. Navigate to the Mysql include directory and add that.
  13. Add the module definition file: right click on the project and choose properties. Expand ‘Configuration Properties’ then ‘Linker’ and click ‘Input’. Add ‘udf_median.def’ to the key ‘Module Definition File’.
  14. Make sure VC knows this is a DLL: right click on the project and choose properties. Expand ‘Configuration Properties’ and click ‘General’. Choose ‘Dynamic Library (.dll)’ for Configuration Type. If you don’t do this, you’ll get errors like: error LNK2019: unresolved external symbol _WinMain because the compiler thinks you’re trying to build an application.
  15. Right click on the project and choose ‘Build’. This gives you a DLL in the Debug directory.
  16. Copy the DLL to the bin directory of your mysql installation.
  17. Create the function by logging in to mysql and running this command: CREATE AGGREGATE FUNCTION median RETURNS REAL SONAME 'udf_median.dll';. (The user you log in as will need to have the ability to insert rows into the mysql tables.)
  18. Test and enjoy.

Deploying the UDF to linux is much simpler, mostly because you don’t have to install a compiler, linker, etc. I used ‘gcc (GCC) 3.3.4’.

  1. Download the mysql-udf tarball.
  2. patch the files if you’re running a version of mysql greater than 4.1.1. patch available here, or the patched tarball is here.
  3. Untar the myslq-udf tarball. Patch if needed.
  4. Edit the file and comment out the #ifdef HAVE_DLOPEN line as well as the corresponding #endif.
  5. Compile and link the code. Do not use the instructions on the mysql-udf homepage. If you compile with those flags, you’ll get this error when you try to add the function: mysql> CREATE AGGREGATE FUNCTION median RETURNS REAL SONAME '';
    ERROR 1126 (HY000): Can't open shared library '' (errno: 22 /usr/lib/ undefined symbol: _Znwj)
    . Rather, use the instructions in this bug report: gcc -shared -lstdc++ -I /usr/include -I /usr/local/include -I /usr/local/mysql/include/ -o'
  6. Copy the shared library to a directory where mysql will see it. I put it in /usr/lib.
  7. Create the function by logging in to mysql and running this command: CREATE AGGREGATE FUNCTION median RETURNS REAL SONAME '';. (The user you log in as will need to have the ability to insert rows into the mysql tables.)
  8. Test and enjoy.

We have pushed this UDF to production with replicated servers and haven’t seen any issues with it yet.

I want to extend my thanks to:

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MySQL performance and doing calculations on varchar columns

MySQL, along with other features designed to make it easy to use, tries to do the right thing regarding strings. When you perform a math calculation on a column or columns that are of type varchar, MySQL automatically conversts that string to a number (empty strings are treated as zero.):

To cast a string to a numeric value in numeric context, you normally do not have to do anything other than to use the string value as though it were a number[.]

However, this translation, convenient as it may be, is not free. A client of mine had a query that was running calculations against two such columns. After indexing and trying to simplify the query, we were still seeing query execution times of 2+ seconds (all times are quoted for MySQL 4.1, on my relativly slow personal laptop).

The solution appears to be to change the type of the columns using the alter table syntax to type double. After doing so and running analyze table mytable, I was seeing query execution times of 0.2 seconds for the same query on the same box. Fantastic.

I am not sure if this result was due to not having to do several string conversions for each row returned by the query, or the fact that:

In some cases, a query can be optimized to retrieve values without consulting the data rows. If a query uses only columns from a table that are numeric and that form a leftmost prefix for some key, the selected values may be retrieved from the index tree for greater speed[.]

Regardless of the cause, if you’re doing some complicated calculations on columns, consider making them numbers.

unescaping a string with PL/SQL

I’ve written about PL/SQL before, but I’ve recently started working on a project that uses it heavily. Given the amount of code written for Oracle databases, I’m rather suprised that there’s not a PL/SQL Cookbook, where, like the Perl Cookbook and the Java Cookbook (more cookbooks from O’Reilly are listed here). There is an Oracle Cookbook, but based on a quick scan of Amazon, it’s is focused, as you’d expect, more on the database design than on PL/SQL programming. (Interestingly, there is a Oracle+PHP cookbook, and a PL/SQL sample code page but neither of those is quite what I’m looking for.)

