This is a new type of blog post I want to try my hand at. It isn’t meant to be a step by step instructional post. I’m not going to spend time teaching the fundamentals, or explaining why I did something the way I did, unless it’s relevant.

The point is to show a problem I ran into, and how I chose to go about solving it using tricks I’ve picked up over the years, or maybe a new trick I just learned that day. I’d also like to encourage you readers to reply to these posts explaining how you would do it, or how I could improve my workflow.

This also acts as a type of daily notes I can refer back to for snippets or tricks I can re-use.

With all that said…here is todays post….


First, lets get something out of the way. The term CSV to mean “Comma Separated Values” is outdated. If you work in a job that deals with data files for long enough, you’ll learn very quickly that when people say “CSV”, many times, they don’t actually mean “Comma Separated Values”…they actually mean…tab separated, semicolon separated, pipe separated, fixed width, etc. I’ve seen all kinds of characters used for “CSV” files.

So, let’s start reading “CSV” to mean “Character Separated Values”. Otherwise, we’ll need a new file extension for every type of separator used.

Parse a CSV file to get a unique list of values

Today I needed to get a list of unique values from a pipe delimited file in order to use them in a SQL query to look something up.

Here’s some details…

  • Tab delimited, no text qualifiers
  • The file is 50MB in size
  • Has about 900,000 rows
  • There is no header row
  • There’s 9 columns

Randomly generated sample data:

18388957|123|20005|USA|18952198258|0|13582653771||VALID
12698826|123|20002|USA|17643290221|0|12806032637||NOT VALID
10613415|123|20002|USA|18890880807|0|11341756819|500|VALID
17500030|123|20004|USA|16310362154|0|16355725257||NOT VALID
11479197|123|20004|USA|10320813357|0|12485700219||VALID
10522885|123|20004|USA|14651144422|0|16995697603||VALID
18534801|123|20004|USA|14538787708|0|10900573396||VALID
12756630|123|20001|USA|11922515040|0|19687727269||VALID
16917302|123|20005|USA|14330030550|0|18116466987||VALID
15466721|123|20004|USA|12420975869|0|14397103976||NOT VALID
18386782|123|20004|USA|16179922470|0|15402927876||NOT VALID
19194324|123|20000|USA|18634580725|0|19057521699||VALID
16335654|123|20002|USA|14134387994|0|19996641965||NOT VALID
17738081|123|20001|USA|13695038257|0|15545772837||VALID
14472713|123|20003|USA|10608032367|0|16478305812||VALID
18090814|123|20001|USA|18791479787|0|14043599528|500|NOT VALID
19445583|123|20000|USA|18410087438|0|17445700376||VALID
11770343|123|20003|USA|11261639331|0|17342769284||NOT VALID
11457058|123|20003|USA|12858550998|0|17274074165||VALID
10589892|123|20002|USA|17383447914|0|11964452418|500|VALID

You need to extract a list of unique values from column 3 to use like this WHERE x.Column IN (20001, 20002...)

Before you continue reading…I want you to think about how you would do this…where do you start? What are your first thoughts? These are the things I want to know and learn from, feel free to post in the comments.


How I chose to do it

My first thought, in hindsight, seems to be the hardest, slowest way possible.

Using Notepad++

  1. Open file in Notepad++
  2. Find using regex to capture the value of the 3rd column - Find: ^.+?\|.+?\|(.+?)\|.*$
  3. Replace every row with only the captured value - Replace: $1
  4. Then (using the TextFX plugin) sort and return unique values

I got to step 3, and then realized that it was the slow way when Notepad++ completely froze trying to perform all the replacements.

I killed notepad++.exe and moved on to try another method. It probably would have been faster to just use Excel at this point, but, I’m weird, and this time I chose to use my good friend PowerShell.

Using PowerShell

PowerShell only requires two commands to do this. The downside is, it loads the whole file into memory, and generally doesn’t release that memory. So if it’s a huge 2GB file, it’s not a great option. In this case, I’m okay with loading a 50MB file into memory.

  1. Load the data into a local variable using the Import-Csv cmdlet
    $data = Import-Csv -Delimiter '|' -Path .\file.txt -Header 'c1','c2','c3','c4','c5','c6','c7','c8','c9'
    
  2. Get list of unique values from column 3
    $data | select c3 -Unique
    

Converting a list of values to an IN statement

Now that I have my list of values, I need to convert it into something I can easily paste into an IN statement, there’s quite a few ways to do this.

  • Manual/By hand - if it’s a small list, just manually add a comma to the beginning or end of each value, and single quotes if needed.
  • Block editing - Still manual, but it’s faster than doing each value, one by one. Google “block editing in ssms” or “block editing in notepad++” and you’ll find a few blog posts and videos showing you how to do it. In the future I’d like to blog about this showing various tips and tricks you can do with it.

