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It's Minus Twenty-Five Outside and I'm Writing about Transaction Log Files

(1linerForward) I originally wrote this in French while working at LaCaisse.com - http://dbhive.blogspot.com/2008/07/fichiers-journaux-de-transactions.html   

The Stawamus Chief, Squamish, BC - supposedly the second largest monolith rock in the world, although we only see one third of it.

Why do you care, as a DBA, or a Developer for that matter, about what is happening in the Transaction Log? Lets rollback a little and see... The raison d’être of a transaction log file is to write all the necessary information we need to recuperate any and all activity happening against the database.  Every SQL Server database must have at least one log file. Here, have a brief look what it looks like inside the log file itself:

SELECT * FROM  ::fn_dblog(DEFAULT, DEFAULT) AS-- more examples, and details, below

 During the Spring of 2008, for an auditing project, our requirement was be able to read the active log files, as well as those that were archived.  The archived logs gave us the option, with the help of third party tools (or thanks to in part the query above), to effectively interrogate the log file as if it were one mega table. The way that Lumigent Log Explorer's documentation describes it: 'to assist you in solving or recovering from problems that may occur in a typical database system' - gets the heart of what could be a potential point-in-time restore.  Please use Full recovery model if this is your requirement, or if you are in doubt (thankfully it's a database model default setting) here are the many reasons why.   

My view is that you may end up with a mystery transaction at one point that no logic can explain, and thus your database integrity is in question - not a place where any DBA wants to be naturally. Empowering yourself to dig into the log file and resolve these types of mysteries is the main point of this post, because you will be able to find out what the values were before/after a change to the database, and who/what application has committed the change, whereas before one typically disregards anomalies (at least I was most of the time before).  This gives us motivation to ensure that log files are archived, since we're following Erasmus' proverb to 'leave no stone unturned,' with respect to resolving such mysteries.

Given that you can query the log file (you will see transactions as BEGIN_XACT , COMMIT_XACT, please see full reference list below), it is therefore possible to raise alerts for undesirable activity, e.g. someone executing data definition language in production. Combined with Database Mail and SQL Server Agent this can be automated too, or in the case of Lumigent Log Explorer, one can configure an alert for each DDL/DML command, which is perhaps useful - to filter out problems in development.  The approach of monitoring objects during manipulation or creation will allow you to take control of an environment progressively and proactively. Here is how to query the log file or some typical unwanted incidents:

USE [master]
GO  -- if you leave something in Simple, the rows after checkpoint 
-- will be recycled, therefore I suggest FULL or at least Bulk_logged
USE [master]
-- if you need to clean up the space quickly for testing
USE [dbname]
-- truncate a table or perform undesireable activity, etc.

SELECT Operation, Context, [Transaction ID], [Begin Time], [End Time], AllocUnitName, [Description],

[UID], [Server UID], SPID, [Transaction Name], [Number of Locks], [Lock Information]

, * -- shows the rest of the columns, I put the most interesting first


where operation='mark_ddl' -- this will show rows where there is data definition language

-- operation='LOP_MODIFY_ROW' or operation='INSERT_ROWS' or operation='DELETE_ROWS'

-- operation='LOP_BEGIN_XACT' -- means beginning of a transaction

-- operation='LOP_COMMIT_XACT' -- means the end of a transaction

order by [Current LSN] asc

-- for the above Mark_DDL you can create a job step that checks your critical -- databases for undesireable activity and if there is an existence of a DDL change (use IF EXISTS with the above)

declare @myfromname varchar(150)

declare @alladdresses varchar(max)

declare @myrecipients varchar(150)

declare @mycurrentaddress varchar(max)

declare @SubjectLocal varchar(200)

declare @databasename varchar(100)

set @databasename=(select top 1 name from sysfiles)


-- Name of current sender

SET @myfromname = N'Message regarding Log file activity on ' + @@servername

-- Get e-mail adresses of operators


SET @alladdresses = N''


SELECT email_address FROM msdb.dbo.sysoperators

where email_address IS NOT NULL





SET @mycurrentaddress = @myrecipients + CHAR(59)

SET @alladdresses = @alladdresses + @mycurrentaddress





IF @alladdresses <> N''


SET @SubjectLocal = 'Log file undesireable activity in the ' + @databasename + ' DB on ' + @@servername


EXEC msdb.dbo.sp_send_dbmail

@profile_name = NULL

,@recipients = @alladdresses

,@copy_recipients = NULL

,@blind_copy_recipients = NULL

,@subject = @SubjectLocal

,@body = 'Please verify the log to find out what happened in '+ @databasename +' using select * FROM ::fn_dblog(DEFAULT, DEFAULT) AS l'

,@body_format = 'TEXT'

,@importance = 'High'

,@sensitivity = 'Normal'




**Posting ADDY: for a great similar story on this (added in June 2009, after my talk in Vancouver where I performed a similar demo also) Paul S. Randal takes a similar step here

Internally to the SQL Server Log File you'll have an operation code that is captured by the log record. Here are the most common ones taken from a combination of Microsoft and Lumigent Log Explorer's help files.

