Case study: compare percent_rank(), cume_dist(), and ntile() on a normal distribution

Case study: analyzing a normal distribution with percent_rank(), cume_dist(), and ntile()


This section describes an empirical approach to answering the following question:

  • If you want to allocate a row set into buckets where each contains the same number of rows, based on your ordering rule, is there any difference between the result produced by using, in turn, each of the three functions percent_rank(), cume_dist(), or ntile()?

The answer is, of course, "Yes"—why else would the three functions all be supported? The ntile() function is specified exactly to meet the stated goal. From the dedicated ntile() section:

Purpose: Return an integer value for each row that maps it to a corresponding percentile. For example, if you wanted to mark the boundaries between the highest-ranking 20% of rows, the next-ranking 20% of rows, and so on, then you would use ntile(5). The top 20% of rows would be marked with 1, the next-to-top 20% of rows would be marked with 2, and so on so that the bottom 20% of rows would be marked with 5.

The other two functions implement more fine grained measures. Here's what the percent_rank() documentation says:

Purpose: Return the percentile rank of each row within the window, with respect to the argument of the window_definition's window ORDER BY clause. The value p returned by percent_rank() is a number in the range 0 <= p <= 1. It is calculated like this:

percentile_rank = (rank - 1) / ("no. of rows in window" - 1)

And here's what the cume_dist() documentation says:

Purpose: Return a value that represents the number of rows with values less than or equal to the current row’s value divided by the total number of rows—in other words, the relative position of a value in a set of values. The graph of all values of cume_dist() within the window is known as the cumulative distribution of the argument of the window_definition's window ORDER BY clause. The value c returned by cume_dist() is a number in the range 0 < c <= 1. It is calculated like this:

cume_dist() =
  "no of rows with a value <= the current row's value" /
  "no. of rows in window"

The algorithm that the percent_rank() uses is different from the one that cume_dist() uses. And the algorithm that ntile() uses to produce its bucket allocations directly is unspecified.

However, the answer "Yes" to the question "is there any difference between the result produced by each of the three functions?" is a qualified "Yes" because when certain conditions hold, there is no difference.

The pedagogic value of this empirical study is brought by the fact that it aims to meet the stated high-level goal rather than to demonstrate the basic use of low-level primitives. This means that it necessarily combines the basic use of the window functions under study with all sorts of other generic SQL techniques (and even stored procedure techniques) because these are needed to meet the goal. This kind of bigger-picture use typically goes hand-in-hand with any serious use of window functions.

Here is the problem statement at the next level of detail:

  • A row set with N rows has only unique values of the column list that the OVER clause specifies for ordering the rows in the window. (In other words, there are no ties.)
  • The aim is to allocate the rows into n buckets that each have the same number of rows.
  • N is an integral multiple of n.

The study shows that if these special qualifications are met, then the bucket allocations are identical. It shows, too, that if either of those special qualifications isn't met (in other words, either if there are ties, or if N is not an integral multiple of n), then the bucket allocations produced by each approach differ.

How to make best use of the code examples

Before starting, create the data set that the code relies on using the ysqlsh script that table t4 presents. It takes only a few seconds to run, and then you can simply leave "t4" untouched as you run, and re-run, the code examples. Notice that the table is populated by values that are created by a generator that picks, pseudorandomly, from an ideal normal distribution. This means that the values in table "t4" will be different each time that you drop and re-create it. The code examples will therefore always show the same patterns. And the invariants that it illustrates will hold reliably. But the details will change with each new re-creation of "t4". Your experience will be best if, as you step through the code examples, you run them all against fixed content in table "t4".

The steps that are described in the next section should all be run at the ysqlsh prompt. They do a mixture of things:

  • They use .sql scripts to drop and re-create schema objects of these kinds:
  • views through which to access the double precision column, and then the int column, in table "t4" through a uniform interface, so that the same-spelled queries can run in turn against each of these two columns
  • tables to hold results from different queries so that later queries can compare these
  • views through which to populate the separate results tables for the double precision column, and then the int column, through a uniform interface, so that the same-spelled reports can run in turn against each of these two columns
  • PL/pgSQL procedures to populate the results tables and PL/pgSQL functions to encapsulate prepared queries.
  • They use .sql scripts to run various queries, and execute various anonymous PL/pgSQL blocks (also known as DO blocks) that are too small to warrant encapsulation in functions and are best encapsulated in dedicated .sql scripts,
  • And they invoke the functions and the procedures, and execute the .sql scripts, using small anonymous scripts that are simply presented in line in the account.