If you have a list of maybe 1,000+ values…then you need to start using trickier methods, like…

  • Notepad++ find/replace with regex to add a comma and quotes (if needed) to each line
  • Notepad++ using a keyboard macro in Notepad++
  • Excel - You can use a formula to add some prepend/append text, and then use autofill to apply it to every row of data like ="'"&A1&"',", which will add single quotes and a comma.

In this case, I only had about 10 unique values, so I did it manually.


Update: On Reddit, u/bis noted that my statement regarding how PowerShell handles memory isn’t entirely accurate. I thought PowerShell would allocate memory for the file no matter what you did with the contents (save to variable, write to file, did nothing, etc). After we did some testing, we found that to be wrong.

In my example above, I’m writing the contents to a variable, so it definitely will allocate enough memory at least the size of the file. I did this to make it easier to explain, but I should include a clean one-liner to show how to do it.

u/bis also pointed out that you can use Set-Clipbard to save the result to the clipboard directly.

With regard to the notes above…and using some additional PowerShell syntactic shortcuts, this is a nifty one liner that will do the job:

((ipcsv .\file.txt '|' -H a,b,c).c | sort | gu) -join ',' | scb

Resulting in 20000,20001,20002,20003,20004,20005

Explanation of terms used:

  • ipcsv is the default alias for Import-Csv
    • Two parameters can be specified by position (according to the documentation) -Path is first, -Separator is second.
    • Then, PowerShell allows you to shortcut parameter names as long as they aren’t ambiguous. So -H just means -Header, since no other parameters start with -H.
    • You might also notice that I’m only listing 3 header names instead of 9 like before. This is because I read the documentation and found that Import-Csv will only return fields from rows up to the fields listed in the header. So if you have a file with 9 columns, but only supply headers for the first 3, then it will only import the first 3 columns.
  • sort is the default alias for Sort-Object
  • gu is the default alias for Get-Unique which returns a unique list of values from an already sorted list. I decided to use sort | gu because it was shorter than using select '3' -Unique.
  • -join concatnates all values in a list together using a delimiter
  • scb is the default alias for Set-Clipboard, which writes the result to the clipboard.

Update #2: In researching this more, and while writing the first update, I learned about the Join-String cmdlet and I felt it was such a useful cmdlet, that it was worth adding a second update.

Here’s another way similar to the one above, it’s slightly longer to type, but, I think it’s more understandable, and more flexible for other uses:

ipcsv .\file.txt '|' -H a,b,c `
    | select c -Unique `
    | Join-String c ',' `
    | scb

I actually like this one more for a few reasons. I like that it doesn’t use parentheses to control the flow. For one-liners, multiple sets of parentheses can make it hard to read, and it’s harder to type.

It uses less cmdlets to get the job done. Instead of using sort, gu, -join, it’s using select and Join-String.

Join-String seems to be a better fit for the job because it has a built in -SingleQuote parameter as well as -OutputPrefix, -OutputSuffix parameters. So you could do something like this:

ipcsv .\file.txt '|' -H a,b,c `
    | select c -Unique `
    | Join-String c ',' -OutputPrefix 'IN (' -OutputSuffix ')' -SingleQuote `
    | scb

Which results in this: IN ('20005','20002','20004','20001','20000','20003')

So if you’re working with a list of strings, rather than a list of integers. It makes it easy to add single quotes.


There’s lots of ways all of this could have been done. I tend to like using Regex and PowerShell, even if it does take a bit longer because I usually learn something new along the way. For example, in this scenario, I had never used PowerShell to load a file without a header. Now I know Import-Csv lets you supply a list of header names.


For those curious how I generated the sample data, here’s the SQL script I used to do it:

WITH c1 AS (SELECT x.x FROM (VALUES(1),(1),(1),(1),(1),(1),(1),(1),(1),(1)) x(x))
    , c2(x) AS (SELECT 1 FROM c1 x CROSS JOIN c1 y)
SELECT TOP(20)
    CONCAT(
          CONVERT(bigint, FLOOR(RAND(CHECKSUM(NEWID()))*10000000)+10000000)
        , '|123|', FLOOR(RAND(CHECKSUM(NEWID()))*6)+20000
        , '|USA|', CONVERT(bigint, FLOOR(RAND(CHECKSUM(NEWID()))*10000000000)+10000000000)
        , '|0|', CONVERT(bigint, FLOOR(RAND(CHECKSUM(NEWID()))*10000000000)+10000000000)
        , '|', IIF(CHECKSUM(NEWID()) % 6 = 0, 500, NULL)
        , '|', IIF(CHECKSUM(NEWID()) % 3 = 0, 'NOT VALID', 'VALID')
    )
FROM c2 x

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