Splitting Strings: PL/SQL

Marc Bleron and Todd Hershiser gave me some very valuable feedback through their comments on my recent “Splitting Strings” posts. The big news is: PL/SQL beats SQL!


XQUERY provides some builtin functions prefixed by “fn”. fn:tokenize is equivalent to ora:tokenize except that it doesn’t break when the delimiter is absent from the input string: it just returns the string. Marc says fn:tokenize is supported, and it does work in, but the official documentation says “not supported”. I have asked Marc for more information.

This is not a big deal. With fn:tokenize, there would simply be a bit less typing.

Escaping the delimiter

Todd pointed out that tokenize splits a string based on a regular expression, and some common delimiters (like ‘|’) have special meaning in regular expressions. As a result, I now recommend to simply escape the delimiter with a backslash ‘\’.


Todd provided a string splitting function in PL/SQL and claimed it is clearly faster than ora:tokenize. He is right!

I wrote a function similar to his and compared it to the “tokenize” solution. Here is the function:

create or replace function string_tokenize(
  p_string in varchar2,
  p_delim in varchar2
return sys.odcivarchar2list pipelined
  i_prev_pos integer := 1;
  i_pos integer;
  i_max_pos integer := length(p_string) + 1;
  i_delim_length integer := length(p_delim);
    i_pos := instr(p_string, p_delim, i_prev_pos);
    if i_pos = 0 then
      i_pos := i_max_pos;
    end if;
    pipe row(substr(p_string, i_prev_pos, i_pos - i_prev_pos));
    exit when i_pos = i_max_pos;
    i_prev_pos := i_pos + i_delim_length;
  end loop;
end string_tokenize;

By the way, I tested this function with and without the PRAGMA UDF clause introduced in 12. I found no difference in performance in this case. Here is my final test harness:

set serveroutput on
  l_num number;
  l_timestamp timestamp;
  l_plsql_secs number;
  l_tokenize_secs number;
  l_num_substrings number := 10;
  procedure do(p_sql in varchar2) is
    execute immediate p_sql;
  end do;
  select count(*) into l_num from user_tables where table_name = 'T';
  if l_num > 0 then
    do('drop table t purge');
  end if;
  do('create table t(id number, str varchar2(4000)) cache');
  insert into t
  select level, to_char(level,'fm000000000')||',000000002,000000003,000000004,000000005,000000006,000000007,000000008,000000009,000000010'
  from dual
  connect by level <= 10000;
  dbms_output.put_line('Substrings' || chr(9) || 'tokenize' || chr(9) || 'PL/SQL');
  for i in 1..10 loop
    select count(*) into l_num from t;
    l_timestamp := localtimestamp;
    select count(column_value) into l_num from (
      select id, column_value from t, table(string_tokenize(str, ','))
    l_plsql_secs := extract(second from localtimestamp - l_timestamp);
    l_timestamp := localtimestamp;
    select count(subs) into l_num from (
      select id, subs from t, xmltable(
        'if (contains($X,",")) then ora:tokenize($X,"\,") else $X' 
        passing str as X columns subs varchar2(4000) path '.')
    l_tokenize_secs := extract(second from localtimestamp - l_timestamp);
    dbms_output.put_line(l_num_substrings || chr(9) || l_tokenize_secs || chr(9) || l_plsql_secs);
    update t set str =
    str || ',000000001,000000002,000000003,000000004,000000005,000000006,000000007,000000008,000000009,000000010';
    l_num_substrings := l_num_substrings + 10;
  end loop;

Notice that I keep the same number of input rows here, whereas in my previous tests I kept the same number of output rows. My “tokenize” solution scales OK, but the PL/SQL function is much faster and scales even better.

In this case a combined SQL + PL/SQL solution beats the best pure SQL solution.


Splitting Strings: Proof!

In my previous post I used XMLTABLE and ora:tokenize to split a comma delimited string. Now I’ll apply that technique to multiple rows, and show that it’s faster than other methods.

Test data

In my tests, I configure the length of the substring, the number of substrings per row and the total number of rows I should get as output. Each input string is unique because it starts with the ID of the row: this way I avoid any caching that might reduce the number of function calls.

drop table t purge;

create table t cache as
with parms as (
  select 9 str_len, 5 num_subs, 100000 num_rows from dual
, str_row as (
  select listagg(n,',') within group(order by n) str
  from (
    select lpad(level+1,str_len,'0') n from parms
    connect by level <= num_subs-1
select level id,
  lpad(level,str_len,'0') ||','||str str
from parms, str_row
connect by level <= num_rows/num_subs;

select * from t where id <= 11;
1 000000001,000000002,000000003,000000004,000000005
2 000000002,000000002,000000003,000000004,000000005
3 000000003,000000002,000000003,000000004,000000005
4 000000004,000000002,000000003,000000004,000000005
5 000000005,000000002,000000003,000000004,000000005
6 000000006,000000002,000000003,000000004,000000005
7 000000007,000000002,000000003,000000004,000000005
8 000000008,000000002,000000003,000000004,000000005
9 000000009,000000002,000000003,000000004,000000005
10 000000010,000000002,000000003,000000004,000000005
11 000000011,000000002,000000003,000000004,000000005


Notice the CACHE keyword when I create the table. Before my tests, I access the entire table to make sure it is all in the buffer cache.

