Handling arbitrary sort order in a database table

There are times when your web application needs to retain an arbitrary sort order for object. For example, you may have a slideshow of photographs and you want to be able to arrange them in any order you like. The simplest way to do this is to assign an attribute to each object that explicitly represents its sort position.

This raises the question, when you decide to move an object to a new position in the sort order, what is the simplest way to update the other objects to ensure that you maintain consecutive sort positions.

Imagine the following SQL table:

CREATE TABLE "projects" (
    "id" INTEGER PRIMARY KEY AUTOINCREMENT NOT NULL,
    "name" VARCHAR(255),
    "sort_order" INTEGER UNSIGNED
);

The ‘sort_order’ field contains a simple integer that indicates the position that the object should appear in. To get the ‘projects’ in the desired order, you’d execute:

SELECT * FROM projects ORDER BY sort_order DESC

To move an object from one position to another is a fairly simple operation. Each object has a unique (and immutable) “id”.  An appropriate method signature would be something like this:

def change_sort_location(object_id, new_location)

The following steps should be followed:

  1. Identify the current location of the objects as old_location
  2. If old_location < new_location
    1. Subtract 1 from sort_order for all objects where old_location < sort_order ≤ new_location
  3. If new_location < old_location
    1. Add 1 to sort_order for all objects where new_location < sort_order ≤ old_location
  4. Set sort_order for the provided id to new_location

The SQL for this is pretty straightforward:

UPDATE projects SET sort_order = sort_order-1
  WHERE sort_order > @old_location AND sort_order <= @new_location

or

UPDATE projects SET sort_order = sort_order+1
  WHERE sort_order > @new_location AND sort_order <= @old_location

followed by

UPDATE projects SET sort_order = @new_location
  WHERE id = @object_id

Clearly, in a full implementation, you'd probably not be using SQL variables, but the point stands.

One complaint might be that the object that is getting moved can get updated twice here, but that's unlikely to be a major performance impact.

Currently, once object move requires 2 SQL queries. N object moves will require 2N SQL queries. I'm currently trying to figure out a method to reduce the number of SQL queries needed for multiple moves.

One Response to “Handling arbitrary sort order in a database table”

  1. Megan Walker  on April 2nd, 2011

    Glad to see you are writing again! :-)

    Reply

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