Working with SQL Server and Snowflake NULL Functions - ISNULL, COALESCE, NULLIF

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Handling NULLs is a regular part of the database development routine. There are special functions for working with NULLs in both SQL Server and Snowflake. However, when SQL developers switch to Snowflake, they find that many all-familiar SQL NULL-handling functions need to be fixed in Snowflake.


We will discuss the most common SQL functions for dealing with NULLs and, in contrast, will introduce their counterparts in Snowflake. This article will compare common NULL-handling functions in SQL Server and Snowflake.


For SQL Server developers, the ISNULL function is a well-known function for replacing NULL with the specified value:

DECLARE @val int
SELECT ISNULL(@val,0) as Val

The result of the code above will be 0, as the variable is declared but not initialized, so its value is NULL:


If we try to apply the ISNULL function in Snowflake, it will not work:

SELECT ISNULL($val, 0) as VAL;
2-ISNULL in Snowflake

As we can see, we received an error message clearly mentioning that ISNULL is an unknown function. In Snowflake, instead of the ISNULL, the IFNULL function can be used. Let’s replace ISNULL in the previous code with IFNULL:

SELECT IFNULL($val, 0) as VAL;

Unlike the previous example, here, when we are starting to type the first letters, we can see that the Snowflake UI suggests the IFNULL function with its description:

3-Snowflake UI suggests the IFNULL function with its description
4-Replace ISNULL with IFNULL in Snowflake

In Snowflake, instead of IFNULL, the NVL function can be used. NVL and IFNULL are aliases:

SELECT NVL($val, 0) as VAL;
5-Use NVL instead of IFNULL in Snowflake


SQL Server and Snowflake both support the COALESCE function. This function returns the value of its first non-NULL argument. If all arguments have NULL values, it returns NULL. Unlike ISNULL or IFNULL(NVL), COALESCE can accept more than two arguments. Below is an example of COALESCE function in SQL:

DECLARE @val int
SELECT COALESCE(@val,10, 20,30) as Val
6-example of COALESCE function in SQL

In Snowflake:

SELECT COALESCE($val,10, 20,30) as Val
7-example of COALESCE function in Snowflake

It is worth mentioning that the functions discussed in the previous paragraph, ISNULL and IFNULL (NVL), can be replaced by COALESCE. For example, instead of ISNULL in SQL Server, we can use the following:

DECLARE @val int
SELECT COALESCE(@val,0) as Val
8-Replace ISNULL with COALESCE in SQL

IFNULL and NVL in the Snowflake code examples above can be rewritten in the following way:

SELECT COALESCE($val,0) as Val
9-Replace IFNULL and NVL with COALESCE in Snowflake


NULLIF is a valid function in SQL Server as well as in Snowflake. It accepts two parameters and returns NULL if the values of these two parameters are equal. Otherwise, it returns the value of the first parameter.

NULIFF example in SQL Server:

DECLARE @val1 int=10
DECLARE @val2 int=10
SELECT NULLIF(@val1,@val2) as Val
10-NULIFF example in SQL Server

NULLIF in Snowflake:

SET val1=10;
SET val2=10;
SELECT NULLIF($val1,$val2) as Val
11-NULLIF in Snowflake

It is important to mention that although NULL is not considered equal to NULL, the result of NULLIF with two NULL expressions will be NULL:

SET val1=NULL;
SET val2=NULL;
SELECT NULLIF($val1,$val2) as Val
12-result of NULLIF with two NULL expressions will be NULL in Snowflake

The same is true in the case of SQL Server.


Although there are analogs of SQL Server standard NULL-handling functions in Snowflake, their syntaxes do not always match. Therefore, while migrating code from SQL to Snowflake, some NULL-handling functions require special conversion to the corresponding ones in Snowflake.

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MSSQLTips author Sergey Gigoyan Sergey Gigoyan is a database professional with more than 10 years of experience, with a focus on database design, development, performance tuning, optimization, high availability, BI and DW design.

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Article Last Updated: 2023-02-09

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