Unpivoting Multiple Sets of Columns in SQL Server using CROSS APPLY

By:   |   Updated: 2023-11-08   |   Comments (1)   |   Related: More > TSQL


I've written about UNPIVOT before – see Use SQL Server's UNPIVOT operator to help normalize output and Use SQL Server's UNPIVOT operator to dynamically normalize output. It's a powerful language feature that lets you flip results sideways, sort of like the opposite of PIVOT. This is great if you have columns like Phone1 and Phone2 but want to collapse them into one column. One of the challenges is that if you have other columns you also want to collapse similarly, like Email1 and Email2, you need to add an additional UNPIVOT operator or use a different approach. Is there a way to do this in a less complicated way?


A heavily underused feature in SQL Server is CROSS APPLY. One of the more common uses for CROSS APPLY is to simulate a correlated subquery, for example, to get the latest answer from an author's posts. For example:

-- source: www.mssqltips.com

SELECT a.AuthorID, a.AuthorName, p.PostID
  FROM dbo.Authors AS a
    SELECT PostID = MAX(PostID) 
      FROM dbo.Posts 
      WHERE AuthorID = a.AuthorID
  ) AS p;

A less common use is to build row constructors. Let's say we have a denormalized table that stores a user's three favorite colors:

-- source: www.mssqltips.com

CREATE TABLE dbo.UserColors
  UserID         int PRIMARY KEY,
  FavoriteColor1 varchar(12) ,
  FavoriteColor2 varchar(12) ,
  FavoriteColor3 varchar(12)

Selecting a user's favorite colors is simple:

-- source: www.mssqltips.com

SELECT UserID, FavoriteColor1, FavoriteColor2, FavoriteColor3
  FROM dbo.UserColors
  WHERE UserID = 1;
Results from a simple query

If the requirement is to show a user's favorite colors in a single column rather than a single row, then it gets a little more complicated:

Basic unpivoted results

One long-standing method to do this is to use UNION ALL:

-- source: www.mssqltips.com

SELECT UserID, FavoriteColor = FavoriteColor1 
  FROM dbo.UserColors WHERE UserID = 1
SELECT UserID, FavoriteColor = FavoriteColor2 
  FROM dbo.UserColors WHERE UserID = 1
SELECT UserID, FavoriteColor = FavoriteColor3 
  FROM dbo.UserColors WHERE UserID = 1;

Which works, of course:

Results of UNION ALL query

But it is a lot of redundant code, and it won't be the most efficient method in many cases. In this case, it will require three clustered index seeks, which isn't too bad, but picture cases where the filters are more complicated, aren't supported by an index, or both.

Plan for UNION ALL query

To do this with UNPIVOT, we can make a single pass at the data. One thing I don't like about this is that you must come up with a virtual column name to make the syntax work, e.g., in the following example, FavoriteColors came out of nowhere:

-- source: www.mssqltips.com

SELECT favs.UserID, favs.FavoriteColor
FROM dbo.UserColors AS uc
  FavoriteColor FOR FavoriteColors -- fake column!
  IN (uc.FavoriteColor1, uc.FavoriteColor2, uc.FavoriteColor3)
) AS favs
WHERE UserID = 1;

It's also not intuitive why UserID comes from favs and not uc. I won't get into the quirkiness of the syntax here, but here are the results:

Results from UNPIVOT query

Here is the plan that shows a single table access:

Plan for UNPIVOT query

CROSS APPLY can help in a similar way – still making only a single pass of the data but with fewer quirky syntax elements:

-- source: www.mssqltips.com

SELECT u.UserID, favs.FavoriteColor
FROM dbo.UserColors AS u
) AS favs(FavoriteColor)
WHERE u.UserID = 1;

The row constructor essentially treats the three referenced columns as a union and, like UNPIVOT, allows us to flip those columns into rows. Here are the results:

Results for CROSS APPLY query

And here is the (slightly simpler) plan:

Plan for CROSS APPLY query

As suggested earlier, things get more interesting if you have multiple sets of columns to unpivot. Let's say the table is really denormalized and contains the user's favorite songs, too.