It's best to create a dedicated user for the purpose of running this code that owns no other objects.

Each of the .sql scripts is presented on a dedicated page. (You can see all of these in the order in which they are to be run in the navigation bar.) Each page starts with a sentence like this:

Save this script as <some name>.sql.

Before starting, you should create a directory (it doesn't matter what you call it) on which to save all of these scripts. Be sure to save each successive file as instructed. The names are critical because the last script, do_demo.sql, invokes each of these in the proper order.

When you go through everything manually, you'll appreciate what each step does, and see the result (when it does more than create a schema object) immediately. That way, you'll be able to compare your results with the typical results that the following section presents and appreciate how the results vary in inessential ways each time that table "t4" is dropped and re-created.

The directory you create to hold the saved scripts must have a subdirectory called reports. This is where the master script, do_demo.sql, spools its output. The set of scripts are written so that they can simply be run time and again without reporting any errors. This, together with the fact the master script spools all results, means that it will finish silently.

When you've got this far, you can save the spooled files to the side and then run the script to drop, re-create, and re-populate table "t4". Then you can diff the old results with the new results to see what changes and what stays the same. You could also change the number of rows with which "t4" is populated so the it is not an integral multiple of the number of buckets that you request for the allocations. (You can change this number too, of course.) Then you'll see how dramatically the results change.

Step through the code


Drop and re-create the results tables using do_clean_start.sql.

Step ONE

To confirm that the outcome is sensible, first create the table function show_t4() with this script. It reports some useful overall measures of "t4". Then execute it like this:

select t as "Some useful overall measures of t4."
from show_t4();

Because of the pseudorandom behavior, the actual values of the mean and standard deviation will change with each successive re-population of "t4". These results are typical:

   Some useful overall measures of t4.
 count(*)                          100000

 avg(%score)                         52.4
 stddev(%score)                      11.6

Now get a sense of how similar the values returned by percent_rank() and cume_dist() are if (and only if) the values that the window ORDER BY uses are unique in the window.

  • Use cr_dp_views.sql to create a view to present "t4.dp_score" as "score" .
  • Use cr_pr_cd_equality_report.sql to create the function pr_cd_equality_report() . The name means 'compare the extent to which "pr" (the value produced by percent_rank()) is similar to "cr" (the value produced by cume_dist())' for each of the "score" values. The values are compared as a ratio (expressed as a percent). The reporting function is parameterized by the absolute difference, "delta_threshold" that this ratio might have from 100%. And it reports the count, the maximum score, and the maximum ratio over the scores where "delta" is greater than "delta_threshold".

Run the function with five different values for "delta_threshold" like this:

select * from pr_cd_equality_report(0.50);
select * from pr_cd_equality_report(0.10);
select * from pr_cd_equality_report(0.05);
select * from pr_cd_equality_report(0.01);

Here is a summary of the results:

 count(*) | max_score | max_ratio
      199 |   19.19   |   99.50
      990 |   25.53   |   99.90
     1960 |   28.55   |   99.95
     9090 |   36.99   |   99.99

The results show that:

  • once you have passed the lowest 10,000 or so values (that is about 10% of the total 100,000 number of rows), the ratio of the two measures is never more than 0.01% away from 100%.
  • and once you have passed the lowest 200 or so values (that is about 0.2% of the total 100,000 number of rows), the ratio of the two measures is never more than 0.5% away from 100%.

In other words, the two measures give remarkably similar answers over most of the high end of the range of values.

Now repeat the measurement for the values in the "t4.int_score" column—where each possible value as about 1,000 duplicates. Use cr_int_views.sql to do this. And then repeat the five function executions. Now the results are very different:

 count(*) | max_score | max_ratio
    97717 |   75.00   |   99.46
    99541 |   82.00   |   99.86
    99782 |   85.00   |   99.95
    99972 |   91.00   |   99.99

This shouldn't be surprising. Statisticians who use these functions will know when their analysis needs one, or the other, of percent_rank()) and cume_dist()).