The reason that I’d like a PL/SQL cookbook is that there are large sets of problems that routinely need to be solved in PL/SQL, but the language is so low level (though they just added some regex support in 10g; bravo!) that doing these routine tasks and making sure they’re correctly implemented can be difficult and tedious. This is especially true when it’s a programmer from a different language who’s used to higher levels of abstraction (like, for example, the good folks who author CPAN modules provide)–it’d be well worth my $70 to make sure that I never had to deal with a problem like, say, unescaping a string.

For that’s the problem I recently had to solve. Essentially, we have a string that looks like this: yellow,apple. This string represents two values, which need to be put in different places by splitting them up into ‘yellow’ and ‘apple’. All well and good until the possiblity of embedded commas arises, for it’s possible that the desired end values were ‘yellow,blue’ and ‘apple,banana’. The answer, of course, is to escape the commas on the way in (turning the second input into something like this: yellow:,blue,apple:,banana, and when processing to unescape those special characters (both the comma and the escape character, which in the example is the colon). That’s what these three functions do. They take a string like the above examples and parse it into a table, to be iterated over at your leisure.

/* ------------------- function splitit ------------------*/
FUNCTION splitit(p_str VARCHAR2, p_del VARCHAR2  := ',',p_idx PLS_INTEGER, p_esc VARCHAR2

:= ':')
l_idx       PLS_INTEGER;
l_chars_before      VARCHAR2(32767);
l_escape_char       VARCHAR2(1) := p_esc;
l_chars_before_count        PLS_INTEGER := 0;
l_idx := instr(p_str,p_del, p_idx);
IF l_idx > 0 then
WHILE substr(p_str, l_idx-l_chars_before_count-1, 1) = l_escape_char LOOP
l_chars_before_count := l_chars_before_count +1;

IF mod(l_chars_before_count, 2) = 0 THEN
-- if chars_before_count is even, then we're at a segment boundary
RETURN l_idx;
-- if odd, then we're at an escaped delimiter, want to move past
RETURN splitit(p_str, p_del, l_idx+1, p_esc);
l_chars_before_count := 0;
RETURN l_idx;
EXIT outer;
END splitit;
/* ------------------- function splitit ------------------*/

/* ------------------- function unescape ------------------*/

FUNCTION unescape(p_str VARCHAR2, p_del VARCHAR2 := ',', p_esc VARCHAR2 := ':')
l_str VARCHAR2(32767);
l_str := replace(p_str, p_esc||p_del, p_del);
l_str := replace(l_str, p_esc||p_esc, p_esc);
RETURN l_str;
END unescape;
/* ------------------- function unescape ------------------*/

/* ------------------- function split ------------------*/

FUNCTION split(p_list VARCHAR2, p_del VARCHAR2 := ',')
RETURN split_tbl
l_idx       PLS_INTEGER;
split_idx   PLS_INTEGER     := 0;
l_list      VARCHAR2(32767) := p_list;
l_chars_before      VARCHAR2(32767);
l_escape_char       VARCHAR2(1) := ':';
l_array split_tbl := split_tbl('','','','','','','','','','');
l_list := p_list;
split_idx := split_idx + 1;
IF split_idx > 10 then

l_idx := splitit(l_list, p_del, 1, l_escape_char);
IF l_idx > 0 then
l_array(split_idx) := unescape(substr(l_list,1,l_idx-1), p_del,

l_list := substr(l_list,l_idx+length(p_del));
l_array(split_idx) := l_list;
RETURN l_array;
END split;
/* ------------------- function split ------------------*/

/* in the header file, split_tbl is defined */
TYPE split_tbl IS TABLE of varchar2(32767)

Not all of this code is mine–I built on a solution from a colleague. But I hope this saves one other person from the afternoon I just endured. And if you are a PL/SQL expert and care to critique this solution, please feel free.


I’ve been writing SQL*Loader scripts to load a fair bit of data into Oracle. I have a set of load tables with minimal constraints on them, into which SQL*Loader pushes the rows. Then I have written some PL/SQL which pulls from the load tables to the real database.

This architecture was chosen because the PL/SQL procedures can be written to allow incremental as well as full data loads. In the incremental case, it’s conceivable there there’d be a different way of pushing data over to the load tables (via ODBC or JMS, for example). In addition, the load tables can be denormalized, and you can put enough intelligence in the PL/SQL to turn your data structures into something at which a DBA won’t cringe.