-- source: www.mssqltips.com

CREATE TABLE dbo.UserFavorites
  UserID          int NOT NULL,
  FavoriteColor1  varchar(12),
  FavoriteColor2  varchar(12),
  FavoriteColor3  varchar(12),
  FavoriteSong1   varchar(64),
  FavoriteArtist1 varchar(64),
  FavoriteSong2   varchar(64),
  FavoriteArtist2 varchar(64),
  FavoriteSong3   varchar(64),
  FavoriteArtist3 varchar(64),

-- let's just insert one row, to keep it simple
INSERT dbo.UserFavorites VALUES
(1, 'green', 'blue', 'black',
   'Heartache Tonight', 'The Eagles',
   'Comfortably Numb', 'Pink Floyd',
   'Bobcaygeon', 'The Tragically Hip'

Now, if I want a result like this:

Desired results for favorite colors and music

I can still use a UNION:

-- source: www.mssqltips.com

SELECT UserID, FavoriteColor = FavoriteColor1,
    FavoriteSong = FavoriteSong1, 
    FavoriteArtist = FavoriteArtist1
  FROM dbo.UserColors WHERE UserID = 1
SELECT UserID, FavoriteColor = FavoriteColor2,
    FavoriteSong = FavoriteSong2, 
    FavoriteArtist = FavoriteArtist2 
  FROM dbo.UserColors WHERE UserID = 1
SELECT UserID, FavoriteColor = FavoriteColor3,
    FavoriteSong = FavoriteSong3, 
    FavoriteArtist = FavoriteArtist3 
  FROM dbo.UserColors WHERE UserID = 1;

The results are as expected, and the plan looks like the previous union variation. But you can see how, as the query gets more complicated, it's harder to maintain and prone to human error.

An UNPIVOT, you would think, would have to look like this:

-- source: www.mssqltips.com

SELECT UserID, FavoriteColor, FavoriteSong, FavoriteArtist
FROM UserFavorites AS uf 
  FavoriteColor FOR FavoriteColors
  IN (FavoriteColor1, FavoriteColor2, FavoriteColor3)
) AS favColors 
  FavoriteSong FOR FavoriteSongs
  IN (FavoriteSong1, FavoriteSong2, FavoriteSong3)
) AS favSongs
  FavoriteArtist FOR FavoriteArtists
  IN (FavoriteArtist1, FavoriteArtist2, FavoriteArtist3)
) AS favArtists
WHERE UserID = 1;

That's ugly, too; worse, it produces a '"cartesian unpivot!'"

Bad results from UNPIVOT query

One way to resolve this is to add these clauses, which take advantage of the convenient fact that we want Song1 and Artist1 to be related, for example. But that's even more gross:

AND RIGHT(FavoriteColors,1) = RIGHT(FavoriteSongs,  1)
AND RIGHT(FavoriteSongs, 1) = RIGHT(FavoriteArtists,1);

And the plan isn't great, either:

Plan from UNPIVOT query

CROSS APPLY, on the other hand, gives us a little more flexibility here:

-- source: www.mssqltips.com

SELECT uf.UserID, favs.FavoriteColor, 
FROM dbo.UserFavorites AS uf
) AS favs (FavoriteColor, FavoriteSong, FavoriteArtist)
WHERE UserID = 1;

The syntax is way simpler, and the plan is a thing of beauty, too:

Plan for CROSS APPLY query

I know which syntax I'll be using from now on.

Next Steps

Look at your codebase and see if there are places where you're compensating for bad normalization by using UNION. There may be cases where you can improve the performance and maintainability of your code by using CROSS APPLY (or OUTER APPLY) instead.

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About the author
MSSQLTips author Aaron Bertrand Aaron Bertrand (@AaronBertrand) is a passionate technologist with industry experience dating back to Classic ASP and SQL Server 6.5. He is editor-in-chief of the performance-related blog, SQLPerformance.com, and also blogs at sqlblog.org.

This author pledges the content of this article is based on professional experience and not AI generated.

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Article Last Updated: 2023-11-08

Comments For This Article

Monday, November 27, 2023 - 9:39:38 AM - Dale Back To Top (91776)
Nice approach. I had several queries that used UNPIVOT with the extra manipulation to handle the cross product. I think they were about 7 deep and multiple columns UNPIVOTed, so it was messy. Never thought to use CROSS APPLY like this.

Do you have any insight on performance difference between the UNPIVOT and CROSS APPLY methods? Say around 2 million rows as input.