SQL Server

In-line scalar functions in SQL Server 2019

Yes, yes, yes, finally!

It’s hardly a secret that I’m not a fan of scalar user-defined functions. I refer to them as ‘developer pit-traps’ due to the amount of times I’ve seen developers absolutely wreck their database performance by over-using them (or using them at all).

The main problem with them is that they haven’t been in-line, meaning the function gets evaluated on every single row, and the overhead from doing so is usually terrible.

One of the improvements in SQL Server 2019 is that scalar user-defined functions now are in-line. Not all of them, there are conditions that have to be met. Most scalar UDFs that I’ve seem in client systems will meet them, the not referencing table variables will probably be the main limiting factor.

The full requirements are laid out in the documentation: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/sql/relational-databases/user-defined-functions/scalar-udf-inlining

I’m going to use the same function that I used when I evaluated natively-compiled functions (https://sqlinthewild.co.za/index.php/2016/01/12/natively-compiled-user-defined-functions/), and run it against a table with 860k rows in it, both in compat mode 140 (SQL Server 2017) and compat mode 150 (SQL Server 2019)

CREATE FUNCTION dbo.DateOnly (@Input DATETIME)
  RETURNS DATETIME
AS
BEGIN
  RETURN DATEADD(dd, DATEDIFF (dd, 0, @Input), 0);
END
GO

As in the earlier post, I’ll use extended events to catch the performance characteristics.

First, something to compare against. The query, without functions, is:

SELECT DATEADD(dd, DATEDIFF (dd, 0, TransactionDate), 0) FROM Transactions

This takes, on average,  343ms to run, and 320ms of CPU time.

The results of the first test are impressive.

Compat ModeDuration (ms)CPU (ms)
14010 6668594
150356353

I keep having people ask about SCHEMABINDING, so same test again, with the function recreated WITH SCHEMABINDING

Compat ModeDuration (ms)CPU (ms)
14054483818
150325320

Better, but still over an order of magnitude slower than the query without the function in SQL 2017 and earlier.

Last test, what about something with data access? I’ll switch to my Shipments and ShipmentDetails tables for this. The base query without the function is:

SELECT s.ShipmentID, 
    (SELECT SUM(Mass) AS TotalMass FROM ShipmentDetails sd WHERE sd.ShipmentID = s.ShipmentID) TotalShipmentMass
FROM Shipments s;

I’m writing it with a subquery instead of a join to keep it as similar as possible to the version with the function. It should be the same as if I had used a join though. That query takes, on average, 200ms, with 145ms CPU time.

There are 26240 rows in the Shipments table, and on average 34 detail rows per shipment. The function is:

CREATE FUNCTION dbo.ShipmentMass(@ShipmentID INT)
RETURNS NUMERIC(10,2)
AS
BEGIN
    DECLARE @ShipmentMass NUMERIC(10,2);
    SELECT @ShipmentMass = SUM(Mass) FROM ShipmentDetails sd WHERE sd.ShipmentID = @ShipmentID;

    RETURN @ShipmentMass;

END

And the results are:

Compat ModeDuration (ms)CPU (ms)
140961 211 (16 minutes)959 547
15032803272

The test under compat mode 140 had to be run overnight. 9 hours to run the query 25 times… And people wonder why I complain about scalar user-defined functions in systems.

Under compat mode 150 with the inline function it’s way better (3 seconds vs 16 minutes for a single execution), but it’s still over an order of magnitude slower than the same query with the subquery. I’ll test this again after RTM, but for the moment it look like my guidance for functions for SQL 2019 going forward is going to be that scalar functions that don’t access data are fine, but scalar functions that do should still be replaced by inline table-valued functions or no function at all, wherever possible.

No, this is not a bug in T-SQL

(or, Column scope and binding order in subqueries)

I keep seeing this in all sorts of places. People getting an unexpected result when working with a subquery, typically an IN subquery, and assuming that they’ve found a bug in SQL Server.

It’s a bug alright, in that developer’s code though.

Let’s see if anyone can spot the mistake.

We’ll start with a table of orders.

CREATE TABLE Orders (
  OrderID INT IDENTITY PRIMARY KEY,
  ClientID INT,
  OrderNumber VARCHAR(20)
)

There would be more to it in a real system, but this will do for a demo. We’re doing some archiving of old orders, of inactive clients. The IDs of those inactive clients have been put into a temp table

CREATE TABLE #TempClients (
ClientD INT
);

And, to check before running the actual delete, we run the following:

SELECT * FROM dbo.Orders
WHERE ClientID IN (SELECT ClientID FROM #TempClients)

And it returns the entire Orders table. The IN appears to have been completely ignored. At least the query was checked before doing the delete, that’s saved an unpleasant conversation with the DBA if nothing else.

Anyone spotted the mistake yet?

