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What are Triggers in SQL

Last Updated on July 4, 2023 by Abhishek Sharma

In the world of databases, triggers play a significant role in automating actions and enforcing business rules. A SQL trigger is a database object which fires in a database table. This article aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of triggers in SQL, exploring their purpose, types, syntax, and practical examples.

What are the triggers in SQL?

A trigger is a special type of stored procedure in SQL that gets executed automatically when a specific event occurs. These events can range from data modifications, such as inserts, updates, and deletions, to database operations like table creations or even user logins.

Syntax of Triggers in SQL:

CREATE TRIGGER schema.trigger_name  
ON table_name  

The parameter descriptions of this syntax illustrate below:

  • schema: It is an optional parameter that defines which schema the new trigger belongs to.
  • trigger_name: It is a required parameter that defines the name for the new trigger.
  • table_name: It is a required parameter that defines the table name to which the trigger applies. Next to the table name, we need to write the AFTER clause where any events like INSERT, UPDATE, or DELETE could be listed.
  • NOT FOR REPLICATION: This option tells that SQL Server does not execute the trigger when data is modified as part of a replication process.
  • SQL_Statements: It contains one or more SQL statements that are used to perform actions in response to an event that occurs.

Purpose of Triggers:

Triggers serve multiple purposes within a database management system. Some key objectives of triggers include:

  • Maintaining data integrity: Triggers can enforce business rules and ensure that data modifications adhere to predefined constraints.
  • Automating tasks: Triggers can be used to automate repetitive tasks or complex calculations, saving time and effort.
  • Auditing and logging: Triggers enable the recording of events and actions in a database, facilitating auditing and tracking changes.
  • Implementing referential integrity: Triggers can enforce relationships between tables, ensuring the consistency of data across multiple entities.

Types of Triggers:

SQL supports two main types of triggers:

DDL Triggers

DDL triggers, also known as Data Definition Language triggers, are a feature in database management systems that allow you to associate actions with certain database schema events or changes. DDL triggers are specifically designed to respond to data definition language statements, such as CREATE, ALTER, or DROP statements, which are used to define or modify the structure of database objects like tables, views, or procedures.
The DDL triggers are useful in the following scenario:

  • When we need to prevent the database schema from changing
  • When we need to audit changes made in the database schema
  • When we need to respond to a change made in the database schema

DML Triggers

DML triggers, also known as Data Manipulation Language triggers, are a feature in database management systems that allow you to associate actions with specific data manipulation events, such as INSERT, UPDATE, or DELETE statements. DML triggers are designed to respond to changes in the data within a table rather than changes to the structure of the database objects.
The DML triggers can be classified into two types:

  • After Triggers
  • Instead Of Triggers

After Triggers
An "AFTER" trigger is a type of DML trigger that fires after the triggering event has occurred. It is executed after the data manipulation operation has been performed on the table. The AFTER trigger allows you to perform additional actions or implement business logic based on the changes made to the table.
We can classify this trigger further into three types:

  1. AFTER INSERT Trigger
  2. AFTER UPDATE Trigger
  3. AFTER DELETE Trigger

Example: When we insert data into a table, the trigger associated with the insert operation on that table will not fire until the row has passed all constraints, such as the primary key constraint. SQL Server cannot fire the AFTER trigger when the data insertion failed.

The following is illustration of the After Triggers syntax in SQL Server:

CREATE TRIGGER schema_name.trigger_name  
ON table_name  
      -- Trigger Statements  
      -- Insert, Update, Or Delete Statements  

Instead of Triggers
An "INSTEAD OF" trigger is a type of trigger in a database management system that allows you to override the default behavior of a data manipulation operation (e.g., INSERT, UPDATE, DELETE) on a table. Unlike "AFTER" triggers that execute after the operation has taken place, an "INSTEAD OF" trigger executes instead of the default operation, giving you the ability to modify or replace the operation with custom logic.
We can classify this trigger further into three types:


Example: When we insert data into a table, the trigger associated with the insert operation on that table will fire before the data has passed all constraints, such as the primary key constraint. SQL Server also fires the Instead of Trigger if the data insertion fails.

