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nvl

NVL vs COALESCE

Jonathan Lewis just published a blog post about NVL and COALESCE and the optimizer costings for each.

There is also perhaps a significant difference between NVL and COALESCE in that the former seems to have an in-built optimization for handling bind variables and nulls. 

Consider an application where users optionally pass in search criteria and you have to query a table based on that criteria.  You have three natural choices here to implement that:

WHERE column = :search_criteria or :search_criteria is null

or

WHERE column = nvl(:search_criteria ,column)

or

WHERE column = coalesce(:search_criteria,column)

Functionally they are identical*, but the implementation detail shows a nice little optimizer trick that only works with NVL.