Anyway, I thought I’d share a few tips, gleaned through the process. I’m definitely no SQL*Loader guru, but here are some useful links: the sqlldr FAQ, full of good information and recently updated, the Oracle Utilities page which does a great job of explaining all the options of SQL*Loader, and this case study which outlines internationalization with sqlldr. All very useful.

Two other tips: If you are loading delimited character data that is longer that 255 characters, you need to specify the length in your control file (for example, declaring it in the control file as char(4000)), or else you’ll get an aggravating error message warning that the data you’re loading is longer than the column in which you’re trying to load it. I spent some time looking very carefully at the load table trying to see what I was missing before I googled and found out that char fields do have default sizes in sqlldr control files.

And the bindsize and rows parameters are related, in terms of the amount of data that sqlldr can push into a table before it commits. You can make rows very very big, but if bindsize is too small (it defaults to 64k, apparently) the commits will happen sooner than they need to. For more explanation and other perforamance tips, see this page.

Overall, I’ve been very happy with how easy it is to load a fair bit of data, quickly (both in terms of load time and in development time) using sqlldr.

Extending attributes of entities in relational databases

When you are data modeling, entities have attributes. During the early part of a project, it’s possible to map out many of these attributes, but often you miss some–the requirements change, the customer changes their mind, or the architects missed something at the beginning. Depending on how you’ve modeled those attributes, the pain of adding, modifying or removing them can be mellow or intense. In addition, often the values stored in these attributes need to be queried, or modified themselves.

Suppose you have a employee table (I’m trying to do this with SQL 92 syntax but I am not a DBA):
create table emp (emp_id numeric, first_name varchar(100), last_name varchar(100), dept varchar(50));
and you suddenly need to add middle name and salary to this table. There are three ways to create an extensible schema in a relational database. Each of these has their pluses and minuses.

1. The DDL method of extension
alter table emp add middle_name varchar(100), salary numeric;
Here, you simply add another column. For querying and clarity, this method is fantastic. These columns can be indexed and it’s clear that employees now have two additional attributes. However, this also means that any mapping you have between your model objects and your database needs to be updated; probably code needs to be regenerated to add these two attributes to your model objects. It also means that you have to version your database–since code that expects a middle_name attribute on employee will probably die a horrible death if that column is missing. In addition, depending on the size of the system, you might need to get a DBA involved.

2. The DML method of extension
create table emp_attributes (emp_id numeric references emp(emp_id), name varchar(100), value varchar(100));
insert into emp_attributes (1, "middle_name", "Sam");
insert into emp_attributes (1, "salary", "100000");

In this case, you can add attributes without getting a DBA involved–you simply add columns into this table. However, there is no referential integrity on the name of the attribute (is middle_name the same as mid_name the same as MIDDLE_NAME?–though, to be fair, you can put constrains on the values of the name column). In additional, the value column is not typed; though almost any data type can be stored as a string, you can lose precision and waste time converting from string to the actual type you want. In addition, querying based on these attributes is tedious:
select first_name from emp e, emp_attributes ea where e.emp_id = ea.emp_id and = "name" and ea.value ="Sam"
If you want to get all employees paid more than Sam, you need to resort to database specific functions to convert that string to a number.

3. The stored object method
alter table emp add objectdata varbinary;
With this method, you create a object or data structure in memory and serialize it to a stream of bytes which you then store in the objectdata column. This is great because you can add whatever attributes you like and the database structure doesn’t need to change at all. However, the data is unreadable by normal SQL tools and other programming languages. Querying on this data also becomes very difficult and slow, as you end up having to recreate each employees data object and test conditions in the programming language–you’re not taking advantage of the database.

There are a couple of questions that can help you determine which method you should use: How often will attributes be added? How hard is the process for that? How difficult is it to regenerate your data layer? Will you want to use SQL tools?

In general, the DDL method is the best option. It’s just the cleanest, easiest to understand and query against. The DML method is the second best, as you can still use most of the SQL toolset, even if it’s more complicated. The stored object method for extending attributes in a relational database should be used carefully, when there are a large number of attributes which can change often and will never be queried upon.