The following is an illustration of the Instead of Triggers syntax in SQL Server:

CREATE TRIGGER schema_name.trigger_name  
ON table_name  
      -- trigger statements  
      -- Insert, Update, or Delete commands  

Logon Triggers

Logon triggers are a type of database trigger that execute automatically when a user logs on to a database. They allow you to perform actions or enforce rules at the moment of user authentication. Logon triggers are typically used to implement security measures, audit logins, or customize the user’s session environment.

Advantages of Triggers in SQL:

Automation and Efficiency: Triggers automate tasks and actions within the database, reducing the need for manual intervention. They can perform complex calculations, enforce business rules, and update related data automatically, saving time and effort.

Data Integrity and Consistency: Triggers help maintain data integrity by enforcing constraints and rules. They can validate data before it is inserted, updated, or deleted, ensuring that it meets the required criteria and maintaining consistency across the database.

Auditing and Logging: Triggers facilitate auditing and tracking changes by capturing information about data modifications. They can record details such as the user who made the change, timestamp, and the specific action performed, providing a comprehensive audit trail.

Referential Integrity: Triggers can enforce referential integrity by ensuring that relationships between tables are maintained. They can prevent the deletion of records that are referenced by other tables, avoiding data inconsistencies and preserving data integrity.

Flexibility: Triggers offer flexibility in implementing custom business rules and complex workflows within the database. They can be tailored to specific requirements and can perform a wide range of actions based on predefined conditions.

Disadvantages of Triggers in SQL:

Hidden Logic: Triggers contain logic that is executed automatically, which can make it difficult to trace and understand the flow of actions within the database. This hidden logic may lead to unexpected behavior if not properly documented and managed.

Performance Impact: Poorly designed triggers or triggers with complex logic can impact database performance. Triggers are executed within the transactional context, potentially adding overhead and slowing down data manipulation operations.

Maintenance and Debugging: Triggers can introduce complexity when it comes to maintenance and debugging. Multiple triggers on a table or cascading triggers can make it challenging to identify the cause of issues or modify existing logic without unintended consequences.

Dependency on Triggers: Overuse or reliance on triggers can make the database structure less transparent and harder to manage. A heavy reliance on triggers may lead to a fragmented and convoluted database design that is difficult to maintain and understand.
Inconsistent Behavior: Triggers can sometimes exhibit inconsistent behavior when used in combination with other database features or when dealing with complex scenarios. It is crucial to thoroughly test and validate trigger behavior under different circumstances to ensure consistency.

Triggers in SQL are a powerful tool that automates actions, enforces data integrity, and allows for complex business rules within a database. They provide efficiency, maintain consistency, and enable auditing and tracking of data modifications. However, triggers also come with potential disadvantages such as hidden logic, performance impact, and maintenance challenges. It is important to carefully consider their usage, design them appropriately, and thoroughly test their behavior to ensure optimal performance and reliability.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) related to Triggers in SQL:

Q1. Can triggers be nested?
Yes, some database management systems support nested triggers, which means triggers can invoke other triggers. However, it is advisable to use nested triggers cautiously to prevent potential performance issues and unintended cascading actions.

Q2. Can triggers be disabled or temporarily deactivated?
Yes, triggers can be disabled or temporarily deactivated based on the capabilities of the database management system being used. This can be useful when performing bulk data modifications or troubleshooting issues related to trigger behavior.

Q3. Are triggers specific to a particular table?
Yes, triggers are associated with a specific table or view in SQL. They are defined on the table and respond to the specified events that occur on that table.

Q4. Can triggers be used across different database management systems?
The syntax and behavior of triggers may vary across different database management systems. While the concept of triggers is widely supported, it is recommended to consult the documentation of the specific database management system being used for accurate implementation details.

Q5. Can triggers be rolled back?
Triggers are executed within the transactional context, which means they participate in the transaction and can be rolled back if necessary. This allows for consistent data modifications and ensures that triggers do not have an irreversible impact on the database.

Q6. Can triggers be used to prevent data modifications?
Yes, triggers can be used to prevent data modifications by throwing an error or rolling back the transaction if certain conditions are not met. This feature can be valuable for enforcing complex business rules or implementing data validation logic.

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