It’s a fairly simple one, not easy to see in passing, but if I test the subquery alone it should become obvious.

The column name in the temp table is missing an I, probably just a typo, but it has some rather pronounced effects.

The obvious next question is why the select with the subquery in it didn’t fail, after all, the query asks for ClientID from #TempClients, and there’s no such column. However there is a ClientID column available in that query, and it’s in the Orders table. And that’s a valid column for the subquery, because column binding order, when we have subqueries, is first to tables within the subquery, and then, if no match is found, to tables in the outer query.

It has to work this way, otherwise correlated subqueries would not be possible. For example:

SELECT c.LegalName,
c.HypernetAddress
FROM dbo.Clients AS c
WHERE EXISTS (SELECT 1 FROM dbo.Shipments s WHERE s.HasLivestock = 1 AND c.ClientID = s.ClientID)

In that example, c.ClientID explicitly references the Client table in the outer query. If I left off the c., the column would be bound to the ClientID column in the Shipments table.

Going back to our original example…

SELECT * FROM dbo.Orders
WHERE ClientID IN (SELECT ClientID FROM #TempClients)

When the query is parsed and bound, the ClientID column mentioned in the subquery does not match any column from any table within the subquery, and hence it’s checked against tables in the outer query, and it does match a column in the orders table. Hence the query essentially becomes

SELECT * FROM dbo.Orders
WHERE ClientID IN (SELECT dbo.Orders.ClientID FROM #TempClients)

Which is essentially equivalent to

SELECT * FROM dbo.Orders
WHERE 1=1

This is one reason why all columns should always, always, always, be qualified with their tables (or table aliases), especially when there are subqueries involved, as doing so would have completely prevented this problem.

SELECT * FROM dbo.Orders o
WHERE o.ClientID IN (SELECT tc.ClientID FROM #TempClients tc)

With the column in the subquery only allowed to be bound to columns within the #TempClients table, the query throws the expected column not found error.

And we’re no longer in danger of deleting everything from the orders table, as we would have if that subquery had been part of a delete and not a select.

Comparing plans in Management Studio

Previously I looked at using Query Store to compare execution plans, but it’s not the only way that two execution plans can be compared. The other method requires a saved execution plan and the Management Studio execution plan viewer.

Let’s start by assuming I have a saved execution plan for a query and I want to compare it to the execution plan that the same query currently has. First step is to run the query with actual execution plan on. Right-click on the execution plan and select ‘Compare Showplan’

ComparePlans2

Pick a saved execution plan. It doesn’t have to be for the same query, but the comparison will be of little use if the two plans being compared are not from the same query.

ComparePlansFindPlan

And then we get the same comparison screen as we saw last time with the comparison via Query Store. Similar portions of the plan are marked by coloured blocks, and the properties window shows which properties differ between the two plans.

ComparePlansDetail2

Comparing plans in Query Store

One feature that was added in the 2016 version of SSMS that hasn’t received a lot of attention, is the ability to compare execution plans.

There’s two ways of doing this, from Query Store and from saved files.

Let’s start with Query Store, and I’m going to use a demo database that I’ve been working on for a few months – Interstellar Transport (IST). I’ve got a stored procedure in there that has a terrible parameter sniffing problem (intentionally). I’m going to run it a few times with one parameter value, then run it a few more times with another parameter value, remove the plan from cache and repeat the executions in the reverse order.

With that done, the query should show up in the ‘Queries with High Variance’ report (SQL 2017)

image

image

The query has the two expected plans, and they are quite different from each other.

Plan1

Plan2

I can click on the points on the graph individually to see the plans, but comparing the plans in that way is difficult and requires that I make notes somewhere else. What I can do instead is select two different points on the graph and chose the ‘compare plans’ option.

image

This brings up a window where the two plans are displayed one above the other, and areas in the plan which are similar are highlighted.

image

Select an operator and pull up the properties, and the properties of the operator from both plans are shown, with the differences highlighted.

image

This isn’t the only way to compare query plans. The next post will show how it can be done without using Query Store at all.

Memory Grant Feedback and data skew

The new adaptive query processing features in SQL Server 2017 are useful for fixing performance problems that were previously very hard to fix. They’re not perfect though, and one of the problems with memory grant feedback in particular is that it’s sensitive to data skew.

Before I get into why, let’s look at what adaptive memory grant does in the first place.

Queries request memory for operations like sorts, hash joins, hash aggregates and a few other operators. This is not TempDB space (ideally), it’s just memory. The amount requested is based on the optimiser’s guesses as to the size of the data that will be hashed/sorted, and that’s based off statistics and parameter values. Hence, there’s a chance for the guess to be wrong, and when it is, we get things like this:

PlanWithSpill

SpillDetails

When spill happen, the intermediate resultsets (or parts of them) do get written to TempDB. And read back. And potentially written and read back again, and maybe a few more times. This can be horribly slow.

