Printed 2014/04/24 02:58PM

Switching Off Parameter Sniffing

By Grant Fritchey, 2010/11/15

Or, another way to put it, in most cases, shooting yourself in the foot.

I was not aware that the cumulative update for SQL Server 2008 back in June included a switch that allows you to turn parameter sniffing off within SQL Server. Thanks to Kendra Little (blog|twitter) for letting me know about it (although she let me know by “stumping the chump” during my lightening talk at the Summit, thanks Kendra!).

When I first saw the switch, I thought about the places where turning off parameter sniffing could be helpful. But, as I thought about it, the more I realized that removing parameter sniffing was an extremely dangerous switch. Why? Because, most people only ever hear about parameter sniffing when they run into a problem. Someone says “Parameter sniffing” and you see people cringe. Too many people will take this information in and go, “Hey, I can just switch parameter sniffing off and I’ll have a much faster system, all the time.” But… even when you’re not hitting a problem with parameter sniffing, you’re still getting parameter sniffing. Here is where I see a problem. Let’s discuss what parameter sniffing is.

Parameter sniffing is applicable to stored procedures and parameterized queries. What happens is, when a value is passed to a parameter, the optimizer has the ability to read, or “sniff,” the value of that parameter. It can do this because it knows exactly what the value is when the proc/query is called. This is not applicable to local variables, because the optimizer can’t really know what those values might be, where as it knows exactly what the values of parameters are going in. Why does it do this? One word: statistics. Statistics are what the optimizer uses to determine how queries will be executed. If the optimizer is given a specific value, it can then compare that value to the statistics on the index or table in question and get as good an answer as is possible from those statistics as to how selective this value may be. That information determines how the optimizer will run the query and because it is using specific values, it’s looking at specific information within the stats. If the parameters are not sniffed, the statistics are sampled and a generic value is assumed, which can result in a different execution plan.

The problem with parameter sniffing occurs when you have out of date statistics or data skew (certain values which return a wildly different set of results compared to the rest of the data within the table). The bad statistics or skew can result in an execution plan that is not consistent with most of the data that the stats represent. However, most of the time, in most situations, this is an edge case. Notice that hedging though. When parameter sniffing goes bad, it hurts.

Most of the time we’re going to gain huge benefits from parameter sniffing because the use of specific values leads to more accurate, not less accurate, execution plans. Sampled data, basically an average of the data in the statistics, can lead to a more stable execution plan, but a much less accurate one. Switching parameter sniffing off means that all queries will use sampled data, which creates a serious negative impact on performance. Most of the time, most of us are benefitting wildly from the strengths of parameter sniffing and only occasionally are we seeing the problems.

Unless you know, and I mean know, not suspect, that your system has major and systematic issues with parameter sniffing, leave this switch alone and let the optimizer make these choices for you. If you don’t, it’s very likely that you’ll see a performance hit on your system.

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