Advantages and disadvantages of cursors in SQL Server

Cursors in SQL Server provide a way to process individual rows within a result set. Cursors in SQL Server are commonly utilized when we need to update records in a database table one at a time. While they can be useful in certain scenarios, cursors also come with both advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages and disadvantages of cursors in SQL Server

Let’s explore the advantages and disadvantages of cursors:

Advantages of Cursors

  1. Row-level Processing: Cursors allow you to process rows individually, which can be beneficial when you need to perform complex, row-by-row operations that are not easily achieved with set-based operations.
  2. Flexibility: Cursors provide flexibility in terms of navigation and processing logic. You can control the flow of the cursor, fetch rows in a specific order, and perform conditional processing based on row values.
  3. Transaction Control: Cursors can be used to explicitly control transactions. You can perform operations within a cursor and manage transactional boundaries by committing or rolling back changes as needed.
  4. No Need for a Condition: Cursors eliminate the requirement for a Boolean condition by treating a set of rows as a single record. This enables cursor movement without relying on a specific condition.

Disadvantages of Cursors

  1. Performance Impact: Cursors often have a negative impact on performance compared to set-based operations. Cursors require additional resources and can lead to increased network traffic, memory usage, and CPU overhead. Iterating through rows individually can be slower than processing data in bulk.
  2. Locking and Concurrency: Cursors may hold locks on rows or tables for an extended period, potentially leading to blocking and decreased concurrency. This can impact the scalability and responsiveness of your application, particularly in high-concurrency environments.
  3. Cursor Syntax Complexity: Cursor code can be more complex and harder to understand and maintain compared to set-based queries. It often requires explicit cursor declaration, opening, fetching, and closing operations, leading to more lines of code and potential for errors.
  4. Poor Code Reusability: Cursor-based code is less reusable since it is often tightly coupled to specific cursor operations and specific result sets. This can make it harder to reuse the code for different scenarios or refactor it for improved performance or functionality.
  5. Lack of Optimization: Cursors may limit the ability of the query optimizer to optimize the execution plan. Set-based operations allow the optimizer to leverage indexing, parallelism, and other optimization techniques better, resulting in potentially faster and more efficient queries.


Considering these advantages and disadvantages, it is generally recommended to use cursors sparingly and consider alternative set-based or loop-based approaches whenever possible. Set-based operations in SQL Server, such as joins and aggregations, are generally more performant and scalable. Loop-based operations, like using a WHILE loop, can also be considered as an alternative to cursors. In a previous article, we explored the usage of a WHILE loop as an alternative to cursors.

It’s important to keep in mind that cursors may still be necessary in specific scenarios where complex row-level processing or explicit control over transactions is required. In such cases, cursors can offer the flexibility needed to handle these specific requirements effectively. However, due to the potential performance impact and decreased code reusability, it is advisable to carefully evaluate the need for cursors and explore alternative solutions whenever possible.


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