SQL Server 2008 And Up
Just filter a unique index:
CREATE UNIQUE NONCLUSTERED INDEX UQ_Party_SamAccountName
WHERE SamAccountName IS NOT NULL;
In Lower Versions, A Materialized View Is Still Not Required
For SQL Server 2005 and earlier, you can do it without a view. I just added a unique constraint like you're asking for to one of my tables. Given that I want uniqueness in column
SamAccountName, but I want to allow multiple NULLs, I used a materialized column rather than a materialized view:
ALTER TABLE dbo.Party ADD SamAccountNameUnique
AS (Coalesce(SamAccountName, Convert(varchar(11), PartyID)))
ALTER TABLE dbo.Party ADD CONSTRAINT UQ_Party_SamAccountName
You simply have to put something in the computed column that will be guaranteed unique across the whole table when the actual desired unique column is NULL. In this case,
PartyID is an identity column and being numeric will never match any
SamAccountName, so it worked for me. You can try your own method—be sure you understand the domain of your data so that there is no possibility of intersection with real data. That could be as simple as prepending a differentiator character like this:
Coalesce('n' + SamAccountName, 'p' + Convert(varchar(11), PartyID))
PartyID became non-numeric someday and could coincide with a
SamAccountName, now it won't matter.
Note that the presence of an index including the computed column implicitly causes each expression result to be saved to disk with the other data in the table, which DOES take additional disk space.
Note that if you don't want an index, you can still save CPU by making the expression be precalculated to disk by adding the keyword
PERSISTED to the end of the column expression definition.
In SQL Server 2008 and up, definitely use the filtered solution instead if you possibly can!
Please note that some database professionals will see this as a case of "surrogate NULLs", which definitely have problems (mostly due to issues around trying to determine when something is a real value or a surrogate value for missing data; there can also be issues with the number of non-NULL surrogate values multiplying like crazy).
However, I believe this case is different. The computed column I'm adding will never be used to determine anything. It has no meaning of itself, and encodes no information that isn't already found separately in other, properly defined columns. It should never be selected or used.
So, my story is that this is not a surrogate NULL, and I'm sticking to it! Since we don't actually want the non-NULL value for any purpose other than to trick the
UNIQUE index to ignore NULLs, our use case has none of the problems that arise with normal surrogate NULL creation.
All that said, I have no problem with using an indexed view instead—but it brings some issues with it such as the requirement of using
SCHEMABINDING. Have fun adding a new column to your base table (you'll at minimum have to drop the index, and then drop the view or alter the view to not be schema bound). See the full (long) list of requirements for creating an indexed view in SQL Server (2005) (also later versions), (2000).
If your column is numeric, there may be the challenge of ensuring that the unique constraint using
Coalesce does not result in collisions. In that case, there are some options. One might be to use a negative number, to put the "surrogate NULLs" only in the negative range, and the "real values" only in the positive range. Alternately, the following pattern could be used. In table
IssueID is the
PRIMARY KEY), there may or may not be a
TicketID, but if there is one, it must be unique.
ALTER TABLE dbo.Issue ADD TicketUnique
AS (CASE WHEN TicketID IS NULL THEN IssueID END);
ALTER TABLE dbo.Issue ADD CONSTRAINT UQ_Issue_Ticket_AllowNull
UNIQUE (TicketID, TicketUnique);
If IssueID 1 has ticket 123, the
UNIQUE constraint will be on values (123, NULL). If IssueID 2 has no ticket, it will be on (NULL, 2). Some thought will show that this constraint cannot be duplicated for any row in the table, and still allows multiple NULLs.