The “substr+instr” technique

This is the technique from my “New, Improved IN Lists” post. All I need to do is apply it to multiple rows.

One way to do that is to use the 12c LATERAL() clause. If you are not yet in 12c, try

select a.id, b.subs from t a,
  select substr(
    pos + 1,
    lead(pos,1,4000) over(order by pos) - pos - 1
  ) subs
  from (
    select instr(str, ',', 1, level) pos
    from dual
    connect by
      level <= length(str) - nvl(length(replace(str, ',', '')), 0) + 1
) b;

The “tokenize” technique

This one is easy to adapt to multiple rows:

select id, subs from t, xmltable(
  'if (contains($X,",")) then ora:tokenize($X,"\,") else $X'
  passing str as X
  columns subs varchar2(4000) path '.'

[Update 2016-08-02: in a comment, Todd Hershiser points out that the second parameter in ora:tokenize is a regex expression. In order to use a regex “metacharacter” like “|” as a delimiter, I need to escape it with a backslash. I decided to put the backslash in everywhere since it doesn’t do any harm.

On the other hand, if the delimiter is ‘&’ then this solution cannot be used.]

The “regexp_substr” technique

This technique is fairly popular, no doubt because it is concise. For multiple rows, I use the “CONNECT BY ... PRIOR SYS_GUID()” technique that I explained in Chunking tables 7: prior sys_guid().

select id, regexp_substr (str, '[^,]+', 1, level) subs
from t
connect by level <= length (regexp_replace (str, '[^,]+')) + 1
and id = prior id
and prior sys_guid() is not null;

Test Results

As you can see here, the “substr+instr” solution is slightly better than “tokenize” when there are fewer than 8 substrings per string. As the number of substrings increases, the “tokenize” solution scales much better. As for the “regexp_substr” solution, it is on average 20 times slower than “tokenize”.

Splitting Strings: Surprise!

In my post New, Improved IN Lists!, I split one string into multiple rows. Now I want to split multiple input strings – but first, I’ve rediscovered an even faster technique!

In this post I’ll introduce the technique, and in the next post I’ll do some testing and comparing.


  • (Warning: the XML services in the Oracle database have evolved over the last several versions. Some of the solutions here may not work in older versions. Also, prior to version 12c a DBA could decide not to install “XML DB” at all! I have only tested in version

Quite a few folks have used the XMLTABLE function to solve this problem. One way is to change the string into an XML document: there is one root node that contains one child node per substring.

var txt varchar2(20);
exec :txt := 'A,BB,CCC,DDDD,EEEEE';

select '<r><c>'||replace(:txt, ',', '</c><c>')||'</c></r>' txt
from dual;


Using the XPATH expression ‘/r/c/text()‘, XMLTABLE will go through the child nodes and produce one row per substring.

select subs from xmltable(
  passing xmltype('<r><c>'||replace(:txt, ',', '</c><c>')||'</c></r>')
  columns subs varchar2(4000) path '.'


The main drawback of this solution, aside from performance, is that the input string cannot be a full 4000 bytes long.

[Update 2016-08-01: Marc Bleron rightly commented that I could use a CLOB as an input string and have way more that 4000 bytes. The limitation I mention is only true when the input string is a VARCHAR2.]

XMLTABLE with an XQUERY sequence

If I put double quotes (or single quotes) around all the substrings, then the result is an XQUERY sequence. XMLTABLE will simply output that sequence one row per item.

select '"'||replace(:txt, ',', '","')||'"' str 
from dual;


with data as (
  select '"'||replace(:txt, ',', '","')||'"' str 
  from dual
select xmlcast(column_value as varchar2(4000)) subs
from data, xmltable(str);

Again, this solution breaks if the input string is too long.


Why doesn’t Oracle just provide a function to split these confounded strings? It does!

Oracle XQuery function ora:tokenize lets you use a regular expression to split the input string … into a sequence of strings.

select subs from xmltable(
  'ora:tokenize($X, "\,")'
  passing :txt as X
  columns subs varchar2(4000) path '.'

How simple is that? Well, not as simple as I would like. The nasty Oracle developers have decided that this function should raise an exception if the delimiter is not present in the input string. In other words, ‘A,BB’ is OK but just ‘A’ will produce “ORA-19176: FORX0003: regular expression matches zero-length string”.

Marc Bleron, who has published the ora:tokenize solution, worked around this problem by concatenating an extra comma to the input string. I worked out this alternative that allows for a full 4000 byte VARCHAR2 input string:

select subs from xmltable(
    'if (contains($X,",")) then ora:tokenize($X,"\,") else $X'
  passing :txt as X
  columns subs varchar2(4000) path '.'

[Update 2016-08-02: in a comment on the next post, Todd Hershiser points out that the second parameter in ora:tokenize is a regex expression. In order to use a regex “metacharacter” like “|” as a delimiter, I need to escape it with a backslash. I decided to put the backslash in everywhere since it doesn’t do any harm.

[Update 2016-08-05: There is a problem with this solution if the ampersand & is involved. You have to convert it to &amp; in the input string and the delimiter.]

What’s Next?

In the next post I’ll compare the performance of these solutions with the substr+instr approach, and with a popular regexp_substr approach.