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RE: Order By

From: Babich, Alan <ABabich@filenet.com>
Date: Sun, 11 Jun 2000 20:21:02 -0700
Message-ID: <C3AF5E329E21D2119C4C00805F6FF58F0398E96E@hq-expo2.filenet.com>
To: "'Kevin Wiggen'" <wiggs@xythos.com>, www-webdav-dasl@w3.org
Kevin: Good example.
Yes, servers can choose to treat zero length strings as different from null.

Or not, but if not, that would have to be done entirely under the covers on
server. The response syntax has no ambiguity as to whether the
value returned is null or a zero length string.
There >is< a way to set properties to null in WebDAV. In section 8.2.2
(of the 9/98 version of the WebDAV draft), Copyright-Owner is set to null 
by PROPPATCH. You simply PROPPATCH it with no value for it, e.g.
"<Z:Copyright_Owner/>". In contrast, the WebDAV draft doesn't seem
to provide a way for PROPPATCH to make a string be zero length. The
draft says "In this example, the client requests the server to ... remove
property ...", the operative word being "remove". I can only interpret
one way -- the property value is gone if PROPPATCH succeeds 
(i.e., is null after that).
I don't believe there is any requirement that all OK's or all the "not
or whatever have to be grouped into one section within a response element.
Your implementation does that in the example below. However, I believe it 
is just as valid to not group the properties with the same status code 
together. For example, it would be valid to always list the properties 
in the select list in the order of the select list, giving the status of
one separately, even if the status values were all the same. Correct me 
if I'm wrong on this issue. If I'm right, that eliminates a minor part of
argument below.
Where I think we are is, in the use cases you have in mind, you usually 
want nulls to sort last. In contrast, I think nulls should sort first,
they are so much like zero length strings (i.e., there are no characters). 
Zero length strings must sort first, so null strings should sort first.
Servers implementations don't even have to show clients a distinction. 
In fact, servers could choose to not store the value for a zero length
at all, making it a true null. There is nothing that prevents that. (In
the WebDAV spec. seems to, at least in some cases, >>require<< that. 
In section 8.2.2, the spec. says that the Copyright-Owner property is to be
>>removed<<.)  If you buy that argument for strings, then nulls should 
sort first for the rest of the data types as well. 
Mine is a logical argument, not an application dependent preference
(which can, after all, be whatever an application is coded to provide,
regardless of what the server provides). There are applications where 
the user wants the nulls to collate first. An application dependent ordering

is bound to be right for some applications, wrong for some applications, 
and controversial for some applications. A logical argument is independent 
of the application. 
My second argument is that queries across multiple repositories 
will come, and that will make it very important to >not< leave the 
choice to the whim of the server, for fundamental performance reasons.
Alan Babich
 -----Original Message-----
From: Kevin Wiggen [mailto:wiggs@xythos.com]
Sent: Friday, June 09, 2000 10:24 PM
To: Babich, Alan; 'Tapas Nayak'; www-webdav-dasl@w3.org
Subject: RE: Order By

I would like to take a quick step back and state my original question again
with some more info.  If I do the following dasl to a my webdav server:
<?xml version=\"1.0\"?>
<d:searchrequest xmlns:d="DAV:" >
                     <d:depth> infinity</d:depth> 
I get (sorted correctly in my mind):

  <?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8" ?> 
   <D:multistatus xmlns:D="DAV:">  <D:response>
       <D:propstat> <D:prop>
            <D:getcontentlength><![CDATA[ 241 ]]>  </D:getcontentlength>
            <D:displayname> <![CDATA[ winzip.log]]></D:displayname>
  <D:status>HTTP/1.1 200 OK</D:status> 
    <D:displayname><![CDATA[ ~kwiggen]]></D:displayname>
  <D:status>HTTP/1.1 200 OK</D:status> 
         <D:getcontentlength /> 
  <D:status>HTTP/1.1 404 Not Found</D:status> 
Notice that there IS a distinction between null values and 0 length values
in Webdav (for which this DASL Server was written).  In this case, the
property content length does NOT exist on a directory thus it is Not Found.
Since I am sorting by content length, I would expect to see this value
sorted LAST as I probably don't care about it.
In Webdav there is no way of setting a property value to NULL!  Either the
property exists on the object (in which case I would say the value is a
empty string that will sort first) or it doesn't exist on the resource in
which case I say its a NULL and sorts last.  Since DASL returns a Webdav
Propfind Response, we are giving the client the difference between null and
a 0 length string, and thus can sort correctly.
If a dead property exists on a resource, then someone had to set it, thus
the value is a least an empty string as it will now return in the 200 OK
section of a request.  Thus the value is not null and sorts first.  My
question revolves around the resources where that property does not exist
(Null in my mind), and thus they are separated out into a separate 404
section.  These I think should sort last, as they are not found.
Thus I would like to argue that nulls (when a property doesn't exist on a
resource) sort last.
Of course there is also the problem where there is no way to state the data
type of a dead property in Webdav, thus sorting might be wrong anyway.  But
that is another email :)

