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How to Data Compress Varchar(MAX)

I talk a lot about compression.  I’ve blogged a pretty decent amount on it as well.  One of the things that often confuses people is what can and cannot be compressed.  There is a list of data types that can be Row Compressed.  That list is different between each SQL Version.  Page compression on the other hand works at the binary level, it is data type agnostic.

The big determining factor is what type of Allocation Unit your data is stored on.

“Balls,” you say “What’s an Allocation Unit?”

An Allocation unit is the structure behind the structure.  Think of real estate for a second.  Buildings and property are zoned in a city or a town.  One section is for businesses, another is zoned for residential, one may be zoned for the government.  In SQL Server we have 3 different zones IN_ROW_DATA, ROW_OVERFLOW_DATA, and LOB_DATA. 

Instead of being sized just for type, your size matters just as much.  If you are a regular every day Integer or Character field you live in IN_ROW_DATA.  You are LOB_DATA if you are a VARBINARY(MAX) that contains a 500 MB picture file.  ROW_OVERFLOW_DATA are variable length fields that start off on IN_ROW_DATA pages, but if that data grows large enough that it cannot fit on an 8 KB IN_ROW_DATA page then it gets popped off the IN_ROW_DATA Page and lands  on the ROW_OVERFLOW_DATA Page.

The data types in SQL that have a (MAX) designation, XML, or certain CLR types start off on IN_ROW_DATA pages.  They get moved off if the size grows.


So how in the wide wide world of sports does this apply to Data Compression?  If your data is on an IN_ROW_DATA page it could be compressed.  Row compression still only applies to the data types that are listed per version, see row compression here at MSDN.

Page Compression only requires matching binary patterns, as long as it is IN_ROW_DATA pages we are good to go.  You can use this script to run against your database to get the Allocation Unit makeup of your tables and indexes.

     OBJECT_NAME(sp.object_id) AS [ObjectName]
     ,si.name AS IndexName
     ,sps.in_row_data_page_countas In_Row
     ,sps.row_overflow_used_page_countAS Row_Over_Flow
     ,sps.lob_reserved_page_countAS LOB_Data
     sys.dm_db_partition_stats sps
     JOIN sys.partitions sp
           ON sps.partition_id=sp.partition_id
     JOIN sys.indexes si
           ON sp.index_id=si.index_id AND sp.object_id = si.object_id
     OBJECTPROPERTY(sp.object_id,'IsUserTable') =1
order by sps.in_row_data_page_count desc

The higher the IN_ROW_DATA page count the more likely you have a candidate for compression. 


We’ve laid the ground work now on to the main event.  First we’ll create our database and  our table and insert some data.  I’ve got two Varchar(Max) fields, we’ll put 2012 characters in each. 
Select our demo database
to use
use master
if exists(select name from sys.databases where name='demoInternals')
     alter database demoInternals set single_user with rollback immediate
     drop database demoInternals
Create Database demoInternals
USE demoInternals
Create our table
IF EXISTS(SELECT name FROM sys.tables WHERE name='vmaxTest')
     DROP TABLE dbo.vmaxTest
CREATE TABLE vmaxTest(myid int identity(1,1)
     , mydata varchar(max) default 'a'
     ,mydata2 varchar(max) default 'b'
     ,CONSTRAINT pk_vmaxtest1 PRIMARY KEY CLUSTERED (myid))
Insert 5000 rows
SET @i=0
WHILE (@i<5000)
     INSERT INTO vmaxTest(mydata, mydata2)
     VALUES(replicate('a',2012)+cast(@i AS VARCHAR(5)), replicate('b', 2012)+cast(@i AS VARCHAR(5)))
     SET @i=@i+1

If you use our script from earlier then you can see we have 4950 IN_ROW_DATA Pages.

Now let’s update one of our Varchar(max) fields to 8000 characters so that we push it off of IN_ROW_DATA and over to LOB_DATA Pages.   Run our script again to get our counts.
Now we'll update just the b values
to force them into row_overflow data
UPDATE dbo.vmaxTest
set mydata2=replicate('b',8000)

We certainly have some fragmentation, but we’ve added 5009 LOB_DATA pages to the mix.  Now let’s apply Page Compression and use our script again to see the results.
Rebuild our table with
Page Compression
ALTER TABLE dbo.vmaxtest

As you can see the IN_ROW_DATA Compressed, the LOB_DATA didn’t.  Another way that knowing thy data can help you understand what you can and should compress.




Bradley Ball is a MCITP SQL 2005 & MCTS 2008 DBA with over 10 years of IT experience. Bradley spent 8 years working as a Defense contractor for clients such as the U.S. Army and The Executive Office of the President of the United States. He is currently a Sr. Consultant for Pragmatic Works. He has presented at SQL Saturdays 62, 74, 79, 85, 86, 131, for the MAGICPASS & OPASS SSUG’s, SQL Rally 2011 & 2012, SQL Dev Connections 2012, the PASS Summit in 2011, and is scheduled for the PASS Summit 2012 and SQL Live 360 later this year. He recently finished Chapter 14 of Expert SQL Server Practices on Page & Row Compression and can be found blogging on http://www.sqlballs.com.


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