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What Are T-SQL Cursors In SQL Server.

In T-SQL, a cursor is a database object used to retrieve, manipulate, and navigate through all the rows of a result set one at a time. It allows for row-by-row processing of the same data together, which can be particularly useful for complex calculations, operations that require conditional logic on the table records a per-row basis, or tasks that cannot be performed in a single set-based query.

Cursors are created using the DECLARE CURSOR statement and can be configured to open cursor operate in various ways, depending on the specified options. They can be defined as static, keyset-driven, dynamic, or fast forward, each offering different levels of concurrency and reflectivity to changes made in the underlying data while the cursor is open.

While cursors can be powerful tools for certain operations that require detailed control over the cursor speed row-by-row processing, they are generally less efficient than set-based operations for handling large volumes of data. This inefficiency stems from the overhead associated with maintaining the state of the cursor and fetching rows individually. Therefore, it's often advisable to explore alternative set-based solutions before resorting to cursors for data manipulation tasks in SQL Server.

The use of cursors should be carefully considered and justified, as their performance impact can be significant compared to set-based operations which are more typical in SQL for manipulating large datasets efficiently.

Here's an outline outlining the differences in T-SQL Cursors across different versions of SQL Server:

Brief overview of Cursors in T-SQL.

Importance of understanding version-specific differences in Cursors.

Explanation of how Cursors have evolved across different versions of SQL Server.

SQL Server 2000 and Earlier

  • Description of the basic Cursor functionality available in SQL Server 2000 and earlier versions.

  • Limited support for Cursor types, usually restricted to forward-only and static Cursors.

  • Relatively simple syntax for Cursor declaration and usage.

  • Performance limitations and considerations when using Cursors in these older versions.

SQL Server 2005 to 2012

  • Introduction of additional Cursor types such as Dynamic and Keyset Cursors.

  • Enhanced Cursor functionality and flexibility, allowing for more complex data manipulation operations.

  • Improved performance optimizations for Cursor operations.

  • Introduction of Cursor variables, allowing for more dynamic Cursor declarations and usage.

SQL Server 2014 to 2019

  • Further improvements in Cursor performance and scalability.

  • Enhancements to Cursor management, including better memory management and resource utilization.

  • Introduction of new features such as memory-optimized table variables, which can be used as an alternative to Cursors in certain scenarios.

  • Support for new T-SQL language features that can be leveraged in Cursor operations, such as window functions and JSON support.

SQL Server 2022 and Beyond

  • Latest advancements in Cursor functionality and performance in the most recent versions of SQL Server.

  • Introduction of new Cursor types or optimizations to existing Cursor types.

  • Integration with other SQL Server features and technologies, such as intelligent query processing or machine learning services.

  • Best practices and recommendations for using Cursors in modern SQL Server environments.

T SQL Cursor - Different Types (Static cursors, Dhynamic & Keyset)

In SQL Server, cursors are used to process rows of a result set individually, allowing for more complex logic to be applied row by row. There are several types of cursors in SQL Server, each designed for specific use cases and offering different levels of performance and concurrency control. The main types of cursors are:

Static Cursor:

This type of cursor provides a static snapshot of a result set. It copies the data into a temporary table in the tempdb database when the first cursor in sql* is opened. Static cursors reflect the state of the database at the time the cursor was opened and do not reflect changes made after that point. They are useful when you need a consistent view of the data as it was when the cursor was opened.

Dynamic Cursor:

Dynamic cursors reflect all changes made to the rows in their result set as they happen. This means that inserts, updates, and deletes by other transactions are visible through the cursor. Dynamic cursors are more resource-intensive than static cursors because they must track changes to the underlying data in real-time.

Keyset-driven Cursor:

Keyset-driven cursors are similar to static cursors in that they provide a stable view of the data that existed at the time the cursor was opened. However, unlike static cursors, they allow visibility of updates (but not inserts or deletes) made to the rows in the cursor's result set. Keyset-driven cursors work by storing the key values of the rows in the cursor name result set in a temporary table, which is then used to fetch the actual rows from the base tables.

Fast Forward Cursor:

Fast forward cursors are a special case of dynamic cursors that are optimized for read-only, forward-only access. They are the fastest type of cursor available in SQL Server and are designed to minimize the overhead associated with using cursors. Fast forward cursors cannot be scrolled backward and do not support updates.

