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Efficiently Displaying Parent-Child Data

By Scott Mitchell

Recently a friend approached me with a particular problem he was having. He had a database table called Categories which had a list of categories to various sections of his company's intranet. The Categories table had the following makeup:

CategoryIDintThe Primary Key
Namevarchar(50)The name of the category
Linkvarchar(100)A URL to the category on the intranet
ParentIDintA Foreign Key on the Categories table

The ParentID serves as a self-referential foreign key. That is, each category may have subcategories, which may have subcategories themselves, and so on. Those categories with no parents would have a value of 0 for the ParentID field.

For example, imagine that the intranet had three categories, "Payroll," "HR Info," and "Press Clippings." The "Payroll" might have the subcategory "Submit your Hours"; the "HR Info" category may have subcategories "Benefits," and "Latest News," with the "Benefits" category having subcategories "Insurance" and "401(k) Info"; finally, the "Press Clippings" category might have the subcategory "Stock Quotes".

Now, what my friend wanted to accomplish was to display the list of categories as hyperlinks in a hierarchical format. That is, on the left hand side of every page on the intranet, he wanted to ahve something like:

  Submit Your Hours

HR Info
     401(k) Info
  Latest News

Press Clippings
  Stock Quotes  

Where each of the categories above linked to the appropriate intranet URL.

My Friend's Intial Approach
My friend's initial solution to this problem utilized the following steps:

  1. Issue a SQL query that gets all categories whose ParentID is 0. This will get all top level categories. Store these database results in a Recordset named TopLevelRS
  2. Begin iterating through the TopLevelRS Recordset. For each record in the recordset, extract the CategoryID value and issue a SQL statement that gets all records whose ParentID equals the current record's CategoryID. Call this recordset SecondLevelRS
  3. Begin iterating through the SecondLevelRS Recordset, applying the same logic as in Step (2).

This approach, as my friend found, was horrendously slow. The reason it was slow is because for the above category structure, involves eight separate SQL queries, which involves eight accesses to the database! On every page! In addition to its slow execution time, the script is limited in that it can only support subcategories up to two links deep. If one wants to add subcategories to the "Insurance" category, for instance, the code will need to be revisited.

Given this code and scenario, my friend approached me and asked if I had any advice on how to speed up the query. Having worked on customizing and starting the project that eventually became the ASP.NET Forums, I've had a bit of messageboard programming experience over the past few years. In threaded messageboards, there is often this exact scenario: displaying parent-child related data efficiently.

A Better Algorithm
An algorithm that requires only one database access and can display nested subcategories up to any depth is possible. The reason the algorithm incurs only one database hit is because we read the entire Categories table into a Recordset and then, using GetRows(), convert the Recordset into a two-dimensional array. Once we have this array implementation of our data, we can pass the array to the DisplayCategories function (code shown below).

'First, populate a Recordset with the SQL statement:
'  SELECT CategoryID, Name, Link, ParentID FROM Category
'Then, dump the contents of the Recordset into an array 
'                         (named, say, aMyCategories)

'To display the categories, do:
Dim str
str = DisplayCategories(aMyCategories, 0, 0)


Function DisplayCategories(aCategories, ByVal iCurID, ByVal iDepth)
  Dim strHTML
  strHTML = ""
  Const CategoryID = 0, Name = 1, Link = 2, ParentID = 3
  Dim iNumRecords, iLoop, i
  iNumRecords = UBound(aCategories, 2)
  For iLoop = 0 to iNumRecords
    If CInt(aCategories(ParentID, iLoop)) = CInt(iCurID) then
      For i = 1 to iDepth
        strHTML = strHTML & " "
      strHTML = strHTML & "<a href=""" & aCategories(Link, iLoop) & """>" & _
                aCategories(Name, iLoop) & "</a><br />"

      strHTML = strHTML & _
        DisplayCategories(aCategories, aCategories(CategoryID,iLoop), iDepth+1)
    End If

  DisplayCategories = strHTML  
End Function
[View a Live Demo!]

The way the DisplayCategories function works is by a means called recursion. Essentially, recusion occurs when a function calls itself. Generally speaking, the DisplayCategories function will print out all of the categories that have a ParentID value equal to the input parameter iCurID, along with each such categories' subcategories.

Specifically, the DisplayCategories function works by iterating through the rows of the passed-in array (aCategories). For each row, it checks to see if the ParentID column of the current row equals the value of the iCurID parameter. If it is, then we want to display this particular category and then recursively display the categories whose ParentID is the CategoryID of the row we just emitted. This recursive step will allow for subcategories of up to any length to be displayed in their proper order. (In computer scientist terms, this is known as a "depth-first search.") (For more information on recursion be sure to read: Recusrion: Why It's Cool!)

Converting this Code to use in an ASP.NET Web Page
To convert this code to use in an ASP.NET Web page, you could populate a DataSet with the contents of your SQL query and then programmatically iterate through its rows and columns. For example, to programmatically iterate through a DataSet, you could do:

Dim myDataSet as DataSet
'... Assume the DataSet is populated here ...

Dim i as Integer
For i = 0 to myDataSet.Tables(0).Rows.Count - 1
  ' ... to access column "foo" from the current row, use:
  ' myDataSet.Tables(0).Rows(i)("foo")
Next i

The performance difference between the old and new algorithm is quite profound. The old algorithm required several database accesses, and multiple Recordset object instantiations. Furthermore, it was limited on the depth of subcategories. The new algorithm, however, requires only one database access and can support subcategories up to any arbitrary level. To see the new algorithm is action be sure to view the live demo!

Happy Programming!

By Scott Mitchell

Article Information
Article Title: Efficiently Displaying Parent-Child Data
Article Author: Scott Mitchell
Published Date: Saturday, October 12, 2002
Article URL:

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