Generated columns in MariaDB and MySQL

It has been seven years since the last time I blogged about generated columns, and a lot has happened -- now both MariaDB and MySQL support them. So it's time to look again, see how well they're doing, and compare to the SQL standard's Optional feature T175 Generated columns.

This is not an introductory description or an explanation why you'd want to use generated columns rather than (say) triggers and views. For that, I'd recommend the relevant manuals or the blog posts by Alexander Rubin and Anders Karlsson.

The Generation Clause

Standard            MariaDB 10.1             MySQL 5.7
---------           ------------             ---------
[data type]         data_type                data type
AS                  AS                       AS
(expression)        (expression)             (expression)
                    [VIRTUAL | PERSISTENT]   [VIRTUAL | STORED]       
[constraints]       [constraints]            [constraints]
                    [COMMENT 'string']       [COMMENT 'string']

The above side-by-side BNFs show the standard syntax and the syntax that MariaDB and MySQL actually allow at the time I'm writing this. The MariaDB manual says incorrectly that either VIRTUAL or PERSISTENT is mandatory. The MySQL manual suggests incorrectly that the clause order is fixed, and has a typo: there should be two "]]"s after "STORED".

The first important deviation from standard SQL is that "data type" is not an optional clause in either MariaDB or MySQL. The data type can be figured out from the type of the expression, after all.

The second important deviation is that [GENERATED ALWAYS] is optional and there's a way to say whether the column is virtual (column value is generated when it's accessed) or persistent/stored (column value is generated when it's set, and kept in the database). I call this a single deviation because it's got a single backgrounder: compatibility with Microsoft SQL Server. In fact the original title of the worklog task (WL#411) was "Computed virtual columns as MS [i.e. Microsoft] SQL server has". We changed it to "Generated columns", but the perfume of Microsoftness lingers, and you'll see traces in the vocabulary too. For example, MariaDB has an error message: ""HY000 A computed column cannot be based on a computed column".

So the tip sheet is: for the sake of compatibility with the standard rather than with Microsoft, always say GENERATED ALWAYS, and call it a "generated" column not a "computed" column. It's okay to say VIRTUAL, though, because Oracle does.


In standard SQL these restrictions apply:

"Every column reference contained in [the generation expression) shall reference a base column of [the same table]."
In other words, a generated column cannot be based on another generated column. MariaDB adheres to this, but MySQL, as a harmless extension, allows

"[The generation expression] shall be deterministic."
This is pretty reasonable, and both MariaDB and MySQL comply.

"[The generation expression] shall not contain a routine invocation whose subject routine possibly reads SQL-data."
This is reasonable too, but MariaDB and MySQL go much further -- they forbid every user-defined function, even if it's declared that it's deterministic and reads no SQL data.

"[The generation expression] shall not contain a query expression".
In other words, GENERATED ALWAYS AS (SELECT ...)" is a no-no. Again, reasonable, and I doubt it will occur to anyone to try.

Differences between MariaDB and MySQL

We're actually looking at two different implementations -- MariaDB's generated columns come ultimately from a user contribution by Andrey Zhakov, while MySQL's generated columns are younger and are more of an in-house development. (Update added later: Mr Zhakov deserves credit for the MySQL development too, see the comments.) Things worth noticing are:
* the PERSISTENT versus STORED syntax detail, mentioned earlier,
* GENERATED is a reserved word in MySQL but not in MariaDB,
* MariaDB has some restrictions about foreign keys that MySQL doesn't have.

MySQL lacks some restrictions about foreign keys, eh? That could lead to interesting results. I tried this sequence of statements:

                 s2 INT AS (s1) STORED,
                 FOREIGN KEY (s1) REFERENCES t1 (s1)
                 ON UPDATE CASCADE);
UPDATE t1 SET s1 = 2;

And the results from the two SELECTs looked like this:

mysql> SELECT * FROM t1;
| s1 |
|  2 |
1 row in set (0.00 sec)

mysql> SELECT * FROM t2;
| s1   | s2   |
|    2 |    1 |
1 row in set (0.00 sec)

If you're thinking "whoa, that shouldn't be right", then I'm sure you'll understand why MariaDB doesn't allow this trick.


In the standard there are two relevant INFORMAIION_SCHEMA columns: IS_GENERATED and GENERATION_EXPRESSION. In MySQL all we get is a value in the EXTRA column: "VIRTUAL GENERATED". In MariaDB also we get a value in the EXTRA column: "VIRTUAL".

I'd say that both implementations are deficient here -- you can't even see what the "(expression)" was.

Hurray For Everybody

Both MariaDB and MySQL have slight flaws in their implementations of generated columns, but my complaints here shouldn't cause worry. Both are robust, as I found out by wasting time looking for bugs. This feature can be used.

What about us?

In my last blog post I may have been over-confident when I predicted ocelotgui (our GUI for MariaDB and MySQL) would allow multiple connections and go beta this month. We will have something that, I hope, will be far more exciting.

, February 4, 2016. Category: MySQL / MariaDB.

About pgulutzan

Co-author of four computer books. Software Architect at MySQL/Sun/Oracle from 2003-2011, and at HP for a little while after that. Currently with Ocelot Computer Services Inc. in Edmonton Canada.


  1. Todd Farmer says:

    To give credit where it is due, the MySQL generated column implementation also originates with the contributed code from Andrey Zhakov:

  2. Jan Steinman says:

    Keep up with updates if you use these. There may still be bugs hiding in the wings!

    In particular, MariaDB mysqldump ≤ 10.1.9 writes malformed table creation expressions for certain computed columns. It's fixed in 10.1.10, but that doesn't help you much if you're trying to restore a dump from 10.1.9!

  3. Guilhem Bichot says:

    Thank you Peter. I filed your foreign key / generated column bug at .