Step TWO

Create a function to visualize the data as a histogram. This relies on allocating the values in the column "t4.dp_score" into equal width buckets. The same allocation scheme will be later needed for the output values of percent_rank() and cume_dist(). This turns out to be a somewhat challenging problem. It is discussed in the section The bucket allocation scheme.

Now that you've understood the challenge, create the bucket() function using either cr_bucket_using_width_bucket.sql or cr_bucket_dedicated_code.sql—it doesn't matter which because they behave identically.

Test that the behavior is correct with do_assert_bucket_ok.

Next, create the language sql function that creates the histogram output, cr_histogram.sql. Notice that this is functionally equivalent to this

prepare do_histogram(
  int,     -- No. of buckets
  numeric  -- Scale factor for histogram height
) as
select ... ;

but it simply uses a different header

create or replace function do_histogram(
  no_of_bukets in int,
  scale_factor in numeric)
  returns SETOF text
  language sql
as $body$

to encapsulate the identical SQL text. But it has the advantage that it can be done once when the application's database artifacts are installed rather than at the start of every session by each session that needs it. It also as the additional benefit that you can use named formal parameters to make the SQL more readable.

Now generate the histogram like this:

select * from histogram(50, 100);

You can see typical results here: Output from running histogram() on "t4.dp_score".


Create the following three functions:

Each computes the bucket allocation by accessing the data in table "t4" through the view "t4_view".

First run cr_dp_views.sql. This creates the view "t4_view" to select "t4.dp_score" as "score" and the view "results" over the table "dp_results".

Each of the window functions under test will now do this:

  • Compute the bucket allocation for each "t4.dp_score" value.
  • Group these by the bucket number and compute the count, the minimum score, and the maximum score for each group.
  • Insert this summary information into the table "dp_results", annotating each row with the name of the window function that was used.

Do this using do_populate_results.sql.

Now report the results using do_report_results.sql.

You can see typical results here: Output from running do_ntile(), do_percent_rank(), and do_cume_dist() on "t4.dp_score".

You can see at a glance that the bucket allocations produced by each method seem to be the same. It's certainly clear that the population of each bucket is, as requested, 100,000/20 = 5,000 for each bucket and for each method. However, it's too hard to check that the minimum and maximum score values for each of the 60 buckets is the same. Use the script do_compare_dp_results.sql to check this.

You can see the results here: Output from running do_compare_dp_results.sql on "dp_results". These results are reproducible, no matter what the pseudorandomly generated values in table "t4" are.

The property of the three functions under test that this study aimed to investigate has been seen to hold. You can illustrate this by repeating the whole test by regenerating the source data using the script that table t4 presents. When you do this, you can change the number of rows that are generated. And you can change the number of buckets that you request by editing do_populate_results.sql. Just be sure that the number of rows in table "t4" is an exact multiple of the number of buckets that you request.

Then simply run the master script, do_demo.sql and inspect the spooled output.

Of course, this isn't a proof that the test will always have this outcome. But it is sufficient to show that the three functions do, at least, produced very similar results for this particular, and rather special use case.


Finally, repeat the test when one of the special conditions of the particular use case doesn't hold—when the values that the three functions operate on have duplicates:

Simply run cr_int_views.sql to create the view "t4_view" to select "t4.int_score" as "score" and the view "results" over the table "int_results". Now re-run the remaining steps as above:

You can see typical results here: Output from running do_ntile(), do_percent_rank(), and do_cume_dist() on "t4.int_score".

It's immediately obvious that the three functions under test produce dramatically different results on this, more general, kind of input.

You can illustrate that the three functions under test produce different output when the special conditions do not hold by, for example, repeating the whole test and after setting the number of buckets that you request, by editing do_populate_results.sql, so that the number of rows in table "t4" is not an exact multiple of the number of buckets.

Then simply run the master script, do_demo.sql and inspect the spooled output. Notice now you see different results from the three functions even when they operate on "t4.dp_score"—which as only unique values.


This study has shown that if, and only if, these special conditions hold:

  • a row set with N rows has only unique values of the column list that the OVER clause specifies for ordering the rows in the window—In other words, there are no ties
  • the aim is to allocate the rows into n buckets that each have the same number of rows
  • N is an integral multiple of n

then the three functions under test, ntile(), percent_rank(), and cume_dist(), all produce the same bucket allocation.

