Calculating Running Totals using SQL
October 20, 2015 | Andy Granowitz

How many users joined in the last 5 months? What were total sales in Q2? How much revenue came from the March sign up cohort?

Although these questions can be answered with a single number, it can be useful to see a running total over time: how many unique users joined, or how much cumulative revenue was received by day over some period.

Usually, data is stored incrementally. For example, here’s a table of sales per day:

Date Sales
10/1/2015 5
10/2/2015 3
10/3/2015 7
10/4/2015 8
10/5/2015 2
10/6/2015 3
10/7/2015 6

How do we generate the following table of cumulative sales over time? In SQL, there are two typical approaches: a self join or a window function.

Date Running Total of Sales
10/1/2015 5
10/2/2015 8
10/3/2015 15
10/4/2015 23
10/5/2015 25
10/6/2015 28
10/7/2015 34

A self join is a query that compares a table to itself. In this case, we’re comparing each date to any date less than or equal to it in order to calculate the running total. Concretely, we take the sum of sales in the second table over every row that has a date less than or equal to the date coming from the first table. This is Postgres/Redshift syntax, but other SQL dialects are very similar.

This is not a bad approach; it is a nice showcase of how extensible SQL can be using only select, from, join, and group by statements.

But it is a lot of code for a simple task. Let’s try a window function. They are designed to calculate a metric over a set of rows. In our case, we want to sum every row where the date is less than or equal to the date in the current row.

The window function can filter and arrange the set of rows to run the function over. Here the order by date rows unbounded preceding limits the sum function to only sales before the date of the current row. Window functions are incredibly useful for time-based analytical queries; to learn more, the Postgres docs are a great place to start.

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