Expecting Subvertations

I’ve seen a peculiar problem on Twitter about a straightforward code that produced an unexpected result. It grabbed my interest and I’ve tried to solve it myself.

It’s important to note, that I have been running this query on SQL Server 2019 (major version 15). The query looked something like this:

SELECT
SERVERPROPERTY('ProductMajorVersion') AS MajorVersion,
CASE
	WHEN SERVERPROPERTY('ProductMajorVersion') < 13
		THEN 'True'
	ELSE 'False'
END AS LogicalTest

If it’s the first time you’re seeing a problem like this, it can be confusing. How can 15 be less than 13?

My first train of thought was the same as the original poster’s. Ok, so both values are converted to varchar according to data type precedence - similar to this:

SELECT
CASE
	WHEN '12' < '2'
		THEN 'True'
	ELSE 'False'
END AS LogicalTest

Notice the quotes around the number. I’m not comparing numbers but numbers stored as a varchar.

Because string comparison works on a character basis, '2' is larger than '1' (as 'B' would be larger than 'A'). The second character doesn’t matter.

But my theory had three major flaws.

First flaw πŸ”—︎

'15' isn’t smaller than '13'. The first character '1' is the same in both strings and second character '5' is larger than '3'.

SELECT
CASE
	WHEN '15' < '13'
		THEN 'True'
	ELSE 'False'
END AS LogicalTest

Second flaw πŸ”—︎

I haven’t checked the Data type precedence.
The int is actually higher than the varchar, so the varchar would be converted to int (if possible).

SELECT
CASE
	WHEN '15' < 13
		THEN 'True'
	ELSE 'False'
END AS LogicalTest

Third flaw πŸ”—︎

I haven’t checked the return type of the SERVERPROPERTY function. It’s a sql_variant and not varchar, which makes sense. It can have several different data types returned for different properties.

And since sql_variant type is almost at the top of the precedence list (one of the reasons it’s my favourite data type), the int value will also be converted to sql_variant.

This has been a perfect storm of bad assumptions. Now, let’s correct those.

sql_variant comparison πŸ”—︎

Like Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, sql_variant has also three rules for comparison.
Taken from the documentation (emphasis mine):

First rule πŸ”—︎

When sql_variant values of different base data types are compared and the base data types are in different data type families, the value whose data type family is higher in the hierarchy chart is considered the greater of the two values.

That means values don’t matter, only data type families.
Let’s confirm the base data types of our values.

SELECT
SQL_VARIANT_PROPERTY
(
	SERVERPROPERTY('ProductMajorVersion')
	, 'BaseType'
) AS BaseTypeServerProperty
, SQL_VARIANT_PROPERTY
(
	13
	, 'BaseType'
) AS BaseTypeNumber

Which returns nvarchar and int respectively. Now we have to match them with their data type family. I have aggregated the table so the data type familes are unique (original table is in the documentation link). The data types in rows are also ordered.

# Data type family Base data type
1 sql_variant sql_variant
2 Date and time datetime2, datetimeoffset, datetime, smalldatetime, date, time
3 Approximate numeric float, real
4 Exact numeric decimal, money, smallmoney, bigint, int, smallint, tinyint, bit
5 Unicode nvarchar, nchar, varchar, char
6 Binary varbinary, binary
7 Uniqueidentifier Uniqueidentifier

The int is higher in the table than the nvarchar and is therefore considered greater of the two. I can repeat the test with an intand a datetime.

DECLARE @dtVar sql_variant = GETDATE()
DECLARE @intVar sql_variant = 9999999

SELECT
CASE
	WHEN @intVar < @dtVar
		THEN 'True'
	ELSE 'False'
END AS LogicalTest

Which evaluates to True. That proves it and with this, our mystery is solved!
But just for fun, let’s do the remaining two rules.

Second rule πŸ”—︎

When sql_variant values of different base data types are compared and the base data types are in the same data type family, the value whose base data type is lower in the hierarchy chart is implicitly converted to the other data type and the comparison is then made.

This doesn’t apply to the Unicode family as per the rule below. So let’s test with two different Exact numeric base types.

DECLARE @bigInt sql_variant = CAST(1 AS bigint)
DECLARE @intVar sql_variant = CAST(2 AS int)

SELECT
CASE
	WHEN @bigInt < @intVar
		THEN 'True'
	ELSE 'False'
END AS LogicalTest

The int value is considered greater (because it is) than the bigint value even though the latter is higher in the data type table.
Now it’s actually comparing values.

Third rule πŸ”—︎

When sql_variant values of the char, varchar, nchar, or nvarchar data types are compared, their collations are first compared based on the following criteria: LCID, LCID version, comparison flags, and sort ID. Each of these criteria are compared as integer values, and in the order listed. If all of these criteria are equal, then the actual string values are compared according to the collation.

I won’t do all of these combination, I’ll just try the first one - LCID.

SELECT COLLATIONPROPERTY('French_CI_AI', 'LCID')
SELECT COLLATIONPROPERTY('Latin1_General_CI_AS', 'LCID')

DECLARE @French sql_variant = N'abc' COLLATE French_CI_AI
DECLARE @English sql_variant = N'abc' COLLATE Latin1_General_CI_AS

SELECT
CASE
	WHEN @English < @French
		THEN 'True'
	ELSE 'False'
END AS LogicalTest

The LCID for French is 1036 which is greater than 1033 for English. That proves @French is greater than @English.

Final thought πŸ”—︎

To prevent these shenanigans, embrace the defensive programming.
If you have an assumption - either enforce it or verify it.

In this case, I would explicitly CAST the SERVERPROPERTY to an int data type like so.

SELECT
SERVERPROPERTY('ProductMajorVersion') AS MajorVersion,
CASE
	WHEN CAST(SERVERPROPERTY('ProductMajorVersion') AS int) < 13
		THEN 'True'
	ELSE 'False'
END AS LogicalTest