Of course, there’s a chance that the estimate will be wrong in the other direction. Too large. It’s not as obviously bad, but it can limit the throughput of the system. Instead of the query running really slowly, it may have to wait before it runs at all, waiting for the memory to be granted. (RESOURCE_SEMAPHORE).

These were really hard problems to fix. There isn’t a query hint to request more or less memory than the estimates would allocate (though you can specify, as a percentage of the resource pool, the max and min memory to be allocated), so fixes had to be creative, typically tricking the optimiser into thinking there were more or fewer rows than there really were, or that the rows were wider (there are some lovely tricks that can be done with CROSS APPLY for example)

Adaptive memory grants don’t do anything to correct the optimiser’s mis-estimates. What they do, is allow the query processor to learn from the mistakes. If a query’s memory grant is significantly over or under what is needed, then a note is made of that, somewhere in memory, and the next time the query runs, the memory grant is adjusted to a value based on what the previous execution needed.

So, if we run the example from above a second time, making absolutely no changes in the process, the spills are gone.

SpillGone

This is great, unless you have a particular pattern in your workload, where one query will sometimes have a small number of rows flowing through it, and sometimes a large number. This is not a problem specific to Memory Grant Feedback. It’s been around for a long time, we call it bad parameter sniffing in many cases.

So let’s try a test of running the same query multiple times, alternating between parameter values that return small row counts and parameter values that return large row counts. The plan is the same in all cases, it’s a reused cached plan, and it’s one that’s not bad for the larger row counts (hash join, hash aggregate), so we don’t have the typical bad parameter sniffing problem, but the memory grant will oscillate, being based upon the previous query’s execution. I’m going to execute the stored procedure 200 times.

And I should mention that this is an extreme case. I specifically constructed a scenario where the memory grant required by one execution would be completely inappropriate for the next one. This is not (I hope) something that would happen in the real world.

I monitored what was happening with Extended Events, with the memory_grant_updated_by_feedback and memory_grant_feedback_loop_disabled events.

The results were kinda as expected.

image

And then something interesting happened. I didn’t clear the cache or anything, this was as the procedures executed in a loop.

image

After 8 executions, each with a memory grant update, both the execution count and the count of updates to the grant reset to 1.

This happened again 8 executions later

image

And again 8 executions later

image

Then, finally, after 32 executions, the update is disabled.

image

The procedure then went on to execute a further 168 times, with the same memory grant each time, equal to the last updated value.

So what can we conclude from this?

Firstly, there seems to be a re-evaluation of the memory grant feedback process every 8 modifications, deciding whether to continue adjusting. Second, it will stop adjusting memory grants at some point, though the conditions aren’t documented and I can’t tell from the test I ran what the conditions are. Since they’re not documented, they will probably change in future CUs/versions without notice.

Once the feedback cycle stops, the last memory grant value is what will be used for that query until its plan is removed from cache, at which point the adjustment cycle starts over from scratch.

If you’re working with a system that has this kind of query, with wide differences in optimal memory grant, I would suggest not relying on memory grant feedback, and changing the code so that the grant needed is more constant. This may require splitting procedures up, optimise hints or other fixes for bad parameter sniffing.

I suggest that because the feedback works great for ‘dialling in’ a good value for needed memory grant, but not for cases where the optimal grant is constantly changing. The 200 executions above took 4 minutes total without memory grant feedback, but 12 minutes with memory grant feedback.

It’s a great solution when the original estimate doesn’t match what the query needs, but it’s sub-optimal for queries with constantly changing memory needs. Procedures with widely changing memory needs should be fixed with other methods, including but not limited to multiple procedures, dynamic SQL, plan forcing, or other query hints.

When a forced plan isn’t forced

One of the uses for the Query Store, added in SQL 2016, is to force plans. Once forced, plans are supposed to remain unchanged, however there are cases where a forced plan will not be applied and a new plan will be generated.

Statistics changes, which are one of the things that usually cause recompiles, don’t disable a forced plan. It would be kinda weird if it did and against the point of a forced plan.

Schema changes are another matter.

Let’s look at a couple of cases.

First, schema changes that make the plan invalid, in other words, schema changes that affect something that the plan explicitly references. There aren’t that many schema changes that can make the plan invalid without making the query invalid as well, but there are a couple. Index changes, for example.

I want to test a few things:

  • An index change that won’t make the plan invalid (eg adding a column)
  • An index change that does make the plan invalid (eg removing a column that the query needs)
  • Renaming the index without changing its definition
  • Adding an index that would be better for the query than the one referenced by the forced plan.