Each cursor type has its advantages and disadvantages perform multiple operations, and the choice of cursor type depends on the specific requirements of the operation, such as the need for real-time data changes, the direction of data access, and whether the data needs to be stored procedure updated.

It's important to note that while cursors can be very useful for certain operations on database tables that require row-by-row processing, they can also lead to performance issues if not used carefully. Set-based operations are generally preferred in SQL for their efficiency in handling large data sets.

When Should You Use A SQL Server Cursor?

In the world of SQL Server, cursors often come under scrutiny for their performance implications compared to set-based operations. However, there are specific scenarios where cursors are not just useful but necessary. Here are some real-world examples and scenarios where the use of cursors might be appropriate:

Complex Processing Logic:

When each row requires complex processing that cannot be efficiently encapsulated within a single set-based query. An example could be calculating values that depend on data from previous rows or external sources.

Row-by-Row Operations:

Situations where operations need to be performed on each row individually, especially when those operations involve conditional logic that varies significantly from one row to another. This or multiple operations might include updating rows based on complex conditions or integrating with external systems/APIs on a per-row basis.

Data Migration or Transformation Tasks:

During data migration or transformation tasks where data from one database server one format or structure needs to be carefully moved and potentially transformed into another. Cursors can provide the control needed to handle complex transformations and ensure data integrity.

Maintaining Application Compatibility:

Legacy applications or systems might have been designed around cursor-based logic for certain database operations. In such cases, using cursors might be necessary to maintain compatibility with existing codebases until such time as they can be refactored.

Iterative Testing or Debugging:

Cursors can be useful in development scenarios for testing or debugging purposes, where you need to inspect or manipulate data on a row-by-row basis to understand how data changes affect the outcome.

Administrative Tasks:

Certain administrative tasks, such as applying row-specific security policies or performing audits on individual rows, may require the granularity that cursors offer.

Sequential Processing:

In scenarios where actions need to be stored procedures taken in a specific sequence that is determined by the data within each row of backup table, cursors provide the necessary control to ensure that processing data within each row is processed in the correct order.

While these scenarios highlight situations where cursors might be the right tool for the job, it's important to remember that cursors can lead to performance issues, particularly with large datasets. Therefore, they should be used judiciously and, where possible, alternatives should be explored. For many scenarios, especially those involving large-scale data manipulation, set-based operations are likely to offer better performance and efficiency.

In conclusion, while cursors have their place in SQL Server development, careful consideration should be given to their use to ensure that they are applied in situations where their benefits outweigh the potential performance costs.

Declaring and Using Cursors

Using cursors in SQL Server involves several steps: declaring the cursor, opening it, fetching rows from it, optionally performing operations on each row, and finally closing and deallocating the cursor. Below is a step-by-step example illustrating how to declare cursor and use a cursor in an SQL Server database. This example assumes we have a table named Employees with columns EmployeeID, FirstName, LastName, and Salary.

Step 1: Declaring the Cursor

First, you declare the cursor variable and specify the SELECT statement that defines the result set for the cursor. In this example, we will select all rows from the Employees table.

DECLARE employee_cursor CURSOR FOR
SELECT EmployeeID, FirstName, LastName, Salary
FROM Employees;

Step 2: Opening the Cursor

Next, you open the cursor to establish cursor name in the result set.

OPEN employee_cursor;

Step 3: Fetching Rows from the Cursor

After opening sql query on the cursor, you can start fetching rows from the cursor one at a time. For each row, you fetch data into variables for processing. Here, we declare variables to hold data for current row and each column we're fetching from sql cursor.

DECLARE @EmployeeID int, @FirstName varchar(100), @LastName varchar(100), @Salary decimal(10,2);

Now, we fetch the first row only those columns from the database table and cursor into these variables.

FETCH NEXT FROM employee_cursor INTO @EmployeeID, @FirstName, @LastName, @Salary;

Step 4: Processing the Rows

Typically, you would then process data for each row within a while loop until there are no more rows to fetch. This while loop might involve displaying the data, or perhaps updating some rows based on certain conditions.

    -- Example processing: print the employee's name and salary
    PRINT 'Employee: ' + @FirstName + ' ' + @LastName + ', Salary: ' + CAST(@Salary AS varchar);

    -- Fetch the next row
    FETCH NEXT FROM employee_cursor INTO @EmployeeID, @FirstName, @LastName, @Salary;

Step 5: Closing and Deallocating the Cursor

After processing all rows, close the cursor and deallocate it to free up resources.