-----Original Message-----
From: www-webdav-dasl-request@w3.org
[mailto:www-webdav-dasl-request@w3.org]On Behalf Of Babich, Alan
Sent: Friday, June 09, 2000 4:42 PM
To: 'Tapas Nayak'; www-webdav-dasl@w3.org
Subject: RE: Order By

Collaters do not interpret values (or lack of a value, i.e., null). They
just collate.
Nor should collaters do more than that.
The end user, not collaters, will interpret what null means. As you say,
there you can 
split the semantic hair about what null means in multiple ways. 
For example, at my company we sometimes use null as a data compaction 
technique. When there is no value for the status, the status is "OK". 
Other times, it means there is simply no value, and it doesn't mean 
anything special. 
There are a large number of other things null could mean in a particular
You have presented a couple of examples below
Neither SQL or DASL know what a null value means to an application.
The application itself knows what null means, however, unless it is a
query application, because that knowledge is hard coded into the
It seems that current DASL implementations are of the hard coded type, 
rather than being generic query applications. A non-generic query
application can make whatever hard coded transformation it wants when 
displaying results to the user.
I strongly believe we should keep DASL conceptually simple on release 1, 
and keep its implementation simple as well. Let's not guild the lily by
providing for
specification to repositories of how null sorts on release 1. Why burden
1 implementations with the extra baggage that most implementations probably
care about? 
The simpler DASL is, the more likely it is to get implemented, and the more
it is to be implemented correctly. Our approach to features is the usual:
feature cuts until it's not useful. Is DASL useful without allowing client
to tell DASL whether  nulls sort first or last on a particular query? I
think so.
Once DASL has seen a certain amount of trial use, it will become more clear 
what people with actual applications want. If we determine that telling DASL
nulls sort first or last is desirable after adequate trial use, that feature
could be added 
later. I can think of (to me) conceptually more important features that are
not going 
to be in the first release (e.g., query schema discovery, cross repository
searching structured properties), but, in my opinion, DASL is still very
useful without 
these features. 
If DASL succeeds, I'm certain it will be enhanced significantly
in the future, the same as any other software product or specification. If
we overload 
DASL with features for the first release, we are taking risks to it's ever
at all that we shouldn't be taking.
Alan Babich
BTW: An approach that may be of use to some repositories is to add a real or
computed property that can be used to put nulls where you want them in
the collating sequence, by using multiple properties in the sort by clause.
For example, suppose a date property is "Closed_Date", and null means its
closed, and you wanted open documents (i.e., not closed) to sort last.
Add a real or computed integer property, "open", that
has value 1 for open documents (i.e., null Closed_Date) and 0 for closed 
documents. Then "sort by open, Closed_Date" instead of just 
"sort by Closed_Date" will put open documents last, even though they 
have no value for Closed_Date. If expressions were allowed as the
sort by elements, you could do it with expressions in the query sort by
clause in the query by computing 1 or 0 depending on whether 
Closed_Date was null. Adding expressions as sort by elements would
be a more general feature that provides more than a narrow feature that
just tells repositories to put nulls first or last in the collating

-----Original Message-----
From: Tapas Nayak [mailto:tapasnay@Exchange.Microsoft.com]
Sent: Friday, June 09, 2000 2:00 PM
To: Babich, Alan; www-webdav-dasl@w3.org
Subject: RE: Order By

The merging problem you have discussed is very fundamental. At the same time
restricting one way or the other
also may not be right considering the fact that NULLs may be interpreted in
different ways. For example, consider a date field.
If the date field is, say Close_Date (the date in which a specification is
closed), there a NULL means the spec is not closed yet and then 
if my sorting by close-date ascending puts NULLs at the front it may be
counter-intuitive. For same date field, one can have a completely 
different argument when a NULL would mean it exists but unfortunately the
value is available. That will be the case 
if the date field is Opened_Date. Thus I think we need option 3 (leave to
implementer) but considering the fact
that collation is really key issue here there should be a way by which a
client can specify the intent. so that the same field 
is returned the same way by all providers. Interpretation of NULL value for
the same field when fetched from multiple 
repositories will have to be the same to the collator anyway. 

