The Curious Case of Undetected SQL Exceptions

Undetected database errors are insidious. It can be really bad when an error gets dropped on the floor, resulting in incomplete or wrong results. Consider that this simple SELECT query returns an empty result set instead of raising a SqlException for the divide by zero error:

One generally assumes SQL errors raised during batch execution will also raise a SQL exception in the application. However, there are cases involving multi-statement batches and stored procedures where errors that occur might not be raised in the client application, as the above example shows. These scenarios can be distilled as:

1) An error is caught by T-SQL TRY/CATCH while executing a row-returning statement.
2) An error occurs after a row-returning statement successfully executes.

To ensure SQL exceptions are raised as expected, one must either code T-SQL to avoid these scenarios entirely or ensure the client application data access layer consumes all subsequent results returned by SQL Server even when only a single result set is expected. Row-returning statements include SELECT (not variable assignment), OUTPUT clause in an INSERT/UPDATE/DELETE/MERGE statement that returns rows to the client, as well as some specialized commands like RESTORE FILELISTONLY, DBCC commands with TABLE_RESULTS, etc.

Below is a C# ADO.NET example of this defensive programming technique. Even though a single result set is expected, the code still invokes NextResult afterwards to process the entire result stream and ensure SQL exceptions are raised in the app when errors occur.

This consideration applies to all SQL Server API and programming languages although I focus on C# and ADO.NET with System.Data.SqlClient (.NET Framework Data Provider for SQL Server) in this article. The specific methods for consuming all results will vary depending on the API (e.g. getMoreResults() in JDBC) but the basic concept is the same.

Regardless of the method one uses to execute SQL Server queries, ADO.NET uses a data reader to return command results even when higher-level objects (e.g. Dataset) or ORMs (e.g. Entity Framework) are used. The low-level ADO.NET command ExecuteReader method exposes the data reader whereas ExecuteScalar and ExecuteNonQuery do not expose the internal reader.

ExecuteScalar returns the first column of the first row returned as a scalar value but doesn’t call NextResult on the internal data reader to retrieve subsequent results. Consequently, errors may go undetected with ExecuteScalar. ExecuteScalar will not raise an exception if a T-SQL error occurs after the first row is returned. Also, if no rows are returned because the row-returning statement erred and the error was caught in T-SQL, ExecuteScalar returns a null object without raising an exception.

ExecuteNonQuery executes the entire batch of statements and returns the accumulated count of affected rows as a scalar value, discarding rows returned (if any). The returned value will be -1 if SET NOCOUNT ON is specified. Because ExecuteNonQuery internaly consumes all results in the process, errors will be raised without additional ADO.NET programming, albeit one doesn’t typically use ExecuteNonQuery to execute a batch that returns rows. Again, the ADO.NET error detection issue only applies to row-returning statements.

The remainder of this article discusses T-SQL error handling and ADO.NET defensive programming techniques in more detail and discusses techniques to avoid undetected database errors in ADO.NET.

T-SQL Error Handling Objectives
T-SQL and ADO.NET data access code must work in concert with one another to ensure SQL errors are detected in application code. The T-SQL constructs used in multi-statement batches can affect if and how when errors are reported by ADO.NET during batch execution. I’ll start by citing core T-SQL error handling objectives, which can be summarized as:

1) Ensure a multi-statement T-SQL batch doesn’t continue after an error occurs.
2) Rollback transaction after errors.
3) Raise error so that the client application is aware a problem occurred.

The T-SQL building blocks used to achieve these objectives are:
2) Structured error handling (SEH) (a.k.a. TRY/CATCH)
3) Control-of-flow (e.g. IF @@ERROR GOTO ErrorHandler)

T-SQL Behavior Without SEH and XACT_ABORT ON
When a runtime error occurs with the XACT_ABORT session setting ON outside a TRY block, SQL Server will stop batch execution immediately, rollback the transaction (if any), and raise the error. Consequently, a single SET XACT_ABORT ON statement will meet all aforementioned error handling objectives without T-SQL procedural code. However, the XACT_ABORT setting is not considered when user-defined errors are raised with RAISERROR so control-of-flow statements are required to meet objectives #2 and #3 when RAISERROR is employed.

SET XACT_ABORT ON also rolls back open transactions following an attention event like an explicit cancel or query timeout, which would otherwise leave the transaction open. This is one reason why I strongly recommend using SET XACT_ABORT ON, especially in procs that include BEGIN TRAN, regardless of whether or not SEH is also used.

T-SQL Behavior Without SEH and XACT_ABORT OFF
When an error occurs with the SET XACT_ABORT session setting OFF and SEH is not used, SQL Server will raise the error immediately but, depending on the error and severity, batch execution might continue and the transaction not rolled back. The T-SQL batch must use control-of-flow statements after each statement to avoid continuing after errors and roll back the transaction (objectives #1 and #2).

T-SQL Behavior With T-SQL Structured Error Handling
When an error occurs during statement execution with a T-SQL structured error handler is in scope, the CATCH block error handler is entered, after marking the transaction uncommittable if SET XACT_ABORT is ON. SEH meets the first error handling objective by skipping subsequent statements in the TRY block after an error. It is the responsibility of the error handling code in the CATCH BLOCK to roll back the transaction if needed and raise the error. The simple T-SQL handler below achieves objectives #2 and #3 in Azure SQL Database and SQL Server 2012 and later:

THROW is not available In SQL 2008 R2 and earlier so one must use RAISERROR instead in older versions. The error handler below provides similar functionality a THROW, although RAISERROR obfuscates the original error as a user error with message number 50000+.

T-SQL Interaction with ADO.NET
ADO.NET will reliably detect errors in batches without T-SQL SEH when no result sets are returned or only the last statement in the batch returns rows. When a row returning statement is not the last statement in the batch, ADO.NET code must call NextResult to ensure ADO.NET raises errors for subsequent statements in the batch that may have erred. Avoid row returning statements that are not the last one in a batch unless you are certain the calling code consumes all results with NextResult.

Using T-SQL SEH when result sets are returned has implications on ADO.NET data access code to ensure database exceptions are raised after SQL errors. As illustrated with the ExecuteReader example at the beginning of this article, when an error is caught in T-SQL during a row-returning statement, ADO.NET will not raise the database exception immediately and instead return the partial or empty result set generated by the failed statement. The next data reader Read method call will return false after the error. The error raised in the CATCH block by the T-SQL THROW or RAISERROR statement is considered a separate result by ADO.NET and will not be raised as a database exception until NextResult is called.

Unless you have a specific reason to use SEH in row-returning batches, I suggest instead using SET XACT_ABORT ON alone as this will address core T-SQL error handling objectives and allow ADO.NET to detect errors without calling NextResult. However, as mentioned earlier, ADO.NET code will still need to call NextResult if the row-returning statement is not the last statement in the batch.

I hope this information will help you ensure database errors in multi-statement batches are detected. The interaction between T-SQL and ADO.NET isn’t as intuitive as it could be.