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Posted 11 Sep 2007


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Telephone Numbers in SQL Server 2005: Part 1 – The Data Type

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13 Mar 2008CPOL5 min read
Efficiently storing telephone numbers in SQL Server.


When it comes to database design, the fundamentals and the little details make all the difference. Some feel that a few bytes here and a few bytes there on each record is no big deal. Why worry about field sizes when memory, disk, and processor are so cheap? Well, multiply these few bytes over a few million records, and it quickly becomes something to think about. Add the overhead of indexes, inefficient data retrieval, and updating, and these few bytes can be more than the straw that breaks the camel's back, it could be several bails of hay.

Let us look at the simple phone number. Almost every business database has fields and records to store contact information. Every contact has at least one phone number, and most people have several. Between home, work, fax, cell, and pager numbers, it is not uncommon to have five or more numbers for a single individual. Coming up with an efficient way to store these numbers is a good idea.

Storage Options

Character Data Types

Most databases I have seen (and most I have designed) have stored phone numbers in a character field. Typically, this could be as big as a varchar(22) field which can store the formatted North American phone number with an extension, in the form "(999) 555-1212 ext1234". This is the easiest way to store the number, but also the least efficient. I won't talk about the nvarchar(22) version which happens to be twice as big for no benefit. Since this is a varchar field, let's assume that the average field size is ~17 characters since not all phone numbers would have an extension.

Storing raw data with formatting is never a good idea (this should be handled by the user interface), so stripping out the non-data characters leaves us with a field looking like "9995551212 1234", with the extension delimited by a space. Things are looking better, with a the field defined as varchar(15) and an average field size of ~12 bytes; but of course, we can do even more.

Numeric Data Types

The first thing to realize about phone numbers is that they are in fact numbers. They contain no other characters, so why not store them in numeric type fields? One approach would be to store the phone number in a bigint field and the extension in a separate smallint field. The int datatype is not large enough to hold the number and area code, while the next available number, bigint, can easily store over 18 digits. It is the same story with smallint. We want to be able to hold extension numbers up to 9999, and tinyint is only good for 255 while smallint has lots of room for four digit extensions. Using these two data types results in a total of 10 bytes to store the phone number.

This is good, but is it possible to do this with one field, to eliminate the overhead of the extra field? Of course, it is! This looks like a good candidate for the decimal or numeric data types, which are fixed width data types, meaning they do not lose precision as the number becomes larger. We can be clever and store the extension in the fraction portion of the number defined with four digits. To store a 10 digit phone number with extension, we could define the data type as decimal(14,4). This would require 9 bytes of storage. decimal data types are stored in 4 byte chunks, so defining the data type as decimal(19,4) also takes the same 9 bytes of storage but gives us a few extra digits for international phone numbers, if required, at no extra cost. If you require more digits in the extension, you can define the number as decimal(19,5) or decimal(19,6).

Cutting the data storage requirement in half is pretty good, but we can still do a little better. SQL Server also has the money data type which is just like the decimal data type but is a predefined, built-in type, so it only requires 8 bytes to store a four digit extension and a phone number with up to 14 digits.

Using the money datatype, the data space requirements are cut to less than half compared to the basic varchar version. In fact, if we where to compare apples to apples, the equivalent non-formatted varchar size would be 19 characters since the money version can store up to 14 digits. Besides the obvious benefits of a smaller storage requirement, operations on fixed numeric data types are faster than that on other types. Fixed width data types don't require the overhead of tracking the actual bytes stored in the field. Indexes are also more efficient for the same reason. Don't forget, that if you choose to index your phone number field, the index size will also be less than half the size of the bloated varchar version, so you get double savings and efficiency gain. Also, data integrity is built-in since a numeric data type only accepts numbers; no funny characters can be persisted in the database, by default.

Defining the Telephone Data Type

Now that we have determined the type of data to store phone numbers is money, we can explicitly create a phone number data type. SQL Server lets you create User Defined Types (UDTs) using the SQL Server 2005 command:

CREATE TYPE [dbo].[phonenumber] FROM [money] NULL

or by selecting the Programmability/Types/User-defined Data Type menu in SQL Server Management Studio. Creating a User Defined Type for a phone number allows you to explicitly state the intent of the data field. It makes a cleaner, more defined database implementation. We can also bind rules to the type to enforce data integrity.

The money data type is a numeric data type which accepts negative numbers. Phone numbers should only be positive, so let's add a rule to prohibit negative numbers. In SQL Server 2005, this looks like:

CREATE RULE PhoneNumber_Domain
    AS @Value > 0

The rule must be bound to the new data type using the command:

EXEC sp_bindrule 'PhoneNumber_Domain', 'phonenumber'

With a user defined data type and a bound custom rule, it is easy to implement phone numbers as a custom type wherever a phone number field is required.

In Telephone Numbers in SQL Server – Part 2 – Formatting, I will talk about presenting phone numbers in SQL Server using User Defined Functions (UDFs).


This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)

Written By
Web Developer
Canada Canada
Bryan Kowalchuk is a Lead Developer/Architect working in Oakville, Ontario, Canada.

Bryan has been developing large systems using Microsoft technologies for over 15 years in aerospace, legal, financial and logistics industries.

Comments and Discussions

GeneralMy vote of 4 Pin
webdevtoolkit10-Jun-12 1:40
Memberwebdevtoolkit10-Jun-12 1:40 
GeneralExtensions and trailing zeros Pin
iraj110131-Aug-09 16:45
Memberiraj110131-Aug-09 16:45 
GeneralRe: Extensions and trailing zeros Pin
Tim McCurdy27-May-15 16:43
MemberTim McCurdy27-May-15 16:43 
GeneralOnly usable for american locals Pin
jhwurmbach11-Sep-07 12:40
Memberjhwurmbach11-Sep-07 12:40 
GeneralLeading Zero phone number problem Pin
boris-chan11-Sep-07 12:25
Memberboris-chan11-Sep-07 12:25 
GeneralRe: Leading Zero phone number problem Pin
oliverjenks21-Sep-07 12:41
Memberoliverjenks21-Sep-07 12:41 
GeneralLeading zero + another problem Pin
balazs_hideghety24-Sep-07 23:17
Memberbalazs_hideghety24-Sep-07 23:17 
GeneralDetails... they are the path Pin
luizfredericojr11-Sep-07 11:53
professionalluizfredericojr11-Sep-07 11:53 

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