-----Original Message-----
From: Babich, Alan [mailto:ABabich@filenet.com]
Sent: Friday, June 09, 2000 1:11 PM
To: Tapas Nayak; www-webdav-dasl@w3.org
Subject: RE: Order By

Thanks for reminding me about merging results across multiple repositories.
That's a very key issue.
On the first release of DASL, the DASL spec. does not specify enough to
accomplish merging
the results across multiple repositories. You want to make searching across
repositories transparent, so you want one metadata space across all the
This leaves only two choices for merging the metadata of the multiple
repositories involved: 
(1) intersect the metadata of all the repositories, or 
(2) take the set union of the metadata of all the repositories. 
The client would have to specify which behavior he wanted. 
DMA has already addressed this issue in excruciating detail, and great
success has 
resulted.  (Trust me, there was a lot of detail involved in specifying it
for DMA.)
In DMA, you can query seamlessly across multiple different repositories that
different metadata. Users absolutely love this.
MULTIPLE REPOSITORIES. I feel that is inevitable. (The caps. are just for
visual emphasis in
as ASCII-only e-mail world, not "shouting".)
Based on my personal strong belief about that, I believe option (3) (i.e.,
let the implementation
decide) is not a viable choice. You would have to invent a way to advertise
which way nulls
are sorted, and, probably, which way the client wants them sorted. That's
bad enough by itself. 
But when you consider the performance impact (e.g., if one of the
involved in the query sorts nulls first, and one of the repositories sorts
nulls last), 
then you see that you have to wait for all the results from the one of the
repositories or the other 
(depending upon whether the merged stream of results sorts nulls first or
last) before you can 
return the FIRST result to the end user -- you can NOT return sorted results
to the end user 
incrementally. That absolutely kills the idea of alternative (3). What you
must do to serve 
the end users adequately is to merge the results incrementally as they come
in from the
repositories, and present the results to the end user as soon as possible.
This requires that all 
the repositories sort nulls the same way.
Therefore, only alternative (1) and (2) are viable in a world where cross
repository searches are
Alternative (2) is illogical, since it violates the principle of least
surprise. Putting the zero length
strings at the front and the nulls at the end would confuse even me for a at
least a moment.
This only leaves us with alternative (1), which is what's currently in the
DASL spec.
Alan Babich

 -----Original Message-----
From: Tapas Nayak [mailto:tapasnay@Exchange.Microsoft.com]
Sent: Friday, June 09, 2000 12:56 AM
To: Babich, Alan; Kevin Wiggen; www-webdav-dasl@w3.org
Subject: RE: Order By

It may be restrictive to prescribe one way or the other by 
interpreting nulls with one interpretation. NULLs have 
different interpretations in different semantic contexts. 
While for strings a NULL may be considered as a NULL string, in 
many cases NULL represent values not known or dont care. For an integer 
field, say age, it may be incorrect to consider NULL as 0, for example. 
It is this lack of a unique concrete interpretation of NULL in all
that left its interpretation to the implementation in SQL spec, I think. 
And probably that is the appropriate thing to do here too. Thus option 3
seems to be 
the appropriate thing. I understand, however, that they will pose a problem
in collation 
of results from more than one data sources, if the participating data
sources chose 
different implementations for the same property. That would indicate
possibly that 
even though it is the same property, different providers have taken slightly
semantics for it. In that case either collator will have to do some
of these different interpretations or enforce one semantics over the other. 

-----Original Message----- 
From: Babich, Alan [ mailto:ABabich@filenet.com <mailto:ABabich@filenet.com>
Sent: Thursday, June 08, 2000 6:43 PM 
To: 'Kevin Wiggen'; www-webdav-dasl@w3.org 
Subject: RE: Order By 

Does anybody else out there have an opinion? 

The choices are: 

(1) Nulls sort first 
(2) Nulls sort last 
(3) Nulls sort first or last at the implementation's choice 

These three choices are compatible with the SQL spec., and 
make logical sense. Only choice (1) is compatible with DMA. 

Consider how zero length strings sort: 
"A" sorts before "AA", because it is a shorter string. 
(This is not only specified in the SQL spec., 
it is the way things are listed in the phone book.) 
Therefore, the zero length string, "", sorts before "A" 
and before all other strings with length greater than zero. 

A null string is similar to a zero length string since 
neither contains any characters, so it seems odd to me 
to put null strings and zero length strings at opposite ends 
of the sort. I would think doing that could confuse some end users 
who are not sophisticated in the subtleties of zero length 
strings versus null strings. It also forces the implementation 
to split the semantic hair of whether zero length strings are 
null or not. I would prefer not to risk confusing users or 
implementers. In other words I prefer choice (1), and I 
claim that choices (2) and (3) have some risk of confusing 
some end users and implementers because of the similarity of 
null strings and zero length strings. 

