Date conversions in Oracle

When I was going through PL/SQL procedures written by some of my colleagues, I noticed a few mistakes made around the Oracle’s date conversion functions. There are some peculiarities about those functions that I thought everyone knew about. But I reckon if I write about it, it may help others to avoid such mistakes. I also allowed myself to outline a few rules that, if you adhere to them, will help you to write better programmes.

There are 2 functions in Oracle to convert strings to dates and back.

The first one is TO_DATE – it takes a string parameter and returns a date. Ok, it’s actually adate/time combination enclosed into a single data type – Oracle’s DATE.

The second one is TO_CHAR – does the opposite: it takes date/time as Oracle’s DATE data type and converts it to string.

Actually, these functions are bit more complex than that, but for our purpose that will do. What’s important to understand here is the distinction between date as a DATE data type and its string representation.

For example, when you type ’01-APR-09’ in the procedure’s text, that’s a string, representing a date. Pay attention here: although you meant a date, Oracle sees a string. For Oracle everything that is enclosed in single quotation marks is a string. To make it a date, we need to convert this string to a DATE data type. Such conversion can be carried out by 2 possible ways: explicitly and implicitly.

Explicit conversion is when we apply the TO_DATE function to the string:

v_date DATE;
v_date := TO_DATE('01/04/2009', 'DD/MM/YYYY');

Now v_date is a date, representing April 1st, 2009.

Implicit conversion is when we let Oracle to perform the conversion:

v_date DATE;
v_date := '01-APR-09';

It has the same effect. Every time Oracle sees a string in place where it expects a date, it is smart enough to perform the conversion for us. “Well”, you may think, - “That’s great. Oracle does it all for us, so we don’t have to do it. Life is easier, let’s go for another coffee break”.

Not quite.

You see, when Oracle does such implicit conversion, it relies on some assumptions. If you read the documentation for TO_DATE and TO_CHAR functions, you’ll find that they take another optional parameter – the date format. That format tells Oracle how the string representing the date/time should be treated. If the format parameter is not specified, it is taken from NLS_DATE_FORMAT Oracle parameter. Here’s the crux: We can’t assume that this parameter will be the same on all Oracle systems. Although it is ‘DD-MON-RR’ by default and it is left like that on most Oracle systems, we can’t assume that it’s going to be like this always and everywhere. And if you rely on implicit date conversions and some DBA changes NLS_DATE_FORMAT parameter – WHAM! – All your programs will stop working.

So, a good practice and rule of thumb for you should be:

Never ever rely on implicit date conversions! Whenever you need to convert date to string or vice versa, use an appropriate TO_DATE or TO_CHAR function and always specify a date format.

Just like this:

v_date DATE;
v_date := TO_DATE('01/04/2009', 'DD/MM/YYYY');

The danger of NLS_DATE_FORMAT being changed is the biggest threat but not the only one.

Pay attention to the default date format I provided just above – ‘DD/MM/RR’. Do you notice anything suspicious? The year is 2 digits. Here Oracle tries to be smartass and tries to guess whether you mean XX or XXI century. Your only hope that it can figure out what you meant and doesn’t make a mistake. But if it mistakes – oops, welcome back the Millennium Bug. This brings us to the second rule:

Always specify the 4-digit year.

Another dangerous programming technique is trying to convert Date to Date where no conversion is necessary.

Let’s have a look at the following example, or should I say a puzzle?

   v_date DATE := '01-APR-09';
   v_date_2 DATE := TO_DATE (v_date, 'DD/MM/YYYY');
   dbms_output.put_line (TO_CHAR (v_date_2, 'DD/MM/YYYY'));

Try to guess what will be printed as a result.

If you think ‘01/04/2009’, you’ve just screwed your business critical application and have sent it two thousand years back in time.

In fact, you’ll get ‘01/04/0009’.

This is where it all goes bad:

v_date_2 DATE := TO_DATE (v_date, 'DD/MM/YYYY');

And here’s why:

The first thing Oracle tries to do is to execute TO_DATE function. There is only one TO_DATE function in Oracle – the one that takes a string and converts it to a date. Despite we know that v_date is not a string, Oracle still proceeds with its logic. If you run this code, it won’t produce an error.

Oracle successfully convinces itself that it sees a String where it has a Date. That happens because Oracle is able to implicitly convert that date to a string, effectively turning that line into

v_date_2 DATE := TO_DATE (TO_CHAR(v_date), 'DD/MM/YYYY');

But, as we’ve already learned, implicit date to string conversions are performed using the date format recorded in NLS_DATE_FORMAT Oracle parameter, which is by default set to ‘DD-MM-RR’. Hence, what Oracle effectively does is this:

v_date_2 DATE := TO_DATE (TO_CHAR(v_date, 'DD-MM-RR'), 'DD/MM/YYYY');

Can you spot the error already? The date formats are inconsistent! This is what you get when you don’t pay attention to the details.

So, here comes rule 3:

Avoid unnecessary conversions. Never convert dates to dates.

If you think that all this stuff is pretty confusing, that’s because it indeed is. The good news is that you can avoid the confusion altogether by learning to program in a more clear, more concise way. That is a foundation of a good programming style.