CLOSE employee_cursor;
DEALLOCATE employee_cursor;

Complete Example

Putting it all together, the complete example looks like this:

-- Declare the cursor
DECLARE employee_cursor CURSOR FOR
SELECT EmployeeID, FirstName, LastName, Salary
FROM Employees;

-- Open the cursor
OPEN employee_cursor;

-- Declare variables
DECLARE @EmployeeID int, @FirstName varchar(100), @LastName varchar(100), @Salary decimal(10,2);

-- Fetch the first row
FETCH NEXT FROM employee_cursor INTO @EmployeeID, @FirstName, @LastName, @Salary;

-- Loop through the rows
    -- Process each row (example: print details)
    PRINT 'Employee: ' + @FirstName + ' ' + @LastName + ', Salary: ' + CAST(@Salary AS varchar);

    -- Fetch the next row
    FETCH NEXT FROM employee_cursor INTO @EmployeeID, @FirstName, @LastName, @Salary;

-- Close and deallocate the cursor
CLOSE employee_cursor;
DEALLOCATE employee_cursor;

This example demonstrates a basic way to use cursors for row-by-row processing in SQL Server. Remember, while cursors can be very useful for certain tasks, they should be used sparingly due to their potential impact on performance. In many cases, set-based operations can achieve similar results more efficiently.

Cursor Types:


Cursors that allow fetching rows only in a forward direction, typically used for read-only operations.


Cursors that create a temporary copy of the result set in tempdb when opened, allowing multiple fetches without rerunning the query.


Cursors that reflect all changes made to the rows returned in the result set, allowing for changes to the data as the Cursor is being traversed.

Keyset: Cursors that retain a unique identifier for each row but do not maintain a copy of the data itself, providing better performance than dynamic Cursors.

Forward-Only Cursor

A Forward-Only cursor is the simplest and fastest type t sql cursor. It allows fetching rows only in a forward direction and is typically used for read-only operations.

DECLARE forward_only_cursor CURSOR 
SELECT EmployeeID, FirstName, LastName
FROM Employees;

OPEN forward_only_cursor;

DECLARE @EmployeeID int, @FirstName varchar(100), @LastName varchar(100);

FETCH NEXT FROM forward_only_cursor INTO @EmployeeID, @FirstName, @LastName;

    PRINT 'Employee ID: ' + CAST(@EmployeeID AS varchar) + ', Name: ' + @FirstName + ' ' + @LastName;
    FETCH NEXT FROM forward_only_cursor INTO @EmployeeID, @FirstName, @LastName;

CLOSE forward_only_cursor;
DEALLOCATE forward_only_cursor;

Static Cursor

A Static cursor creates a a temporary memory copy of the result set in tempdb when opened. This allows multiple fetches without rerunning the query.

DECLARE static_cursor CURSOR 
SELECT EmployeeID, FirstName, LastName
FROM Employees;

OPEN static_cursor;

DECLARE @EmployeeID int, @FirstName varchar(100), @LastName varchar(100);

FETCH NEXT FROM static_cursor INTO @EmployeeID, @FirstName, @LastName;

    PRINT 'Employee ID: ' + CAST(@EmployeeID AS varchar) + ', Name: ' + @FirstName + ' ' + @LastName;
    FETCH NEXT FROM static_cursor INTO @EmployeeID, @FirstName, @LastName;

CLOSE static_cursor;
DEALLOCATE static_cursor;

Dynamic Cursor

A Dynamic cursor reflects all changes made to the cursor rows and in the result set. This allows for updates to the data as the cursor is being traversed.

DECLARE dynamic_cursor CURSOR 
SELECT EmployeeID, FirstName, LastName
FROM Employees;

OPEN dynamic_cursor;

DECLARE @EmployeeID int, @FirstName varchar(100), @LastName varchar(100);

FETCH NEXT FROM dynamic_cursor INTO @EmployeeID, @FirstName, @LastName;

    PRINT 'Employee ID: ' + CAST(@EmployeeID AS varchar) + ', Name: ' + @FirstName + ' ' + @LastName;
    -- Assuming potential updates or other operations here
    FETCH NEXT FROM dynamic_cursor INTO @EmployeeID, @FirstName, @LastName;

CLOSE dynamic_cursor;
DEALLOCATE dynamic_cursor;

Keyset Cursor

Keyset Cursors retain a unique identifier for each row but do not maintain a copy of the data itself. This provides better performance than dynamic cursors.

