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Paging Through Data Using LIMIT And OFFSET In MySQL And ColdFusion

Published: December 20, 2022

When I render a data-grid for a user, I usually use pagination to allow the user to iterate through some relatively finite amount of records. The other day, however, I had to build an administrative UI (user interface) that surfaced a tremendous amount of data – possibly hundreds-of-thousands of records. With so much data, standard pagination didn’t seem like a meaningful solution. Instead, I switched over to using LIMIT and OFFSET in my MySQL, which allows the admin to page through the data one slice at a time. I don’t use this technique that often, so I thought a ColdFusion demo would be fun.

In MySQL, if we want to extract a subset of rows from a larger possible result-set, we can use LIMIT and OFFSET:

  • LIMIT R – Used to constrain the number of rows (R) returned by the SELECT statement. MySQL can apply a number of query optimizations when this clause is present in the SQL.

  • OFFSET N – Used to determine the first row to be returned in the SELECT statement. In other words, this defines how many rows we skip (N) before we start including rows in our result-set.

I like to use both LIMIT and OFFSET together because it makes it super clear which value is which. That said, MySQL supports this syntax specifically for compatibility with PostgreSQL. If compatibility is not a concern, MySQL also supports a syntax wherein you pass two “arguments” to the LIMIT clause as a comma-delimited list:

LIMIT {offset}, {count}

I don’t care for this syntax because if you use LIMIT with only a single argument:

LIMIT {count}

… then the meaning of the first argument changes semantics. This seems to violate the principle of least surprise; which is why I always explicitly define both the LIMIT and OFFSET clause – no surprises!

By using the LIMIT and OFFSET clauses, we can start to approach paging through a larger result-set by thinking of each page as a combination of these clauses. Consider a UI in which we show 10-records at a time to the user:

  • LIMIT 10 OFFSET 0 – Page 1
  • LIMIT 10 OFFSET 10 – Page 2
  • LIMIT 10 OFFSET 20 – Page 3
  • LIMIT 10 OFFSET 30 – Page 4
  • LIMIT 10 OFFSET 40 – Page 5

This is great because, for each page, we only have to read in and return the rows that we need to render. But, if we are going to provide tooling that allows the user to move from one page to another, how do we know if there is another page to link to?

Going backwards in the pagination is easy: if we have a non-zero OFFSET, we know that we skipped rows to get to where we are; which mean, we have rows to go back to.

Going forward is a bit more tricky. If we pull back rows 40-50, how do we know if row 51 exists on the next page? To test for a “next page”, I’m going to use a technique that I believe I learned about in High Performance MySQL: Optimization, Backups, and Replication. In that book, the authors suggest pulling back N+1 rows for each “page”. Then, if the number of rows is larger than the “page size”, you know that you have at least one row beyond the current page.

To see this in action, I’ve put together a ColdFusion demo in which I can page through my blog comments. Since this site has tens-of-thousands of comments, showing typical pagination makes no sense. But, we can use LIMIT and OFFSET to incrementally walk through the data.

In this ColdFusion demo, each page consists of 10 comments. As such, I’m going to use a LIMIT 11 in my SQL query in order to pull back the next 11 rows (at most). If I do get 11 rows, I know that I have a next page. In that case, I slice off the 11th row, deferring it to a future rendering.

	param name="url.offset" type="numeric" default="0";
	// ------------------------------------------------------------------------------- //
	// ------------------------------------------------------------------------------- //
	pageSize = 10;
	// Make sure we don't drop below zero for our offset - this can happen if someone
	// messes with the URL and gives us an offset that doesn't fall on a single page.
	pageOffset = max( 0, url.offset );
	// When we pull back the page of records, we're going to read in ( PAGESIZE + 1 )
	// rows. This will allow us to see if there are any rows on the subsequent page
	// without having to perform an additional SQL query. In this case, the 11th row will
	// represent the 1st row of the NEXT page.
	comments = queryExecute(
				( ) AS memberName,
				( ) AS entryName
				blog_comment c
				member m
			ON = c.memberiD
				blog_entry e
			ON = c.blogEntryID
			-- Paging through the records using LIMIT (how many rows we want to return)
			-- and OFFSET (where in the results we want to start reading). It's critical
			-- that we have an ORDER BY in a query like this, otherwise the order of the
			-- rows can be inconsistent (it depends on which indexes the query optimizer
			-- uses behind the scenes).
			limit: {
				value: ( pageSize + 1 ), // NOTE: Pulling back N+1 records.
				cfsqltype: "cf_sql_bigint"
			offset: {
				value: pageOffset,
				cfsqltype: "cf_sql_bigint"
	// ------------------------------------------------------------------------------- //
	// ------------------------------------------------------------------------------- //
	// We know we have a PREV offset if our current offset is non-Zero.
	hasPrev = !! pageOffset;
	prevOffset = ( pageOffset - pageSize );
	// Since our results read-in N+1 rows, we know we have a NEXT offset if our results
	// are larger than our page size.
	hasNext = ( comments.recordCount > pageSize );
	nextOffset = ( pageOffset + pageSize );
	// And, if we do have a NEXT offset, it means that we have one extra row in our
	// results (N+1) - let's slice it out so that we defer it to the next page of data.
	if ( hasNext ) {
		comments = comments.slice( 1, pageSize );
	<!doctype html>
	<html lang="en">
		<meta charset="utf-8" />
		<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1" />
		<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="" />
			Paging Through Data Using LIMIT And OFFSET In MySQL And ColdFusion
		<div class="pager">
				<cfif hasPrev>
					<a href="#cgi.script_name#?offset=#prevOffset#">
						&laquo; Prev #pageSize#
				<cfif hasPrev>
					Offset: #numberFormat( pageOffset )#
					<a href="#cgi.script_name#">Reset</a>
				<cfif hasNext>
					<a href="#cgi.script_name#?offset=#nextOffset#">
						Next #pageSize# &raquo;
				<th> ID </th>
				<th> Member </th>
				<th> Comment </th>
				<th> Created </th>
				<th> Blog Entry </th>
			<cfloop query="comments">
					<td> #encodeForHtml( )# </td>
					<td> #encodeForHtml( comments.memberName )# </td>
					<td> #encodeForHtml( comments.contentMarkdown.left( 100 ) )# </td>
					<td> #dateFormat( comments.createdAt, "mmm d, yyyy" )# </td>
					<td> #encodeForHtml( comments.entryName )# </td>

As you can see, I’m using LIMIT and OFFSET to pull back the current page of data (plus the 11th row indicating the next page). If I do have an 11th row, I record that I have a next page to render and then .slice() the query back down to 10 rows. Moving from page-to-page then becomes a matter of passing in the necessary offset via the url scope.

If we run this ColdFusion demo and then page through the records, we get the following output:

As you can see, we’re able to quickly and easily page forward and backward through the larger result-set 10-rows at a time by adjusting the LIMIT and OFFSET clauses in our SQL query.

In some ways, I think this approach actually makes more sense than “traditional pagination”. After all, the user’s typical gesture is to go to the “next page” – how often do users want to jump to an arbitrary page (ie, “let’s see what’s on page 73!”)? According to my application analytics, very rarely. This type of query is also easier to write and faster to perform.

MySQL can apply optimizations; however, the moment you start adding filtering to your query, you might accidentally trigger a full-table scan. This happened to me recently when I started showing recent comments on my blog.

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