First, the setup. My Interstellar Trading database with an extra index added:

CREATE INDEX idx_ForcingTest on Shipments (ClientID, HasHazardous, HasLiveStock, HasTemperatureControlled)

The query I’ll be running to test is

DECLARE @Storage TABLE (ID INT, Priority TINYINT, CountShipments INT);

INSERT INTO @Storage
SELECT OriginStationID, Priority, COUNT(*) FROM Shipments WHERE ClientID = 17 AND HasHazardous = 1
GROUP BY OriginStationID, Priority
GO

It’s inserting into a table variable to prevent any problems with the resultsets in SSMS.

I’ve been running the query for a while, and its plan is forced.

image

First test:

CREATE INDEX idx_ForcingTest ON Shipments (ClientID, HasHazardous, HasLiveStock, HasTemperatureControlled, ReferenceNumber)
WITH (DROP_EXISTING = ON)

image

No change. Forced plan is still forced.

Now, let’s make that index less useful, by removing a column that the query does need. There’s a key lookup in the plan, so there is a way for the column to be obtained, but it would change what columns come from each operator and where the filters are being done. Same plan shape, but different details.

CREATE INDEX idx_ForcingTest ON Shipments (ClientID)
WITH (DROP_EXISTING = ON)

image

We get a new plan. The forced one is invalid, because the index no longer allows for the seek predicates defined in the plan, and so the forcing is ignored and we get a new plan.

The query still runs without error, which is better than we’d have had using the old USE PLAN hint.

Once I revert the index back to its original definition, the forced plan starts being used again.

How about renaming the index? Since the plan references the index by name, this will probably also cause the plan forcing to fail.

And indeed it does.

image

One last test. I’m going to rename the index back to its old name, and then add a new one that’s better for the query than the index referenced in the forced plan.

image

And we’re still using the forced plan. The addition of a new index did not invalidate the existing plan, and hence the forced plan will still be used, even when there’s a better index.

This is the reason why I recommend using plan forcing only to fix stuff that’s broken in prod, and to find a solution without forced plans for the long term. It’s not always possible but where it is I’d prefer not to leave the plan forcing in place, because it does mean that new indexes are not considered. Plus, if the query store is ever cleared, the forced plan (along with the forcing) are gone.

Revisiting catch-all queries

I originally wrote about catch-all queries early in 2009, just as something that I’d seen several times in client code. It turned into the 3rd most popular post ever on my blog.

A lot’s changed since 2009. When I wrote the original post, most production servers were SQL 2005 or SQL 2000. SQL 2008 had been out less than a year and its fix for catch-all queries, the RECOMPILE hint, didn’t even work properly (it had an incorrect results bug in RTM, was pulled in SP1 and fixed in SP2)

As such, my feelings on how to solve the problem with catch-all queries has changed over the years.

Before I get to solutions, let’s start with the root cause of the problem with catch-all queries – plan caching and the need for plans to be safe for reuse.

Let’s take a sample query. I’ll use the same one I used in the original post.

CREATE PROCEDURE SearchHistory
(@Product int = NULL, @OrderID int = NULL, @TransactionType char(1) = NULL, @Qty int = NULL)
AS
SELECT ProductID, ReferenceOrderID, TransactionType, Quantity,
TransactionDate, ActualCost
FROM Production.TransactionHistory
WHERE (ProductID = @Product Or @Product IS NULL)
AND (ReferenceOrderID = @OrderID OR @OrderID Is NULL)
AND (TransactionType = @TransactionType OR @TransactionType Is NULL)
AND (Quantity = @Qty Or @Qty is null)
GO

There are two nonclustered indexes on the TransactionHistory table, one on ProductID, one on ReferenceOrderID and ReferenceLineID.

For the initial discussion, let’s just consider two of the clauses in the WHERE. I’ll leave the other two in the stored proc, but they won’t be used.

WHERE (ProductID = @Product Or @Product IS NULL)
AND (ReferenceOrderID = @OrderID OR @OrderID Is NULL)

We would expect, if the ProductID parameter is passed, to get a seek using the index on ProductID, if the ReferenceOrderID parameter is passed, to get a seek using the index on ReferenceOrderID, and if both are passed, then either an index intersection or a seek on one of the indexes, key lookup and secondary filter for the other, plus, in all cases, a key lookup to fetch the columns for the SELECT.

That’s not what we get (I cleared the plan cache before running each of these).

ProductScan

OrderScan

The expected indexes are used, but they’re used for scans not seeks. Why? Let’s just consider the second plan for a bit.

The index aren’t used for seeks, because plans must be safe for reuse. If a plan was generated with an index seek, seeking for ReferenceOrderID = @OrderID, and that plan was cached and reused later when @OrderID was NULL, we’d get incorrect results. ReferenceOrderID = NULL matches no records.

And so we have index scans with the full predicate (ReferenceOrderID = @OrderID OR @OrderID Is NULL) applied after the index is read.

