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Associative Array(Index by Table) Vs Nested Table Vs VARRAY

A collection is a list of elements of the same type. Each element in the list has a unique position number or label, called the "subscript".

To give a logical analogy, consider a list of colors = {red, blue, green, yellow}. This list has four elements, all names of colors. There is a unique position of each element in the list. If we number the positions sequentially starting from one, we could say:
color[1] = red, color[2] = blue, and so on.

Here, color is the name of the collection, and the numbers within [] are the subscripts.

PL/SQL has three collection types. In this article, we’ll look at a chart for comparing the three, their advantages and limitations, and which one to use for your needs.

To introduce the three collection types:
  • Index by tables: Also called associative arrays.
  • Nested tables
  • Varrays: Also called variable arrays
The chart below lists the properties of the three collection types on a set of parameters such as size, ease of modification, persistence, etc.

Index By TablesNested TablesVarrays
SizeUnbounded i.e. the number of elements it can hold is not pre-definedUnbounded i.e. the number of elements it can hold is not pre-definedBounded i.e. holds a declared number of elements, though this number can be changed at runtime
Subscript CharacteristicsCan be arbitrary numbers or strings. Need not be sequential.Sequential numbers, starting from oneSequential numbers, starting from one
Database StorageIndex by tables can be used in PL/SQL programs only, cannot be stored in the database.Can be stored in the database using equivalent SQL types, and manipulated through SQL.Can be stored in the database using equivalent SQL types, and manipulated through SQL (but with less ease than nested tables)
Referencing and lookupsWorks as key-value pairs.
e.g. Salaries of employees can be stored with unique employee numbers used as subscripts
sal(102) := 2000;
Similar to one-column database tables.
Oracle stores the  nested table data in no particular order. But when you retrieve the nested table into a PL/SQL variable, the rows are given consecutive subscripts starting at 1.
Standard subscripting syntax e.g. 
color(3) is the 3rd color in varray color
Flexibility to changesMost flexible. Size can increase/ decrease dynamically.  
Elements can be added to any position in the list and deleted from any position.
Almost like index-by tables, except that subscript values are not as flexible. Deletions are possible from non-contiguous positions.Not very flexible. You must retrieve and update all the elements of the varray at the same time.
Mapping with other programming languagesHash tablesSets and bagsArrays

Which Collection Type To Use?

You have all the details about index by tables, nested tables and varrays now. Given a situation, will one should you use for your list data?

Here are some guidelines.

Use index by tables when:
  • Your program needs small lookups
  • The collection can be made at runtime in the memory when the package/ procedure is initialized
  • The data volume is unknown beforehand
  • The subscript values are flexible (e.g. strings, negative numbers, non-sequential)
  • You do not need to store the collection in the database
Use nested tables when:
  • The data needs to be stored in the database
  • The number of elements in the collection is not known in advance
  • The elements of the collection may need to be retrieved out of sequence
  • Updates and deletions affect only some elements, at arbitrary locations
  • Your program does not expect to rely on the subscript remaining stable, as their order may change when nested tables are stored in the database.

Use varrays when:

  • The data needs to be stored in the database
  • The number of elements of the varray is known in advance
  • The data from the varray is accessed in sequence
  • Updates and deletions happen on the varray as a whole and not on arbitrarily located elements in the varray
Example Declaring Nested Tables, Varrays, and Associative Arrays
   TYPE nested_type IS TABLE OF VARCHAR2(30);
   TYPE varray_type IS VARRAY(5) OF INTEGER;
   TYPE assoc_array_str_type IS TABLE OF VARCHAR2(32) INDEX BY PLS_INTEGER;
   TYPE assoc_array_str_type2 IS TABLE OF VARCHAR2(32) INDEX BY VARCHAR2(64);
   v1 nested_type;
   v2 varray_type;
   v3 assoc_array_num_type;
   v4 assoc_array_str_type;
   v5 assoc_array_str_type2;
-- an arbitrary number of strings can be inserted v1
   v1 := nested_type('Shipping','Sales','Finance','Payroll'); 
   v2 := varray_type(1, 2, 3, 4, 5); -- Up to 5 integers
   v3(99) := 10; -- Just start assigning to elements
   v3(7) := 100; -- Subscripts can be any integer values
   v4(42) := 'Smith'; -- Just start assigning to elements
   v4(54) := 'Jones'; -- Subscripts can be any integer values
   v5('Canada') := 'North America'; -- Just start assigning to elements
   v5('Greece') := 'Europe';        -- Subscripts can be string values


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