It showed, too, that if not all of these conditions hold, then each of the three functions produces a different bucket allocation.

The moral of the tale is clear:

  • If your aim is to allocate rows into, as close as is possible, equiheight buckets, then you should, of course, use the window function that is specified to meet this goal: ntile().
  • If you have more subtle requirements that cannot be met by ntile(), then you are probably well-versed in statistics and will understand in advance the different goals that percent_rank() and cume_dist() are specified to meet and will simply know, a priori which one of these two to choose.

The study has also brought, as promised, several generic pedagogic benefits. And it did this precisely because it set out to meet a goal that was stated functionally in high-level terms. In other words, it did not set out to meet any specific pedagogic goals. Rather, the techniques that were used emerged as a consequence of meeting the high-level goal.

Here's a list of some of these generic pedagogic benefits.

Use of the normal_rand() function.

This function is useful in all sorts of generic testing scenarios. And it's often much better to use this than to use the ordinary generate_series() built-in.

Using gen_random_uuid() to populate a surrogate primary key column

You saw that this idiom:

k uuid default gen_random_uuid() primary key

allows bulk insert into a table to go very much faster than this more familiar idiom:

k serial primary key

The reason for the speed difference is that gen_random_uuid() reliably produces unique values entirely programmatically while serial implies the use of a sequence—and such use brings the expense of inter-node coordinating round trips, in a multi-node distributed SQL database deployment, to guarantee that the values that are delivered are unique.

The use of a view, for both SELECT and INSERT, to point to different tables

Notice these two scripts: cr_dp_views.sql and cr_int_views.sql. They allow:

  • both—the code that runs the window functions to be defined just once and to be switched to read from either the column with duplicate values or the column with unique values;
  • and—the code that inserts into the results tables to be defined just once and to be switched correspondingly to write the results to the table that's appropriate for the present test.

This technique is often used in test scenarios where the same test is run under two, or more, conditions. The technique is not recommended for production use because of the various well-know problems brought by doing DDL in such an environment.

Using the WITH clause

The WITH clause brings the obvious benefit that you can name intermediate result sets so that your SQL become very much more readable, and therefore very much more likely to implement what you intend, than without such naming,

In particular, it is a far more self-evident way to implement self-joins than was possible, ages ago, before the advent of this device. (This technique was used in the script do_compare_dp_results.sql.)

Using the ordinary GROUP BY clause in conjunction with window functions

Very often, a window function is used in a WITH clause to specify intermediate results that then are reduced in volume in subsequent WITH clauses to meet the ultimate purpose of the SQL statement.

The use of "language plpgsql" procedures

See, for example, the script that table t4 presents. The procedure encapsulates several steps that each builds on the next in a way that you cannot manage to do easily (or at all) using a single SQL statement. In particular, this procedure populates an array with SQL, processes its content using SQL on the array rather than on a schema-level table, and then uses SQL again to insert the array's content directly into the target table. In other words, it uses SQL, in the implementation of procedural code, to bring the famous benefits of set-based processing, rather than iterative programming in a procedural loop. This is a very powerful technique.

The use of "language sql" functions and procedures as an alternative to PREPARE

This brings several benefits over PREPARE: you can use named formal parameters to improve readability; you shift the responsibility from application code start-up time, for every new session, to a one-time database installation when you install all of the artifacts that implement that application's database back end; and you have a single point of maintenance for the SQL that the stored function or procedure encapsulates.

The contrast between ntile() and width_bucket()

You saw that ntile() produces an equiheight histogram while width_bucket() produces an equiwidth histogram. The former is a window function; but the latter is a regular function. This reflects the fact that the latter is rather older in the history of databases than the former: it requires you to calculate the lower and upper bounds of the window yourself, and supply these as actual arguments. You might use the window functions first_value and last_value for this. And you might decide to implement my_width_bucket as a window function. YSQL has an extensibility framework (beyond the scope of this section) that would allow this.

It is to be hoped, therefore, that you might dip into this optional section periodically to seek inspiration for techniques that you might use when you have a new problem to solve.