This is not particularly efficient, as the properties on the index seek shows.

InefficientIndexScan

The entire index, all 113443 rows were read, to return a single row. Not ideal, but it’s far from the largest problem with this form of query.

The plan’s got an index scan on the index on ReferenceOrderID, and then a key lookup back to the clustered index. That key lookup has a secondary filter on it, (ProductID = @Product Or @Product IS NULL). The optimiser assumed that a small number of rows would be returned from the index seek on ReferenceOrderID (1.47 to be specific), and hence the key lookup would be cheap, but that’s not going to be the case if the plan is reused with a ProductID passed to it instead of a ReferenceOrderID.

Before we look at that, the performance characteristics for the procedure being called with the ReferenceOrderID parameter are:

PerformanceOrder

The duration and CPU are both in microseconds, making this a very fast query, despite the index scan.

Now, without clearing the plan cache, I’m going to run the procedure with only the ProductID parameter passed.

PerformanceProduct

CPU’s gone from an average of 8ms to around 120ms. Duration has gone from average around 6ms to about 125ms and reads have jumped from 271 (2 MB of data processed) to 340 597 (2.6 GB of data processed)

And this is for a table that has 113k records and a query that returned 4 rows.

The key lookup, which was fine when an OrderID was passed, is not fine when @OrderID is NULL and the index scan returns the entire table.

ExpensiveIndexScan

ExpensiveKeyLookup

The plans that the optimiser has come up with for this query form aren’t stable. They’re safe for reuse, they have to be, but performance-wise they’re not stable.

But, maybe it’s just this form of query, there are other ways to write queries with multiple optional parameters.

Let’s try the CASE and COALESCE forms.

CREATE PROCEDURE SearchHistory_Coalesce
(@Product int = NULL, @OrderID int = NULL, @TransactionType char(1) = NULL, @Qty int = NULL)
AS
SELECT ProductID, ReferenceOrderID, TransactionType, Quantity,
TransactionDate, ActualCost
FROM Production.TransactionHistory
WHERE ProductID = COALESCE(@Product, ProductID)
AND ReferenceOrderID = COALESCE(@OrderID, ReferenceOrderID)
AND TransactionType = COALESCE(@TransactionType, TransactionType)
AND Quantity = COALESCE(@Qty, Quantity)
GO

CREATE PROCEDURE SearchHistory_Case
(@Product int = NULL, @OrderID int = NULL, @TransactionType char(1) = NULL, @Qty int = NULL)
AS
SELECT ProductID, ReferenceOrderID, TransactionType, Quantity,
TransactionDate, ActualCost
FROM Production.TransactionHistory
WHERE ProductID = CASE WHEN @Product IS NULL THEN ProductID ELSE @Product END
AND ReferenceOrderID = CASE WHEN @OrderID IS NULL THEN ReferenceOrderID ELSE @OrderID END
AND TransactionType = CASE WHEN @TransactionType IS NULL THEN TransactionType ELSE @TransactionType END
AND Quantity = CASE WHEN @Qty IS NULL THEN Quantity ELSE @Qty END
GO

Coalesce

Case

These both give us full table scans, rather than the index scan/key lookup we saw earlier. That means their performance will be predictable and consistent no matter what parameter values are used. Consistently bad, but at least consistent.

It’s also worth noting that neither of these will return correct results if there are NULL values in the columns used in the WHERE clause (because NULL != NULL). Thanks to Hugo Kornelis (b | t) for pointing this out.

And then two more forms that were mentioned in comments on the original post, slightly more complicated:

CREATE PROCEDURE SearchHistory_Case2
(@Product int = NULL, @OrderID int = NULL, @TransactionType char(1) = NULL, @Qty int = NULL)
AS
SELECT  ProductID,
ReferenceOrderID,
TransactionType,
Quantity,
TransactionDate,
ActualCost
FROM    Production.TransactionHistory
WHERE   (CASE WHEN @Product IS NULL THEN 1
WHEN @Product = ProductID THEN 1
ELSE 0
END) = 1
AND (CASE WHEN @OrderID IS NULL THEN 1
WHEN @OrderID = ReferenceOrderID THEN 1
ELSE 0
END) = 1
AND (CASE WHEN @TransactionType IS NULL THEN 1
WHEN @TransactionType = TransactionType THEN 1
ELSE 0
END) = 1
AND (CASE WHEN @Qty IS NULL THEN 1
WHEN @Qty = Quantity THEN 1
ELSE 0
END) = 1
GO

CREATE PROCEDURE SearchHistory_Complex
(@Product int = NULL, @OrderID int = NULL, @TransactionType char(1) = NULL, @Qty int = NULL)
AS
SELECT  ProductID,
ReferenceOrderID,
TransactionType,
Quantity,
TransactionDate,
ActualCost
FROM    Production.TransactionHistory
WHERE ((ProductID = @Product AND @Product IS NOT NULL) OR (@Product IS NULL))
AND ((ReferenceOrderID = @OrderID AND @OrderID IS NOT NULL) OR (@OrderID IS NULL))
AND ((TransactionType = @TransactionType AND @TransactionType IS NOT NULL) OR (@TransactionType IS NULL))
AND ((Quantity = @Qty AND @Qty IS NOT NULL) OR (@Qty IS NULL))

These two give the same execution plans as the first form we looked at, index scan and key lookup.

