Wednesday, April 16, 2014

HGV Levy

The UK government has introduced a new service for foreign lorry drivers to pay a levy to use UK roads here:

It was built by my current employer, Northgate Information Solutions. Guess what technology it runs on?
We had a lot of interesting challenges when building this:
  • Compliance with UK Government styling and standards
  • Responsive design to work on desktops, tablets and mobiles
  • Accessibility
  • Usable with Javascript disabled
  • Translated into 5 European languages
You can read more about this project here on the Northgate website.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

It's a drag...

It really used to be a "drag" putting together a set list for my band using my Oracle database of songs we play: the easiest way was to download all the songs to an Excel spreadsheet, manipulate them there, then re-import back into the database.  I tried various techniques within APEX but none was easier than that - until now.  I have just discovered jQuery UI's Sortable interaction, and in a couple of hour was able to build exactly what I'd always needed:
(That is is one of our recent set lists: I never claimed we were cool - we're called The Love Handles after all.)

The full list of songs (minus any already selected) appears in the first list.  Then there are 4 more lists corresponding to sets (we usually have 2 sets, with a 3rd to hold "spares" in case we under-run or get asked to play on.  Occasionally we play 3 sets.) I can now:

  • Add a song to a set by dragging it from the Songs list to the desired Set list
  • Remove a song from a set by dragging it from the Set list back to the Songs list
  • Move songs from one set to another by drag and drop
  • Move a song up and down within a set by drag and drop

It really was incredibly simple to achieve.  First I needed to include the relevant jQuery libraries into my page:

Then I constructed the HTML for each list as follows:

<ul class="connectedSortable">
<li class="set1"><input type="hidden" name="f01" value="123" />Land of 1000 Dances</li>
<input type="hidden" name="f01" value="0" />


  • Each of the 5 lists has the same class "connectedSortable".  This is what allows us to drag and drop between them.
  • Each list item consists of a hidden item containing the song's ID in the database, and the song title to be displayed.  All the hidden items have name="f01" so that they will all appear in an APEX array g_f01 when the page is submitted. (The class "set1" is only there so that I can colour each list differently.)
  • After each list I put another hidden item also named "f01" with a value of 0.  This acts as a separator between the lists when processing the g_f01 array - if the value is 0 I know that I have reached the end of a list and am starting the next.
  • Originally, I built each list as a report region, with a bespoke region and report template.  But after a while I realised it was simpler to use PL/SQL regions to dynamically render the HTML.

Now for the Javascript that makes it all work:

  $(function() {
    $( ".connectedSortable" ).sortable({
      connectWith: ".connectedSortable"

That's it - just that.

Finally I just had to write some PL/SQL to process the array when the page is submitted:

   l_set_no integer := 0;
   apex_collection.create_or_truncate_collection ('SETLIST_EDITOR');
   for i in 1..apex_application.g_f01.count
      if apex_application.g_f01(i) = 0 then
         -- End of set
         l_set_no := l_set_no + 1;
         -- Song: add to current set
            ( 'SETLIST_EDITOR'
            , l_set_no
            , apex_application.g_f01(i)
      end if;
   end loop;

I'm using a collection here, which I populated on initial page load from the database. I could have worked on the set list table directly, but this allows me to submit the page if needed for other reasons without saving or losing the changes.

You can see the final result on this demo.

I think jQuery is now my second-favourite developer tool (after APEX of course).

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

SQL Developer: add a "child tables" tab to table definition

I always like to extend SQL Developer's table definition by adding a tab that shows the "child tables" for each table - i.e. the tables that have a foreign key to the table in context.

I have lost count of how many times I have started work at a new environment or on a new PC and had to set this up from scratch, so thought I'd document it here for next time!

First, create a file containing the following XML:

  <item type="editor" node="TableNode"  vertical="true">
      <title><![CDATA[Child Tables]]></title>
             <sql><![CDATA[select cons.table_name, cons.constraint_name
                      from all_constraints cons
                      where cons.constraint_type = 'R'
                      and cons.r_constraint_name in (select pk.constraint_name
                                                    from   all_constraints pk
                                                    where owner = :OBJECT_OWNER 
                                                    and table_name = :OBJECT_NAME
                                                    and constraint_type in ('P','U'))]]>

Then, in SQL Developer go to Tools->Preferences... and open the Database node and select user Defined Extensions.

Click Add Row and on the new row set Type to EDITOR and Location to point to your XML file.

That's it.  You may just need to restart SQL Developer to make it work.

I am indebted to Sue Harper's blog for the detailed instructions on adding tabs to SQL Developer.

Another tab I like to add is one to show the errors for an invalid view definition:

 <item type="editor" node="ViewNode"  vertical="true">
     || ':'
     type  = 'VIEW'

Friday, June 14, 2013

APEX conditions and performance - part 2

This is a follow-up to my previous post APEX conditions and performance.

Roel Hartman has followed up my post by doing the due diligence and testing the performance of different APEX condition types.  His findings back up what I just asserted. (But I wasn't just guessing, my assertions were based on facts I learned long ago from someone in the APEX team via the Oracle APEX forum - so long ago that I cannot now find the conversation!)

As I said previously, for a more complex condition than "item=value" you will often have to use a PL/SQL expression condition, and that's fine.  However, it is not uncommon to see a page where there is a group of several items that all have the same complex condition.  For example, perhaps if some complex condition is true then we need to collect the user's bank details and contact details - maybe 12 items.  The same complex condition is applied (and has to be evaluated) for each of the 12 items.  In this sort of case it may be appropriate to add child regions to the form region, and apply the complex condition just once - to the child region that contains this group of conditional items.  A suitable region template (perhaps even "no template") can be applied to these new child regions so that the appearance of the page is not changed by adding them.