§    ABORT_XACT Indicates that a transaction was aborted and rolled back.

§    BEGIN_CKPT A checkpoint has begun.

§    BEGIN_XACT Indicates the start of a transaction.

§    BUF_WRITE Writing to Buffer.

§    COMMIT_XACT Indicates that a transaction has committed.

§    CREATE_INDEX Creating an index.

§    DELETE_ROWS Rows were deleted from a table.

§    DELETE_SPLIT A page split has occurred. Rows have moved physically.

§    DELTA_SYSIND  SYSINDEXES table has been modified.

§    DROP_INDEX Dropping an index.

§    END_CKPT Checkpoint has finished.

§    EXPUNGE_ROWS row physically expunged from a page, now free for new rows.

§    FILE_HDR_MODIF  SQL Server has grown a database file.

§    FORGET_XACT Shows that a 2-phase commit transaction was rolled back.

§    FORMAT_PAGE  Write a header of a newly allocated database page.

§    INSERT_ROWS  Insert a row into a user or system table.

§    MARK_DDL Data Definition Language change - table schema was modified.

§    MARK_SAVEPOINT designate that an application has issued a 'SAVE TRANSACTION' command.

§    MODIFY_COLUMNS  Designates that a row was modified as the result of an Update command.

§    MODIFY_HEADER  A new data page created and has initialized the header of that page.

§    MODIFY_ROW  Row modification as a result of an Update command.

§    PREP_XACT Transaction is in a 2-phase commit protocol.

§    SET_BITS Designates that the DBMS modified space allocation bits as the result of allocating a new extent.

§    SET_FREE_SPACE  Designates that a previously allocated extent has been returned to the free pool.


§    SORT_BEGIN A sort begins with index creation. - SORT_END end of the sorting while creating an index.

§    SORT_EXTENT Sorting extents as part of building an index.

§    UNDO_DELETE_SPLIT The page split process has been dumped.

§    XACT_CKPT during the Checkpoint, open transactions were detected.




For more info:
http://www.sqlservercentral.com/articles/Design+and+Theory/63350/ -- SSC's intro to Log Files
http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ms189085.aspx - Log behavior under different recovery models
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZM44LUuA6hc - video how transaction logs work overview (simplified)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyz0AYCwhtM&feature=related - transactions

http://www.sans.org/reading_room/whitepapers/application/forensic_analysis_of_a_sql_server_2005_database_server_1906?show=1906.php&cat=application page 22





P.S. The above is to give a thorough understanding of Log Files, and is neither developed as a replacement to SQL Server Management Studio's Schema Changes History, nor Paul Nielsen's AutoAudit






Posted by Steve Jones on 18 January 2009

Interesting. I've not really dug into the log much before for auditing. However as requirements increase, and there are a lack of tools, you might want to learn how to do this.

If you use SQL 2000, Red Gate has a free Log Rescue tool to read the logs.

Posted by david.lomont on 21 January 2009

Steve, I can't bear any more advertisement from Red Gate. It's one of the most agressive campaign I have ever seen. Stop it.

Posted by Hugo on 21 January 2009

David, if it's free, then people will probably want to know about it. Multiple vendors are mentioned here, including direct links to Microsoft.  If you have an issue with Steve, please mail him directly, do not do it here. If anyone else knows of other free ways to handle the Transaction Log File information please feel free to commment.  I appreciate your feedback David.

Posted by Hugo Shebbeare on 4 June 2009

I'll be presenting this topic next week in Vancouver, presentation, details and even photos of Vancouver here:


Posted by Anonymous on 16 February 2010

As mentioned in previous posts, between January and September 2008 I was hired to be a Database Cop for

Posted by Anonymous on 26 May 2010

Last week, on Monday May 10 th , and Wednesday May 12 th , I provided about a day and a half of testimony

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