Performance-wise, we’re got two different categories of query. We’ve got some queries where the execution plan contains an index scan on one or other index on the table (depending on parameters passed) and a key lookup, and others where the execution plan contains a table scan (clustered index scan) no matter what parameters are passed.

But how do they perform? To test that, I’m going to start with an empty plan cache and run each query form 10 times with just the OrderID being passed and then 10 times with just the ProductID being passed, and aggregate the results.

Procedure Parameter CPU (ms) Duration (ms) Reads
SearchHistory OrderID 5.2 50 271
ProductID 123 173 340597
SearchHistory_Coalesce OrderID 7.8 43 805
ProductID 9.4 45 805
SearchHistory_Case OrderID 12.5 55 805
ProductID 7.8 60 804
SearchHistory_Case2 OrderID 10.5 48 272
ProductID 128 163 340597
SearchHistory_Complex OrderID 7.8 40 272
ProductID 127 173 340597

 

The query forms that had the clustered index scan in the plan have consistent performance. On large tables it will be consistently bad, it is a full table scan, but it will at least be consistent.

The query form that had the key lookup have erratic performance, no real surprise there, key lookups don’t scale well and looking up every single row in the table is going to hurt. And note that if I ran the queries in the reverse order on an empty plan cache, the queries with the ProductID passed would be fast and the queries with the OrderID would be slow.

So how do we fix this?

When I first wrote about this problem 7 years ago, I recommended using dynamic SQL and discussed the dynamic SQL solution in detail. The dynamic SQL solution still works very well, it’s not my preferred solution any longer however.

What is, is the RECOMPILE hint.

Yes, it does cause increased CPU usage due to the recompiles (and I know I’m likely to get called irresponsible and worse for recommending it), but in *most* cases that won’t be a huge problem. And if it is, use dynamic SQL.

I recommend considering the RECOMPILE hint first because it’s faster to implement and far easier to read. Dynamic SQL is harder to debug because of the lack of syntax highlighting and the increased complexity of the code. In the last 4 years, I’ve only had one case where I went for the dynamic SQL solution for a catch-all query, and that was on a server that was already high on CPU, with a query that ran many times a second.

From SQL 2008 SP2/SQL 2008 R2 onwards, the recompile hint relaxes the requirement that the generated plan be safe for reuse, since it’s never going to be reused. This firstly means that the plans generated for the queries can be the optimal forms, index seeks rather than index scans, and secondly will be optimal for the parameter values passed.

CatchallIndexSeek

And performance-wise?

RecompilePerformance

Reads down, duration down and CPU down even though we’re recompiling the plan on every execution (though this is quite a simple query, so we shouldn’t expect a lot of CPU to generate the plan).

How about the other forms, do they also improve with the RECOMPILE hint added? As I did before, I’m going to run each 10 times and aggregate the results, that after adding the RECOMPILE hint to each.

Procedure Parameter CPU (ms) Duration (ms) Reads
SearchHistory OrderID 0 1.3 28
ProductID 0 1.2 19
SearchHistory_Coalesce OrderID 6.2 1.2 28
ProductID 3.2 1.2 19
SearchHistory_Case OrderID 1.6 1.3 28
ProductID 0 1.2 19
SearchHistory_Case2 OrderID 7.8 15.6 232
ProductID 7.8 11.7 279
SearchHistory_Complex OrderID 1.5 1.4 28
ProductID 0 1.2 19

 

What can we conclude from that?

One thing we note is that the second form of case statement has a higher CPU, duration and reads than any other. If we look at the plan, it’s still running as an index scan/key lookup, despite the recompile hint.

The second thing is that the more complex forms perform much the same as the simpler forms, we don’t gain anything by adding more complex predicates to ‘guide’ the optimiser.

Third, the coalesce form might use slightly more CPU than the other forms, but I’d need to test a lot more to say that conclusively. The numbers we’ve got are small enough that there might well be measuring errors comparable to the number itself.

Hence, when this query form is needed, stick to the simpler forms of the query, avoid adding unnecessary predicates to ‘help’ the optimiser. Test the query with NULLs in the filtered columns, make sure it works as intended.

