SQL Notebooks > SQL Runners

SQL finally gets literate programming


People love to argue about SQL and Python. Which is better? Which one should I use for 'insert data analytics task here'? Which one should I get tattooed on my forehead?

We opt for the “por que no los dos?” approach— Hex lets you use Python and SQL interchangeably in the same environment, and we are completely agnostic as to which tasks you use each language for. We’re pretty confident that this polyglot approach is a more efficient way to do data work!

But this week we've decided to pick favorites, with a bunch of posts on using SQL in Hex— and only SQL. We want to emphasize that you can build amazing data applications in Hex using just SQL. In fact, we think Hex is still the best tool for data work even if you're only using SQL.

For more, see Building Data Apps with SQL.

SQL runner workflows are broken

There's four big problems that most SQL runners and IDEs don't solve very well:

  • Organization: How do you keep track of queries while working?

  • Versioning: How do you track changes to queries and record previous versions of analysis?

  • Collaboration: How do you work together with teammates or get feedback from stakeholders?

  • Delivery: How do you deliver or present results? (we won't cover delivery in this piece— see Building Data Apps with SQL for the scoop.)

This isn't organized, versioned, or collaborative.
This isn't organized, versioned, or collaborative.

Too often the answer to these questions is "keep it in a scratchpad" or "check a bunch of loose .sql files into git" or even "just open a lot of browser tabs". This precludes any kind of useful collaboration, and anything that you can muster happens more or less asynchronously via slack or github PR comments. It's really hard to do great analytics work if you feel disorganized and are misplacing queries.

State of the art SQL organization and collaboration.
State of the art SQL organization and collaboration.

Notebooks are the best tool for analytics, but SQL is left out

Someone important once said "notebooks are the worst tool for analytics— except for all the others that have been tried". Their literate and self-documenting format lends itself perfectly to exploratory analytics work that requires context and commentary, Their linear, cell-based layout makes even complex projects fairly manageable.

And despite being imperfect (although we've actually fixed most of their problems in Hex), they certainly have better solutions to organization and versioning than anything that exists for SQL. They are self contained, neatly organized, and fairly portable.

The problem is that SQL workflows in existing notebooks are half-baked at best, and end up being more trouble than they're worth. No autocomplete, writing SQL in block quotes and iterating over DB cursors to return results— not to mention the need to write Python to access the SQL query results.

This is not an acceptable SQL editing experience.
This is not an acceptable SQL editing experience.

It's just not worth it, and analysts wind up trudging back to their dozens of SQL runner browser tabs.

How does Hex make it better?

Hex addresses the challenges of organization, versioning, and collaboration just as elegantly for SQL-only workflows as it does for polyglot ones.

Here, check out the SQL notebook Logic View for a data application that I made in ~10 minutes with Hex. It's self-documenting, neatly organized, easy to understand, and entirely SQL.

Don't believe me? Here’s a one-take video of me building the app you see embedded above, taking just over 10 minutes (with lots of ums and hmms), using no code besides good old SQL.

Some of the key features

There's a handful of specific Hex features that make it the best SQL notebook for doing data analytics.

Organization: Hex’s Logic view works just as well with SQL as it does with Python or R, so all your queries are neatly organized into cells and organized in a linear fashion. It’s easy to add context with markdown or charts interspersed between SQL cells, and all dependencies are charted in a familiar DAG UI.

SQL cells organized in the Logic View and Graph
SQL cells organized in the Logic View and Graph

Unlike typical notebooks though, every Hex SQL cell is a complete SQL IDE, with a schema browser, autocomplete, syntax highlighting, and query caching all built in.

Dataframe SQL also makes it easy to write smaller, more ergonomic queries, breaking up CTEs into individual cells. You can even write SQL directly against an uploaded .csv!

Hex's cell-based SQL IDE
Hex's cell-based SQL IDE

Versioning: There's built-in versioning right in each project, so you can quickly see what changes others have made and restore to previous versions. Every version of a query is auto-saved, and app snapshots make it possible to version not just code, but results as well.

Rich SQL diff view in Hex (this feature is currently in beta)
Rich SQL diff view in Hex (this feature is currently in beta)

You can also version control Hex projects with git, to fit right into your existing workflows and infrastructure.

Collaboration: Working in a Hex project, you can collaborate live with colleagues on SQL queries and see changes in real-time as they're made. Cells auto-lock to prevent typeover, so you never have to worry about stepping on anyone's toes.

Working in a Hex project together
Working in a Hex project together

Built-in commenting works both for the backend Logic View and the published App View, so both teammates and stakeholders can give feedback throughout the process, tightening feedback loops and preventing extra work.

Commenting back and forth with a stakeholder, right where work is being done
Commenting back and forth with a stakeholder, right where work is being done

Delivery: Once you have something to share, the SQL notebook layout of a Hex project can be easily turned into a flexible, interactive data application that anyone with a web browser can use— without anyone writing a single line of non-SQL code. See Building Data Apps with SQL for more details on this process.

Embedded below is an example of a SQL only data app made with Hex. It has rich text that's dynamically parameterized, beautiful display tables, a time-series chart, and an interactive input.

Once you try writing SQL in a notebook, you'll wonder how you ever managed to stay organized without it.

Ready to try out a better SQL notebook experience? Click below to get started for free.