Moving a Paradox application to PostgreSQL

I have a client that has an existing Paradox database. This database is used to keep track of various aspects of their customers, and is based on a database system I originally wrote on top of Notebook, so I’m afraid I have to take credit for all of the design flaws present in the application. This system was a single user Paradox database, with the client portion of Paradox installed on every computer and the working directory set to a shared drive location. It wasn’t a large system; the biggest table had about 10k records.

This system had worked for them for years, but recently they’d decided they needed a bit more insight into their customer base. Expanding the role of this database was going to allow them to do that, but the current setup was flawed. Paradox (version 10) often crashed, and only one user could be in at a time. I took a look at the system and decided that moving to a real client server database would be a good move. This would also allow them to move to a different client if they ever decided to get Access installed, or possibly a local web server. This document attempts to detail the issues I ran into and the steps I followed to enable a legacy Paradox application to communicate with a modern RDBMS.

I chose PostgreSQL as the DBMS for the back end. I wasn’t aware at the time that MySQL was recently freed for commercial use, but I still would have chosen PostgreSQL because of the larger feature set. The client had a Windows 2000 server; we discussed considered installing a Linux box in addition, but the new hardware costs and increased maintenance risk led me to install PostgreSQL on the Windows 2000 server. With Cygwin‘s installer, it was an easy task. I followed the documentation to get the database up and running after Cygwin installed it. They even have directions for installing the database as a Windows service (it’s in the documentation with the install), but since this was going to be a low use installation, I skipped that step.

After PostgreSQL was up and running, I had to make sure that the clients could access it. This consisted of three steps:

1. Make sure that clients on the network could access the database. I had to edit the pg_hba.conf file and start PostgreSQL with the -i switch. The client’s computers are all behind a firewall, so I set up the database to accept any connections from that local network without a password.

2. Install the PostgreSQL ODBC driver and create a system ODBC DSN (link is for creating an Access db, but it’s a similar process) for the new database on each computer.

3. Creating an alias in Paradox that pointed to the ODBC DSN.

Once these steps are done, I was able to query a test table that I had created in the PostgreSQL database. One thing that I learned quickly was that two different computers could indeed access PostgreSQL via the Paradox front end. However, in order to see each others changes to the database, I had to hit cntrl-F3, which refreshed from the server.

The next step was to move the data over. There are several useful articles about moving databases from other RDBMS to PostgreSQL here, but I used pxtools to output the data to plain text files. I then spent several days cleansing the data, using vi. I:

1. Exported table names were in mixed case; I converted them to lower case. PG handles mixed case, but only with ” around the table names, I believe.
2. Tried to deal with a complication from the database structure. I had designed it with two major tables, which shared a primary key. The client had been editing the primary key, and this created a new row in the database for one of the tables, but not the other. In the end, matching these up became too difficult, and the old data (older than a couple of years) was just written off.
3. Removed some of the unused columns in the database.
4. Added constraints (mostly not null) and foreign key relationships to the tables. While these had existed in the previous application, they weren’t captured in the export.

Then I changed the data access forms to point to the new database. The first thing I did was copy each of the data access forms, so that the original forms would still work with the original database. Most of the forms were very simple to port—they were just lookup tables. I found the automatic form generator to be very helpful here, as I added a few new lookup tables and this quickly generated the needed update/insert forms.

However, I did have one customized form that caused problems. It did inserts into three different tables. After the database rationalization, it only inserted into two, but that was still an issue. Paradox needed a value for the insert into each table (one because it was a primary key, the other because it was a foreign key). I couldn’t figure out how to have Paradox send the key to the both inserts without writing custom code. So, that’s what I did. I added code to insert first into the table for which the value was a primary key, and later to insert the value into the table for which it was a foreign key. It wasn’t a pretty solution, and I think the correct answer was to combine the two tables, but that wasn’t an option due to time and money constraints. I also made heavy use of the self.dataSource technique to keep lists limited to known values.

After moving the forms over, I had to move one or two queries over (mostly query by examples, qbes, which generated useful tables), but that was relatively straight forward; this was a helpful article regarding setting up some more complicated qbes. Also, I found a few good resources here and here.

I also updated a few documents that referenced the old system, and tried to put instructions for using the new system onto the forms that users would use to enter data. I moved the original database to a different directory on the shared drive, and had the client start using the new one. After a bit of adjusting to small user interface issues, as well as the idea that more than one user could use the database, the client was happy with the results.

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