Consider the RECOMPILE hint first, over dynamic SQL, to make it perform well. If the query has long compile times or runs very frequently, then use dynamic SQL, but don’t automatically discount the recompile hint for fear of the overhead. In many cases it’s not that bad.

Homebuilt sequential columns

I gave my introductory session on transactions at all three of the South African SQL Saturdays in 2016, as well as at SQL Saturday Oregon in October 2017, and something that came up in most of them was the ‘manual sequence’, the idea of using a column in a table to store a max value and using that in place of an identity column or sequence object.

To be clear, I don’t think this is a good idea. The identity column works well if a sequential series of numbers are needed. If the number sequence needs to that spans tables, then the sequence object is a good replacement.

But, there will always be some requirements that insist on gap-less sequences, or insist on not using identity (probably for ‘compatibility’ reasons), so let’s see how to do it properly.

To start, the common attempt (taken from a random Stack Overflow answer)

DECLARE @next INT
SET @next = (SELECT (MAX(id) + 1) FROM Table1)

INSERT INTO Table1
VALUES (@next)

or, a slightly different form

DECLARE @next INT
SELECT @next = SequenceNumber + 1 FROM Table1

UPDATE Table1
SET SequenceNumber = @Next;

-- Then use @Next in another table for an insert

This doesn’t work. Oh, to be sure it’ll work in testing, but once we get some heavy concurrent access, its flaws become apparent.

To test the first one, I’m going to use a table that just has an ID (supposed to be unique) and a second column to record which session_id did the insert

CREATE TABLE TestSequence (
ManualID INT NOT NULL,
SessionID INT
)

And then run this 100 times from 10 different sessions

DECLARE @next INT
SET @next = (SELECT (MAX(ManualID) + 1) FROM TestSequence)

INSERT INTO TestSequence
VALUES (@next, @@SPID)

Duplicates

And it doesn’t work because the select statement takes a shared lock. Shared locks are shared, and so multiple sessions can read the same max value from the table, then write back that same value+1 to the table, either generating duplicate rows or primary key/unique constraint violations (hopefully the latter)

So how do we fix it?

One option is to wrap the two statement in a transaction and add the UPDLOCK hint to the select. This ensures that no one else will be able to read the same max value from the table, but depending on indexes it could also cause some blocking and resultant slow queries.

Another way is to make the insert (or update) and the select a single atomic operation, by returning the inserted (or updated) value from the insert (or update) statement. We can use the OUTPUT clause for this.

Option one would have code similar to this:

BEGIN TRANSACTION

DECLARE @next INT;
SET @next = (SELECT (MAX (ManualID) + 1) FROM TestSequence WITH (TABLOCKX, HOLDLOCK));

INSERT  INTO TestSequence
VALUES  (@next, @@SPID);

COMMIT TRANSACTION

And option 2 looks like

INSERT INTO TestSequence
OUTPUT inserted.ManualID
SELECT MAX(ManualID) + 1 FROM TestSequence WITH (TABLOCKX, HOLDLOCK)

The locking hints are, unfortunately, necessary. I tried several variations with less restrictive hints and they either:
– Produced duplicates
– Deadlocked when the table was small
– Deadlocked all the time

None of which are desired, hence the use of an exclusive table lock to serialise access. Of course, the restrictive locks will make this slow under concurrent usage. An index on ManualID will help, a bit.

Now we can test both of those the same way we tested the first version. An easy way to see whether there are any duplicates is to check the count and the distinct count.

DuplicateCheck

To reiterate something I said earlier, I do not recommend using this. Identity columns, with their gaps, are fine for the majority of cases, especially the use of them for artificial primary keys. Artificial keys, if used, are meaningless numbers that should not be exposed to users, and hence gaps should be irrelevant.

The need for a gap-less sequence, stored in the table, should be an exceptional one, not a common one.

Obsessing over query operator costs

A common problem when looking at execution plans is attributing too much meaning and value of the costs of operators.

The percentages shown for operators in query plans are based on costs generated by the query optimiser. They are not times, they are not CPU usage, they are not IO.

The bigger problem is that they can be completely incorrect.

Before digging into the why of incorrect percentages, let’s take a step back and look at why those costs exist.

The SQL query optimiser is a cost-based optimiser. It generates good plans by estimating costs for each query operator and then trying to minimise the total cost of the plan. These costs are based on estimated row counts and heuristics.

The costs we see in the query plan are these compilation time cost estimates. They’re compilation-time estimations, which means that they won’t change between one execution of a query using a particular plan and another query using the same plan, even if the parameter values are different, even if the row counts through the operators are different.

Since the estimations are partially based on those row counts, that means that any time the query runs with row counts different to what were estimated, the costs will be wrong.

Let’s look at a quick example of that.

