How to do complex aggregations through Window functions in SQL Server

The BI Monkey has a confession – his partner is also somewhat of a data geek – though more buried in doing real analytics – but I have persuaded them of the benefits of using SQL instead of SAS sometimes. Right tool for the job etc. etc.

Now I was providing a bit of email support and was reminded of a valuable lesson – a written requirement is not always a very good way of expressing what you want – I spent most of the day bouncing emails advising about how to write cursors (yes, I know, sorry) – and when we actually sat in front of a laptop with the data I found out what it was we actually were trying to achieve and wrote a 5 line query that was literally thousands of times faster.

Are we talking about Window functions yet?

Sure, let’s get to the point. Actually I have blogged about them before but a refresher and different look is always helpful. Window functions allow you to define a “window” of data over which you can perform an operation against a set of rows. Note this is distinct from a GROUP BY which will aggregate the data. Window functions operate at the row level and leave the row data intact. The kind of capabilities this enables is things like adding a row sequence number within a group, cumulative totals, moving averages and other such shenanigans.

Now the key bit of code is the OVER clause. This allows you to specify a “window” of data over which to perform an operation. The window is defined by a PARTITION clause which specifies which column’s values to use to subdivide the data. Then an ORDER BY clause specifies what order – if any – the data in the PARTITION should be processed in. Finally a ROW or RANGE statement can influence the start and end points of the PARTITION.

However, that’s a lot of fine words and SQL speaks clearer:

SELECT    OrderDateKey
,        SalesOrderNumber
,        SalesAmount
,        SUM(SalesAmount) OVER (PARTITION BY OrderDateKey ORDER BY SalesOrderNumber ROWS UNBOUNDED PRECEDINGAS CumulativeAggregation
,        COUNT(SalesOrderNumber) OVER (PARTITION BY OrderDateKey ORDER BY SalesOrderNumber ROWS UNBOUNDED PRECEDINGAS RowNumberIncrement

FROM [dbo].[FactInternetSales]

ORDER BY SalesOrderNumber

This will run against the AdventureWorksDW2012 sample database.

So there are four columns I’m calculating across a window of “OrderDateKey”

  1. CumulativeAggregation – which accumulates values across the window
  2. SumOverWindow – which totals values across the window
  3. RowNumberIncrement – which provides an increasing row count across the window
  4. RowNumberCountdown – which provides a decreasing row count across the window

Here’s the results:

Window Function Results
Window Function Results

So to break these down a bit:


Here we PARTITION by OrderDateKey. So the window is based on values in the “OrderDateKey” column. So in the results above, we get a window for “20050701”, “20050702”, etc.

To get the  accumulation to carry out in the order we want we apply an ORDER BY on “SalesOrderNumber”.

Now for the clever bit. The ROWS UNBOUNDED PRECEDING tells the SUM function to evaluate from the start of the window. Hence you get the cumulative sum appearing – each row evaluates the total for all values for SalesAmount from the start of the window to the current row.


We follow much of what we did in CumulativeAggregation – same PARTITION, and same ORDER BY. The ORDER BY has no impact on the result but is needed for the statement to be syntactically valid.

This time we extend the ROWS UNBOUNDED PRECEDING by adding AND UNBOUNDED FOLLOWING – this now tells the SUM function to evaluate the SUM from the start of the window to the end of the window. So this time each row has the total SalesAmount for the window. Useful for calculating things such as percentage in period.


This time we switch the SUM to a COUNT. Here our ROWS UNBOUNDED preceding counts the rows from the start of the window to the current row – effectively giving us a row number.


In our last example we change to a stated set of ROWS between CURRENT ROW AND UNBOUNDED FOLLOWING. So now the COUNT evaluates from the current row to the end of the window – which effectively gives us a countdown to the end row of the window.


Using Window Functions via the OVER clause we can efficiently perform complex aggregations in place of awkward cursors, sub-selects and other such workarounds we may have had to lean on in the past. I’ve covered a small proportion of the options available but this functionality opens up so powerful analytic possibilities.

Also, talking to a user – even if it the person you are supposed to know best in the world – is vastly more effective if you want to understand their problem and solve it efficiently!

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