ISNULL or COALESCE

ISNULL Vs COALESCE

So you have come across a problem in a SQL Server query where you want to find out if a value is null and if it is, use another value. Which function should you use, ISNULL or COALESCE?

Well if you just want to do something simple and to evaluate the value to see if it’s NULL and use another value, then both commands would work if the other number is NOT NULL.

If you wanted to do something more advanced and compare a series of numbers and use the first number that is not null, then COALESCE is the function that you have to use.
Run the code into a SQL Server Environment to see how COALESCE works

ISNULL vs Coalese Code Example


SET NOCOUNT ON;

GO
USE master;
IF EXISTS (SELECT name FROM sys.tables
      WHERE name = ‘wages’)
   DROP TABLE wages;
GO
CREATE TABLE wages
(
   emp_id      tinyint    identity,
   hourly_wage   decimal   NULL,
   salary      decimal    NULL,
   commission   decimal   NULL,
   num_sales   tinyint   NULL
);
GO
INSERT wages VALUES(10.00, NULL, NULL, NULL);
INSERT wages VALUES(20.00, NULL, NULL, NULL);
INSERT wages VALUES(30.00, NULL, NULL, NULL);
INSERT wages VALUES(40.00, NULL, NULL, NULL);
INSERT wages VALUES(NULL, 10000.00, NULL, NULL);
INSERT wages VALUES(NULL, 20000.00, NULL, NULL);
INSERT wages VALUES(NULL, 30000.00, NULL, NULL);
INSERT wages VALUES(NULL, 40000.00, NULL, NULL);
INSERT wages VALUES(NULL, NULL, 15000, 3);
INSERT wages VALUES(NULL, NULL, 25000, 2);
INSERT wages VALUES(NULL, NULL, 20000, 6);
INSERT wages VALUES(NULL, NULL, 14000, 4);
GO
SET NOCOUNT OFF;
GO
SELECT CAST(COALESCE(hourly_wage * 10 * 10, salary, commission * num_sales) AS money) AS ‘Total Salary’
FROM wages;

There are some things to think about when using COALESCE, if you want to evaluate a series of numbers and all the values are NULL, at least one has to be a typed NULL

e.g

SELECT COALESCE(NULL, NULL);

will result in

Msg 4127, Level 16, State 1, Line 1
At least one of the arguments to COALESCE must be an
expression that is not the NULL constant.

but this will work

SELECT COALESCE(CAST(NULL AS INT), NULL);

Using ISNULL does not error the code, so this will work
SELECT ISNULL(NULL, NULL);

There are some minor differences between ISNULL and COALESCE and can act differently in different scenarios that you have to think about the outcome.

Did this help you, leave a comment below!

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