Cost1

There are no customers with an ID of 0, so the plan is generated with an estimation of one row being returned by the index seek, and one row looked up to the clustered index. Those are the only two operators that do any real work in that plan, and each is estimated to read and fetch just one row, so each gets an estimation of 50% of the cost of the entire query (0.0033 it be specific)

Run the same query with a different parameter value, plans are reused and so the costs are the same.

Cost2

That parameter returns 28 rows, the index seek is probably much the same cost, because one row or 28 continuous rows aren’t that different in work needed. The key lookup is a different matter. It’s a single-row seek always, so to look up 28 rows it has to execute 28 times, and hence do 28 times the work. It’s definitely no longer 50% of the work of executing the query.

The costs still show 50%, because they were generated for the 0-row case and displayed here. They’re not run-time costs, they’re compile time, tied to the plan.

Another thing can make the cost estimations inaccurate, and that’s incorrect costing calculations by the optimiser. Scalar user-defined functions are the easiest example there.

CostsOff

The first query there, the one that’s apparently 15% of the cost of the batch, runs in 3.2 seconds. The second runs in 270 ms.

The optimiser gives scalar UDFs a very low cost (they have their own plans, with costs in them though) and so the costs for the rest of the query and batch are meaningless.

The costs in a plan may give some idea what’s going on, but they’re not always correct, and should not be obsessed over, especially not when the plan’s a simple one with only a couple of operators. After all, the cost percentages add to 100% (usually).

What is a SARGable predicate?

‘SARGable’ is a weird term. It gets bandied around a lot when talking about indexes and whether queries can seek on indexes. The term’s an abbreviation, ‘SARG’ stands for Search ARGument, and it means that the predicate can be executed using an index seek.

Lovely. So a predicate must be SARGable to be able to use an index seek, and it must be able to use an index seek to be SARGable. A completely circular definition.

So what does it actually mean for a predicate to be SARGable? (and we’ll assume for this discussion that there are suitable indexes available)

The most general form for a predicate is <expression> <operator> <expression>. To be SARGable, a predicate must, on one side, have a column, not an expression on a column. So, <column> <operator> <expression>

SELECT * FROM Numbers
WHERE Number = 42;

Seek1

SELECT * FROM Numbers
WHERE Number + 0 = 42;

Scan1

SELECT * FROM Numbers
WHERE Number = 42 + 0;

Seek2

Any1 function on a column will prevent an index seek from happening, even if the function would not change the column’s value or the way the operator is applied, as seen in the above case. Zero added to an integer doesn’t change the value of the column, but is still sufficient to prevent an index seek operation from happening.

While I haven’t yet found any production code where the predicate is of the form ‘Column + 0’ = @Value’, I have seen many cases where there are less obvious cases of functions on columns that do nothing other than to prevent index seeks.

UPPER(Column) = UPPER(@Variable) in a case-insensitive database is one of them, RTRIM(COLUMN) = @Variable is another. SQL ignores trailing spaces when comparing strings.

The other requirement for a predicate to be SARGable, for SQL Server at least, is that the column and expression are of the same data type or, if the data types differ, such that the expression will be implicitly converted to the data type of the column.

SELECT 1 FROM SomeTable
WHERE StringColumn = 0;

Scan2

SELECT 1 FROM SomeTable
WHERE StringColumn = ‘0’;

Seek3

There are some exceptions here. Comparing a DATE column to a DATETIME value would normally implicitly convert the column to DATETIME (more precise data type), but that doesn’t cause index scans. Neither does comparing an ascii column to a unicode string, at least in some collations.

In generally though, conversions should be explicit and decided on by the developer, not left up to what SQL server decides.

What about operators?

The majority are fine. Equality, Inequality, IN (with a list of values), IS NULL all allow index usage. EXIST and IN with a subquery are treated like joins, which may or may not use indexes depending on the join type chosen.

LIKE is a slight special case. Predicates with LIKE are only SARGable if the wildcard is not at the start of the string.

SELECT 1 FROM SomeStrings
WHERE ASCIIString LIKE 'A%'

Seek4

SELECT 1 FROM SomeStrings
WHERE ASCIIString LIKE '%A'

Scan3

There are blog posts that claim that adding NOT makes a predicate non-SARGable. In the general case that’s not true.

SELECT * FROM Numbers
WHERE NOT Number > 100;

Seek5

SELECT * FROM Numbers
WHERE NOT Number <= 100;

Seek6

SELECT * FROM Numbers
WHERE NOT Number = 137;

Seek7

These index seeks are returning most of the table, but there’s nothing in the definition of ‘SARGable’ that requires small portions of the table to be returned.

That’s mostly that for SARGable in SQL Server. It’s mostly about having no functions on the column and no implicit conversions of the column.

(1) An explicit CAST of a DATE column to DATETIME still leaves the predicate SARGable. This is an exception that’s been specifically coded into the optimiser.