DECLARE keyset_cursor CURSOR 
SELECT EmployeeID, FirstName, LastName
FROM Employees;

OPEN keyset_cursor;

DECLARE @EmployeeID int, @FirstName varchar(100), @LastName varchar(100);

FETCH NEXT FROM keyset_cursor INTO @EmployeeID, @FirstName, @LastName;

    PRINT 'Employee ID: ' + CAST(@EmployeeID AS varchar) + ', Name: ' + @FirstName + ' ' + @LastName;
    FETCH NEXT FROM keyset_cursor INTO @EmployeeID, @FirstName, @LastName;

CLOSE keyset_cursor;
DEALLOCATE keyset_cursor;

Each cursor type serves different purposes, depending on the requirements of the operation, such as the need for read-only access to sample data, the desire to see changes in the underlying data, or the requirement to iterate through a result set multiple times.

Impact on Performance & Locking And Blocking

Cursors in SQL Server, while useful for certain operations that require row-by-row processing, can have significant impacts on performance due to their tendency to create locks and potentially lead to blocking situations. This section explores these effects and the reasons why cursors are often considered a less optimal choice for operations that could be performed using set-based logic.

Impact on Performance

Cursors are known to take up memory and create locks as they navigate through a result set one row at a time. This behavior attempts to apply a procedural processing approach to a system that is fundamentally designed for set-based operations, leading to inefficiencies ("Why is it considered bad practice to use cursors in SQL Server," Stack Overflow). The very nature of cursors—processing data one row at a time—contrasts with the set-based operations SQL Server is optimized for, which can handle large volumes of data more efficiently without the need for iterating over each row individually.

Locking and Blocking

One significant issue with cursors is their propensity to lead to locking and blocking scenarios. Locks are mechanisms that SQL Server uses to manage concurrency; they prevent multiple transactions from interfering with each other, ensuring data integrity. However, excessive locking can lead to blocking, where one transaction prevents others from proceeding because it holds locks that other transactions need ("Transaction locking and row versioning guide," Microsoft).

Cursors exacerbate this issue because they often hold locks on rows as they process them, especially if the cursor operations involve data modification. This can affect database concurrency negatively, as other transactions may be blocked until the cursor releases its locks, which only happens when the cursor is closed or deallocated ("Using SQL Server cursors – Advantages and disadvantages," SQL Shack).

Complexity and Maintenance

Beyond performance concerns, cursors introduce additional complexity into SQL code, making it harder to maintain and optimize. The imperative logic required to control cursor operations diverges from the declarative nature of SQL, leading to code that can be less intuitive and more prone to errors. Moreover, the locking and blocking issues associated with cursors further complicate their use, necessitating careful management of transaction isolation levels and cursor options to mitigate adverse effects on concurrency ("SQL Server Cursor," Medium).


Given these considerations, it's generally recommended to avoid cursors for operations that can be accomplished with set-based queries. Set-based approaches leverage SQL Server's optimization capabilities, leading to better performance and reduced risk of locking and blocking. When cursors are necessary, minimizing their lifespan, carefully choosing cursor types, and optimizing transaction isolation levels can help alleviate some of the negative impacts on performance and concurrency.

Cursory Review:

Cursor States:

Declaring: The Cursor is declared and defined, but not yet opened.

Opening: The Cursor is opened, and the result set is made available for fetching rows.

Fetching: Rows are being fetched from the result set one at a time.

Closing: The Cursor is closed, and resources are released.

Deallocating: The Cursor is deallocated, and memory resources are freed.

Cursor Operations:

DECLARE: Defines the Cursor, including its select statement and characteristics.

OPEN: Opens the Cursor, making the result set available for fetching.

FETCH: Retrieves the next row retrieve rows from the result set into variables for processing.

CLOSE: Closes the Cursor, releasing resources but retaining the result set.

DEALLOCATE: Removes the Cursor definition from memory, freeing resources.

Cursor Attributes:

@@FETCH_STATUS: Returns the status of the last fetch operation (0 if successful, -1 if the end of the result set is reached, or -2 if an error occurred).

CURSOR_STATUS: Returns information about the state of a Cursor (whether it is open, closed, or deallocated).


Wrapping Up Cursors in T-SQL

Cursors can be an incredibly powerful feature for developers and DBAs. However, it's crucial to understand the contexts in which they're appropriate and to wield them with care. With the guidance provided in this comprehensive guide, you are now better equipped to make informed decisions about using Cursors responsibly and efficiently.



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