Use of hierarchyid in SQL Server

I attended a TDWI conference in May 2016 in Chicago. Here I got a hint about the datatype hierarchyid in SQL Server which could optimize and eliminate the good old parent/child hierarchy.

Until then I (and several other in the class) haven’t heard about the hierarchyid datatype in SQL Server. So I had to find out and learn this.

Here’s a blogpost covering some of the aspects of the datatype hierarchyid – including:

  • Introduction
  • How to use it
  • How to optimize data in the table
  • How to work with data in the hierarchy-structure
  • Goodies


The datatype hierarchyid was introduced in the SQL Server as from version 2008. It is a variable length system datatype. The datatype can be used to represent a given element’s position in a hierarchy – e.g. an employee’s position within an organization.

The datatype is extremely compact. The storage is dependent in the average fanout (fanout = the number of children in all nodes). For smaller fanouts (0-7) the typical storage is about 6 x Log A * n bits. Where A is the average fanout and n in the total number of nodes in the tree. Given above formula an organization with 100,000 employees and a fanout of 6 levels will take around 38 bits – rounded to 5 bytes of total storage for the hierarchy structure.

Though the limitation of the datatype is 892 bytes there is a lot of room for extremely complex and deep structures.

When representing the values to and from the hierarchyid datatype the syntax is:

[level id 1]/[level id 2]/..[level id n]



The data between the ‘/ can be of decimal types e.g. 0.1, 2.3 etc.

Given two specific levels in the hierarchy a and b given that a < b means that b comes after a in a depth first order of comparison traversing the tree structure. Any search and comparison on the tree is done this way by the SQL engine.

The datatype directly supports deletions and inserts through the GetDescendant method (see later for full list of methods using this feature). This method enables generation of siblings to the right of any given node and to the left of any given node. Even between two siblings. NOTE: when inserting a new node between two siblings will produce values that are slightly less compact.

Hierarchyid in SQL Server how to use it

Given an example of data – see compete sql script at the end of this post to generate the example used in this post.

hierarchyid in SQL Server 1

The Num field is a simple ascending counter for each level member in the hierarchy.

There are some basic methods to be used in order to build the hierarchy using the hierarchy datatype.

GetRoot method

The GetRoot method gives the hierarchyid of the rootnode in the hierarchy. Represented by the EmployeeId 1 in above example.

The code and result could look like this:

hierarchyid in SQL Server 2

The value ‘0x’ from the OrgPath field is the representation of the string ‘/’ giving the root of the hierarchy. This can be seen using a simple cast to varchar statement:

hierarchyid in SQL Server 3

Building the new structure with the hierarchyid dataype using a recursive SQL statement:

hierarchyid in SQL Server 4

Notice the building of the path after the union all. This complies to the above mentioned syntax for building the hierarchy structure to convert to a hierarchyid datatype.

If I was to build the path for the EmployeeId 10 (Name = ‘Mads’) in above example it would look like this: ‘/2/2/’. A select statement converting the hierarchyid field OrgPath for the same record, reveals the same thing:

hierarchyid in SQL Server 5

Notice the use of the ToString method here. Another build in method to use for the hierarchyid in SQL Server.

GetLevel method

The GetLevel method returns the current nodes level with an index of 0 from the top:

hierarchyid in SQL Server 6

GetDescendant method

This method returns a new hierarchyid based on the two parameters child1 and child2.

The use of these parameters is described in the BOL HERE.

Below is showed some short examples on the usage.

Getting a new hierarchyid when a new employee referring to top manager is hired:

hierarchyid in SQL Server 7

Getting a new hierarchyid when a new hire is referring to Jane on the hierarchy:

hierarchyid in SQL Server 8

Dynamic insert new records in the hierarchy table – this can easily be converted into a stored procedure:

hierarchyid in SQL Server 9

Notice the new GetAncestor method which takes one variable (the number of steps up the hierarchy) and returns that levels Hierarchyid. In this case just 1 step up the hierarchy.

More methods

There are several more methods to use when working on a hierarchy table – as found on BOL:

GetDescendant – returns a new child node of a given parent. Takes to parameters.

GetLevel – returns the given level for a node (0 index)

GetRoot – returns a root member

ToString – converts a hierarchyid datatype to readable string

IsDescendantOf – returns boolean telling if a given node is a descendant of given parent

Parse – converts a string to a hierarchyid

Read – is used implicit in the ToString method. Cannot be called by the T-SQL statement

GetParentedValue – returns node from new root in case of moving a given node

Write – returns a binary representation of the hierarchyid. Cannot be called by the T-SQL statement.


As in many other scenarios of the SQL Server the usual approach to indexing and optimization can be used.

To help on the usual and most used queries I would make below two indexes on the example table:

hierarchyid in SQL Server 10

But with this like with any other indexing strategy – base it on the given scenario and usage.


So why use this feature and all the coding work that comes with it?

Well – from my perspective – it has just become very easy to quickly get all elements either up or down from a given node in the hierarchy.

Get all descendants from a specific node

If I would like to get all elements below Jane in the hierarchy I just have to run this command:

hierarchyid in SQL Server 11

Think of the work you would have to do if this was a non hierarchy structured table using only parent/child and recursice sql if the structure was very complex and deep.

I know what I would choose.


As seen above the datatype hierarchyid can be used to give order to the structure of a hierarchy in a way that is both efficient and fairly easy maintained.

If one should optimize the structure even further, then the EmployeeId and the ManagerId could be dropped as the EmployeeId is now as distinct as the OrgPath and can be replaced by this. The ManagerId is only used to build the structure – but this is now also given by the OrgPath.

Happy coding…

External references:

Hierarchyid from MSDN

Using hierarchyid from TechNet

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