Example 1: original page

Region: My Form
- Item: Name
- Item: Date of Birth
- Item: Bank Account No (complex condition)
- Item: Bank Sort Code (complex condition)
- Item: Address Line 1 (complex condition)
- Item: Address Line 2 (complex condition)
- Item: Something else

Example 2: page using child regions

Region: My Form
- Subregion: Personal Details
-- Item: Name
-- Item: Date of Birth
- Subregion: Bank and Address details (complex condition)
-- Item: Bank Account No
-- Item: Bank Sort Code
-- Item: Address Line 1
-- Item: Address Line 2
- Subregion: More stuff
-- Item: Something else

Example 2 achieves the same result as Example 1 but only evaluates the complex condition once instead of many times.  As well as improving performance this also makes your page simpler: if the condition changes in the future you only have one instance to change.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

APEX conditions and performance

Having recently seen some examples of non-optimal code in APEX conditions (e.g. item rendering conditions and read-only conditions)  I thought it worth writing a few words about them.  By putting them here on my blog I can refer to them in future rather than writing them again. Also I may receive useful feedback from readers to improve or correct my advice.

For a very simple condition such as “when the value of item P1_JOB is SALESMAN” there are many condition types to choose from including:

1) Value of item/column in Expression 1 = Expression 2

Expression 1: P1_JOB
Expression 2: SALESMAN

2) PL/SQL Expression

Expression 1: :P1_JOB = ‘SALESMAN’

3) Exists (SQL query returns at least one row)


(Yes I have actually seen this one!)

4) PL/SQL Function returning Boolean

  If :P1_JOB = ‘SALESMAN’ then
    Return true;
    Return false;
  End if;

… and so on.

The correct type to use in this case is (1) because it is the only declarative method; all the others require APEX to run dynamic PL/SQL to evaluate the condition.

To evaluate (1) APEX will do something like this:

IF v(expression1) = expression2 THEN…

To evaluate (2) APEX will do something like this:

-- Parse expression1 to look for item references e.g. :P1_JOB
EXECUTE IMMEDIATE expression1 INTO l_result USING v(item_name);

IF l_result THEN …

(In fact it will have to use DBMS_SQL not EXECUTE IMMEDIATE because the number of bind values can vary.  The pseudo-code above is merely an educated guess by the way.)

(3) and (4) will involve similar code to (2).

True, the cost of executing the dynamic PL/SQL won’t be huge, but bear in mind that a page may have many items with conditions like this, and the small penalty is then incurred many times per page load, which adds up particularly on a frequently used page.

Of course, if you need a more complex condition such as “Job is manager and location = London” then you cannot use method (1), you will need to use method (2) (not (3) or (4) please!).  Always look for the simplest and most appropriate condition type for your needs.

Also, if the condition involves a function call e.g. (emp_pkg.is_eligible(:P1_EMPNO) = ‘Y’) and is used in more than one place it is probably better to execute the function call once, assign the result to a hidden page item, and then use a type (1) condition “value of P1_IS_ELIGIBLE is equal to Y”.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The curse of the cursor

For some reason, many Oracle developers avoid SELECT INTO as if it were dangerous, preferring to "have more control" over their code by using cursors for everything. This morning I spent over an hour debugging some code written by one such developer, only to find that the issue I was trying to fix was one that would have been caught by the original developer immediately had he used SELECT INTO.

The code resembled this:

procedure do_something (p_empno in number)
l_empno number;
l_boss_ind varchar2(1) := 'N';
cursor c_emp (cp_empno number) is
select job
from emp
where empno = cp_empno;
for rec in c_emp (l_empno) loop
if rec.job = 'MANAGER' then
l_boss_ind = 'Y';
end if;
end loop;
insert into some_table (empno, boss_ind) values (p_empno, l_boss_ind);

Sometimes the BOSS_IND column wasn't being set correctly. The code was a lot more complex than this in reality. You can probably easily and quickly spot the error above, but in the real procedure there was a lot of other code that could also set the BOSS_IND under different circumstances, and it was, as I said, about an hour before I spotted the problem which is: variable l_empno was not set when the cursor was opened (it got set further down), so the cursor returned no rows and the code inside the loop was never executed.

If the developer had coded this using SELECT INTO, a very unexpected NO_DATA_FOUND exception would have been raised as soon as he ran this for the first time, and the bug would never have reached system testing (as it had). Assuming of course he didn't decide that SELECT INTO had "caused" the bug, and didn't "fix" it by changing to use a cursor...

Monday, April 04, 2011

Apex MP3 Player item plug-in

I have developed a plug-in item type that renders an MP3 player to play a specified audio file using the free Premiumbeat Single Track Flash MP3 Player. The file may be specified via a URL of as the ID of a file stored in APEX_APPLICATION_FILES. There is a demo of this available here on

The plug-in has the following settings available:

They are mostly fairly self-explanatory (and documented via Help). They can generally be left to their default values. The Media Title attribute specifies the title displayed in the player. This can be set to an item reference e.g. &P2_TRACK_NAME. If not specified the URL of the file is displayed.

The value of the item can be either of the following:

  • a number, in which case it is assumed to be the ID of an APEX_APPLICATION_FILES row containing the MP3 data

  • any URL pointing to an MP3 file

This should shortly be available to download from