(BTW, I agree with you, Kevin, that postgresql seems to be 
violating the SQL spec. Nulls must always sort first or last, 
so DESC must put nulls at the opposite end. In postgresql, 
as you have shown, DESC doesn't do that.) 


-----Original Message----- 
From: Kevin Wiggen [ mailto:wiggs@xythos.com <mailto:wiggs@xythos.com> ] 
Sent: Thursday, June 08, 2000 4:42 PM 
To: Kevin Wiggen; Babich, Alan; Jim Davis; www-webdav-dasl@w3.org 
Subject: RE: Order By 

OK I will clarify (not that anyone cares) 


order by column1 => nulls sort last 
order by column1 DESC => nulls sort first 


order by column1 => nulls sort last 
order by column1 DESC => nulls sort last 

I could argue that either one makes sense to me (although postgresql seems 
to be violating the spec).... 


-----Original Message----- 
From: www-webdav-dasl-request@w3.org 
[ mailto:www-webdav-dasl-request@w3.org
<mailto:www-webdav-dasl-request@w3.org> ]On Behalf Of Kevin Wiggen 
Sent: Thursday, June 08, 2000 4:03 PM 
To: Babich, Alan; Jim Davis; www-webdav-dasl@w3.org 
Subject: RE: Order By 

Well Oracle and Postgresql (the only db's I have around, I called a friend 
to get Informix but he's not around), both sort the nulls last.  This makes 
sense to me, as if it doesn't exist, then you probably don't care about it, 
thus it sorts last. 

So I guess I object to the spec.  I would like to see it changed so that 
nulls sort last. 


-----Original Message----- 
From: Babich, Alan [ mailto:ABabich@filenet.com <mailto:ABabich@filenet.com>
Sent: Wednesday, June 07, 2000 8:50 PM 
To: 'Kevin Wiggen'; Jim Davis; www-webdav-dasl@w3.org 
Subject: RE: Order By 

I just looked it up. I thought the SQL spec. required nulls to sort first. 
Here's what the version of the SQL spec. that I have actually says: 

ANSI X3.135-1992 (Database Language SQL) in section 13.1, General Rule 3)b),

page 309, says "Whether a sort key value that is null is considered greater 
less than a non-null value is implementation-defined, but all sort key 
values that 
are null shall either be considered greater than all non-null values or be 
less than all non-null values." 

Last time I used Oracle (which was a while ago) it sorted nulls first. 
To me, logically, null is even less significant than zero, so it seems right

to me 
that nulls should come first. I seem to remember that DMA query requires 
nulls to sort first. 

I personally think it's better for everybody to do things the same way 
(that's why we have specs., 
isn't it?). 

We made it definite in DASL, and made nulls sort first. 
Any significant objections, or are there just comments but not a true 

Alan Babich 

-----Original Message----- 
From: Kevin Wiggen [ mailto:wiggs@xythos.com <mailto:wiggs@xythos.com> ] 
Sent: Wednesday, June 07, 2000 3:26 PM 
To: Jim Davis; www-webdav-dasl@w3.org 
Subject: RE: Order By 

After further review :) 

The fact that nulls sort first????, if the value is null it is probably 
because the property isn't defined and therefore you could care less, but 
these are the ones sorted first???  The spec acts as though this is common 
in ANSI standard SQL, but I have only seen the opposite from every DB I have

ever worked with (which maybe means none of them follow the standard) 


-----Original Message----- 
From: Jim Davis [ mailto:jrd3@alum.mit.edu <mailto:jrd3@alum.mit.edu> ] 
Sent: Wednesday, June 07, 2000 7:47 AM 
To: Kevin Wiggen; www-webdav-dasl@w3.org 
Subject: Re: Order By 

At 10:16 PM 6/6/00 -0700, Kevin Wiggen wrote: 
>Does adding "Order By Content Length" (or any other file specific property)

>automatically add "AND Resource Type = File" to the Where clause of a Dasl 
>Or in English, does adding a file specific property to the orderby clause 
>a dasl query implicitly make all resources that are returned files?  or do 
>the directories and null resources simply sort last? 

The latter.   Nowhere does  the spec say that anything is added 
(implicitly) to the where clause, and I would never agree to that.  But it 
does say  "In the context of the DAV:orderby element, null values are 
considered to collate before any actual (i.e., non null) value, including 
strings of zero length".  (5.6 in the most recent draft) 

Is this a problem either technically or editorially? 


Received on Sunday, 11 June 2000 23:24:13 UTC

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