How to generate row number in SQL Without ROWNUM


Generating a row number – that is a running sequence of numbers for each row is not easy using plain SQL. In fact, the method I am going to show below is not very generic either. This method only works if there is at least one unique column in the table. This method will also work if there is no single unique column, but collection of columns that is unique. Anyway, here is the query:

SELECT name, sal, (SELECT COUNT(*)  FROM EMPLOYEE i WHERE >= row_num
order by row_num

Anno 80 1
Bhuti 60 2
Darl 80 3
Hash 100 4
Inno 50 5
Meme 60 6
Pete 70 7
Privy 50 8
Robo 100 9
Tomiti 70 10

The column that is used in the row number generation logic is called “sort key”. Here sort key is “name” column. For this technique to work, the sort key needs to be unique. We have chosen the column “name” because this column happened to be unique in our Employee table. If it was not unique but some other collection of columns was, then we could have used those columns as our sort key (by concatenating those columns to form a single sort key).

Also notice how the rows are sorted in the result set. We have done an explicit sorting on the row_num column, which gives us all the row numbers in the sorted order. But notice that name column is also sorted (which is probably the reason why this column is referred as sort-key). If you want to change the order of the sorting from ascending to descending, you will need to change “>=” sign to “<=” in the query.

As I said before, this method is not very generic. This is why many databases already implement other methods to achieve this. For example, in Oracle database, every SQL result set contains a hidden column called ROWNUM. We can just explicitly select ROWNUM to get sequence numbers.


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