Learn to use the Data Dictionary in SQL Server

In this puzzle, we’re going to learn how to query the data dictionary using SQL Server.  Knowing how to query the data dictionary is good to know.  There are many questions you can answer about your database through the data dictionary.

For instance, do you know how many of your table don’t have a primary key defined?

By reading this article you’ll learn to query the data dictionary, but before you read the entire article, try the puzzle.  Any work you do, if it you just get part of the answer, helps to reinforce the concepts you’ll learn.

Solving puzzles is a great way to learn SQL.  Nothing beats practicing what you’ve learned.  Once you have figured out the puzzle, post your answer in the comments so we all can learn from one another.  We also discuss puzzle and more in Essential SQL Learning Group on Facebook.  Be sure to find us there!

SQL Puzzle Question

You’re getting ready for a new crop of summer interns.  Last year they all got lost in the database, and you constantly had to save them.

You’ve learned from your mistakes!  Now you’re going to make sure they can find their way around by using the built-in data dictionary.

So, you’ve decided to give them a lesson.  You want them to answer the following questions:

  • Find all tables with the characters ‘part’ in their name
  • Find all tables containing the column BusinessEntityID
  • List all tables all tables and views alphabetical order by name.

Since you need to know your stuff, what are the answers?  Can you provide the SQL you would use?

Introduction to the Data Dictionary

If you’re not familiar with the concept of a data dictionary, then I would recommend you first read my introductory article.  It gives you a high-level overview of it purpose, and some examples to get you started.

To answer today’s puzzle, we are going to use three tables from the data dictionary:

  • tables – Lists all tables defined in the database; object_id is the primary key.
  • columns – Lists all columns for all tables. It is related to SYS.tables by object_id
  • objects – Contains all database objects, such as tables and views.

Also, there a many tables in the data dictionary that aren’t covered in this article, we’re only scratching the surface, so I would recommend you check out the SQL Server System Views poster to learn more.  You can download it from Microsoft.

Now, here are the answers to this week’s puzzle.

Find all tables with the characters  ‘part’ in their name

To find the name of all tables containing the letters ‘part’ in their name we’ll query SYS.tables.  This table contains a row for each user table within the database.

To find all tables containing ‘part’ we will use the LIKE statement along with the % wildcard characters to get a partial match.  Here is the query.

FROM   SYS.tables
WHERE  name LIKE '%part%'

Which produces these results:

Data Dictionary Answer 1

Find all tables containing the column BusinessEntityID

In order to find all the tables containing a column named BusinessEntityID, we’ll work with two tables from within the data dictionary.

This first is SYS.tables, which we already know contains a row for every user table.  The second is SYS.columns, which contains a row for every column defined within tables and views.

Data Dictionary Relationships

SYS.columns is related to SYS.tables by object_id.  There can be many SYS.columns rows for each SYS.tables row.

Given this relationship, your first reaction may be to write a query to  join tables to columns like so:

SELECT   t.name
FROM     sys.tables t
         INNER JOIN SYS.columns c
         ON t.object_id = c.object_id
WHERE    c.name = 'BusinessEntityID'
ORDER BY t.name


However, given there are many columns in a table, this query potentially could return duplicate table names.  For instance, if our table contained columns names BusniessEntityID and OldBusinessEntityID this would happen.

The get around this you can use a correlated subquery with an EXISTS operator.  The idea is to see if at least one column matches the criteria, if so, then include the table name in the result.

SELECT   t.name
FROM     sys.tables t
                 FROM   SYS.columns c
                 WHERE t.object_id = c.object_id
                       AND c.name = 'BusinessEntityID'
ORDER BY t.name

Here are the tables that have at least one column whose name contains ‘BusinessEntityID.’

Data Dictionary Answer 2

List All Table and View by Name indicating type.

Earlier we used the SYS.tables list all user defined tables.  This table is a subset of the objects conains in SYS.obects.  SYS.objects contains many entries including user defined tables and views.  SYS.objects.type indicated the type of object represented in the row.  User defined tables have the value ‘U’ and views ‘V’.

In order to list all user defined tables and view, all we need to do is query SYS.objects and limit our results to TYPE’s ‘U’ and ‘V’

Here is the query you can use to do this:

          WHEN Type = 'U' THEN 'Table'
          WHEN Type = 'V' THEN 'View'
          ELSE 'Unknown'
       END as Type
FROM   SYS.objects
WHERE  Type IN ('U','V')

Here are the results:

Data Dictionary Answer 3


This puzzle just give you a glimpse into type of problems you can solve using the data dictionary.  As you become more advanced, you may even look to use the data dictionary to assist in dynamic query generation!


Kris Wenzel

Kris Wenzel has been working with databases over the past 28 years as a developer, analyst, and DBA. He has a BSE in Computer Engineering from the University of Michigan and a MBA from the University of Notre Dame. Kris has written hundreds of blog articles and many online courses. He loves helping others learn SQL.