Using UTF-8 in IBM Informix databases

UTF-8 in Genero programs and Informix databases

Genero BDL programs can run in a UTF-8 locale, and use an IBM® Informix® database created with a UTF-8 locale.

The locale of an Informix database is defined at creation by the DB_LOCALE environment variable.

At runtime, the Informix client locale is defined by the CLIENT_LOCALE environment variable and must match the Genero application locale (LANG/LC_ALL), while DB_LOCALE must match the database locale. If needed, Informix will make charset conversions between CLIENT_LOCALE and DB_LOCALE. For more details about Informix client setup, see Prepare the runtime environment - connecting to the database.

When creating a database for UTF-8 storage:
  • Define the DB_LOCALE environment variable to a UTF-8 locale like en_us.utf8
  • Check the SQL_LOGICAL_CHAR parameter in the onconfig Informix server file.

Defining the Informix database locale

When you create a database with a CREATE DATABASE SQL statement, the current value of the DB_LOCALE environment variable defines the locale for the created database:

$ DB_LOCALE=en_US.utf8
$ export DB_LOCALE
$ dbaccess - -
Important: Always define the DB_LOCALE environment variable, before executing the CREATE DATABASE statement: If DB_LOCALE is not set, it will default to the DB_LOCALE value set when starting the Informix engine. If no DB_LOCALE was set when starting the engine, it defaults to en_us.8859-1 (i.e. en_us.819).
Tip: To check the locale of an Informix database, connect to the sysmaster database, and run the following query:
$ dbaccess sysmaster -
Database selected.

> SELECT * FROM sysdbslocale WHERE dbs_dbsname = 'mydb'; 
dbs_dbsname  mydb
dbs_collate  en_US.819
The charset code for ISO-8859-1 is 819, for UTF8 it is 57372.

The SQL_LOGICAL_CHAR onconfig parameter

Informix (14.10) does not support CHAR length semantics, it uses only BYTE length semantics: By default, in a CHAR(10) SQL type, the size represents a number of bytes. Since UTF-8 locale is a multi-byte, variable-length encoding, it is not possible to store 10 of all possible UTF-8 characters in 10 bytes.

However, the Informix onconfig SQL_LOGICAL_CHAR parameter can be defined as a size multiplier for CHAR/VARCHAR SQL types, when creating tables. For example, when using a CHAR(10) SQL type and SQL_LOGICAL_CHAR=4, the real SQL type will be CHAR(40), where 40 is the size in bytes.

Tip: To check the value of the SQL_LOGICAL_CHAR size multiplier of an existing database, connect to that database (not to sysmaster!), and execute the following query:
$ dbaccess mydb -
Database selected.

> SELECT MOD(flags,4)+1 FROM systables WHERE tabname = ' VERSION';

Persistence of database settings

The DB_LOCALE and SQL_LOGICAL_CHAR values used at database creation are persistent properties for the lifetime of that database.

If you stop the Informix engine, change the SQL_LOGICIAL_CHAR, then restart the engine, or set a different DB_LOCALE, the locale settings of existing databases remain unchanged: New created tables are based on the DB_LOCALE and SQL_LOGICAL_CHAR settings when the database was created.

Database schema and CHAR/VARCHAR sizes

Program variables can be declared with DEFINE LIKE, to use SQL types from .sch schema files.

Schema files are produced with the fgldbsch tool, reading Informix (syscolumns) system tables. The sizes of CHAR/VARCHAR columns is always expressed in bytes in syscolumns.collength.

For databases created with an SQL_LOGICAL_CHAR size multiplier, the fgldbsch tool divides the collength by the SQL_LOGICAL_CHAR value used by the database.

For example:
  1. At database creation, onconfig server file has SQL_LOGICAL_CHAR=4
  2. CREATE TABLE tab1 ( col1 CHAR(10) )
  3. In the Informix system table: syscolumns.collength = 40 (40 bytes)
  4. fgldbsch -db mydb produces the .sch file (for tab1.col1: 40/4=10)
  5. In .sch schema file, tab1.col1 is defined as CHAR(10)
  6. Source code declares: DEFINE rec RECOR LIKE tab1.*
  7. The compiler reads schema file and defines rec.col1 as CHAR(10)
At runtime, the actual storage capabilities of the CHAR(10) variable is then defined by the FGL_LENGTH_SEMANTICS environment variable:
  • When FGL_LENGTH_SEMANTICS=CHAR, a CHAR(10) variable can store 10 UTF-8 characters, no matter the number of bytes used by these characters.
  • When FGL_LENGTH_SEMANTICS=BYTE, a CHAR(10) variable can store 10 ASCII-7 characters, 5 (5x2b=10b) UTF-8 accute characters, or 3 (3x3b=9b) UTF-8 Chinese characters.


With UTF-8 in Genero programs, it is recommended to use char length semantics by setting the FGL_LENGTH_SEMANTICS=CHAR environment variable.

However, depending on the level of compatibility with Informix SQL length semantics, and the complexity of character string operations in the program's code, you need to choose CHAR or BYTE length semantics for Genero programs.

If Informix would support CHAR length semantics, there would be no question: We should just use FGL_LENGTH_SEMANTICS=CHAR as well.

But Informix fundamentally uses BYTE length semantics (even when SQL_LOGICAL_CHAR is defined). For example, in SQL statements:
  • LENGTH(expr) returns a number of bytes
  • custname[2,5] means the substrings from byte position 2 to 5

If the application code does not have complex string operations, you may consider using FGL_LENGTH_SEMANTICS=BYTE, to get the same length semantics as in SQL statements.

But when the application code uses a lot of substring positions such as custcode[2,5], it is mandatory to use FGL_LENGTH_SEMANTICS=CHAR, to keep the source code untouched.


The fgldbsch tool takes database's SQL_LOGICAL_CHAR setting into account: A column created as CHAR(10) will become a CHAR(10) variable from DEFINE LIKE (even if syscolumns.collength is defined as 40 bytes). Thus, the schema file is prepared for FGL_LENGTH_SEMANTICS=CHAR usage.

The future of Informix UTF-8 support

Ideally, Informix should support CHAR length semantics like most other databases, to get the same behavior with SQL and FGL expressions.

This feature request is known to Informix developers and should be available in a future version (> 14.10).