Odd Define of Table Column Includes CHAR in Column Length

We have an Oracle 11g database.

Recently a vendor altered a column this way:

ALTER TABLE myTable MODIFY myColumn varchar2(12 char);

I don't know what the column looked like before but when you describe the table it looks like this for that column:

Name                 Type
-----------------      -----------------------------
myColumn       VARCHAR2(12 CHAR)


In looking at the dba_tab_columns table, the column shows this way:

table_name    column_name    data_type     data_length
-------------         -----------------        ----------------   ---
myTable          myColumn          VARCHAR2   12


Google searches show others have done this but I haven't found an explanation on WHY?  
Can anyone explain why you would want to specify "CHAR" in the length of a column?

Thank you.
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Julie KurpaSr. Systems ProgrammerAsked:
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slightwv (䄆 Netminder) Commented:
>>Can anyone explain why you would want to specify "CHAR" in the length of a column?

It has to do with multi-byte character sets.  Using CHAR allows for 12 characters.  The alternative is myColumn varchar2(12 BYTES) which allows 12 bytes.  In a single byte character set, they are the same.

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Dmitry KurashkinDeveloperCommented:
Can anyone explain why you would want to specify "CHAR" in the length of a column?
One character can have length more than one byte. If you use only ASCII characters, there no difference how to write: VARCHAR2(12 chars) or VARCHAR2(12 bytes) (the latter is the default). But if you will ever use Unicode symbols,  you need more than 1 byte per character (up to 4 bytes), so, if you declared the column as 12 bytes long, you will see, that sometimes it is possible to save only 3 characters. This notation guarantees, that you can always store 12 symbols in the column.
johnsoneSenior Oracle DBACommented:
The documentation goes into more detail.

Also, the default is not BYTES.  Check the documentation link.
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slightwv (䄆 Netminder) Commented:
For your DBA_TAB_COLUMNS query, you can see the difference with the CHAR_USED column:
create table tab1(col1 varchar2(1 char), col2 varchar2(1 byte));

select column_name,data_type,char_used from dba_tab_columns where table_name='TAB1';

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slightwv (䄆 Netminder) Commented:
Looks like at least in 12c and above, the system default is byte.

It is controlled by nls_length_semantics:
https://docs.oracle.com/en/database/oracle/oracle-database/18/refrn/NLS_LENGTH_SEMANTICS.html
johnsoneSenior Oracle DBACommented:
Sorry, I was trying to point out, that it is a changeable default value.  You can modify the system parameter and change the "default".

It is not a hard default that you can always count on, that is a default to me.  You can say that the default for NLS_DATE_FORMAT is DD-MON-RR, but would you depend on that always being the case?
Julie KurpaSr. Systems ProgrammerAuthor Commented:
Based on Dmitry Kurashkin's explanation, do you think that because this column is used to hold passwords, the vendor defined it as "12 CHAR" to allow the use of special characters?
Mark GeerlingsDatabase AdministratorCommented:
I would say that slightwv also explained it.  But, this only makes a difference in systems that allow and support multi-byte characters, like those used in some Asian languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.).  In systems that support only European languages (with single-byte characters) this column definition makes no difference.

Does your database support a multi-byte character set?
Julie KurpaSr. Systems ProgrammerAuthor Commented:
Still not completely understanding the "why" but perhaps that's something I need to ask the vendor.   :(

My database shows:

NAME                                 TYPE        VALUE
------------------------------------ ----------- ----------
nls_length_semantics                 string      BYTE

Does anyone know how to find out if there are any other table columns with this CHAR in the length?
awking00Information Technology SpecialistCommented:
select owner, table_name, column_name
from all_tab_columns
where data_type = 'CHAR';
Julie KurpaSr. Systems ProgrammerAuthor Commented:
Thanks Awking00.  But that's not giving me what I need.  

I want to find out what tables have columns defined like the one below.  The (12 CHAR) part of the type doesn't show up that way in the user_tab_columns.  

desc MyTable

Name                                      Null?    Type
----------------------------------------- -------- --------------------

MyCode                                  NOT NULL NUMBER(10)
MyName                                  NOT NULL VARCHAR2(75)
MyUserID                                                    VARCHAR2(50)
MyPassWord                                             VARCHAR2(12 CHAR)   <-- this shows in "desc" but not in user_tab_columns.
johnsoneSenior Oracle DBACommented:
Pretty sure that slightwv already gave it, but here it is again:

select table_name, column_name from user_tab_columns where char_used = 'C';
Julie KurpaSr. Systems ProgrammerAuthor Commented:
oh...I missed that.  Sorry.

Using that query I see that no other tables besides the two I'm concerned about have the length set that way.

I guess now I pursue the vendor to find out the "why" they have set it that way.
Julie KurpaSr. Systems ProgrammerAuthor Commented:
Thanks everyone.   I very much appreciate your assistance with this.
slightwv (䄆 Netminder) Commented:
>>I guess now I pursue the vendor to find out the "why" they have set it that way.

No need.  They explicitly used CHAR to ensure 12 characters can be stored in that field no matter what the database character set is.

Pick almost any unicode character and it is a multi-byte character.  If your database is set up for multi-byte characters and your database has nls_length_semantics set to BYTE you need to use CHAR to ensure a specific number of characters.

For example, take the smiley face emoji:
https://www.fileformat.info/info/unicode/char/263a/index.htm

It is actually 3 bytes in length.  If your database's default character set is AL32UTF8 and nls_length_semantics is BYTE.

You create a table like:
create table tab1(col1 varchar2(10), col2 varchar2(10 CHAR));

You can store 3 smiley face emojis in col1 and 10 in col2.

Why?  col1 is 10 bytes in length and the emoji is 3 bytes.  col2 was declared as 10 characters no matter how many bytes each character contains.

To see your database setup for NLS:
select * from nls_database_parameters;

The important one in the list is:  NLS_CHARACTERSET
Julie KurpaSr. Systems ProgrammerAuthor Commented:
Thank you so much for that explanation!

In my database, would special characters like @,%, &, # etc use more bytes than a regular letter?
slightwv (䄆 Netminder) Commented:
>>In my database, would special characters like @,%, &, # etc use more bytes than a regular letter?

ASCII characters are single-byte:
http://www.asciitable.com/
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