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Treating NULLs as not less than zero in ORDER BY Revisited

In my post yesterday, I shared a little known trick for sorting NULLs last when using ORDER BY ASC.

To summarize briefly, NULLs are treated as less than 0 when used in ORDER BY, However, sometimes you do not want that behavior, and you need the NULLs listed last, even though you want your numbers in ascending order.

So a query like the following returns the NULLs first (expected behavior):

| col1   | col2 |
| apple  | NULL |
| apple  |    5 |
| apple  |   10 |
| banana | NULL |
| banana |    5 |
| banana |   10 |

The trick I mentioned in my post is to rewrite the query like:


The difference is that we added a minus sign (-) in front of the column …

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Treating NULLs as not less than zero in ORDER BY

I was working on a seemingly basic query the other day where the user needed to have an INT column listed in ascending order (i.e., 1, 2, 3, …).

However, the tricky part came in because the column allowed NULLs and the user needed the NULLs to be listed last, not first, which is the default behavior in both MariaDB and MySQL.

We first devised a somewhat convoluted solution where we used ISNULL() first in the ORDER BY, and then the column, but that wasn’t ideal since it added an additional check for each row in the ORDER BY, which we wanted to avoid in a query returning ~5M rows.

To illustrate, a normal query just sorting in ASC order returned:

MariaDB> SELECT * FROM t1 ORDER BY col1 ASC, col3 ASC;
| col1   | col2   | col3 |
| apple  | yellow | NULL |
| apple  | red    |    5 |
| apple  | green  |   10 |
| banana | brown  | NULL |
| banana | green  |    5 |
| …
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MySQL Indexing Considerations Of Implementing A Priority Field In Your Application


If you, like me, are building or thinking of implementing a MySQL-powered application that has any need for prioritizing selecting certain data over other data, this article is for you.


As a real world example, consider a queue-like video processing system. Your application receives new videos and processes them. The volume of incoming videos can at times be higher than the processing rate because the process is CPU bound, so occasionally a pretty long queue may form. You will try to process them as fast as you can but…

Note that I am using a queue here, so the the next item to be processed is a result of sorting by some sort of field in a ascending order, for example ORDER BY id or ORDER BY upload_date. Iâ€ll pick the id sort here.

…suddenly, you need to process a video somewhere in the middle of the queue or an important video enters and …

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