SQL Server Adventures In Reducing IO

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In the interests of curiosity I’m going to take a query that runs a relatively simple aggregation over a large table and see how much I can reduce the IO. I’m not suggesting anything here should be blindly followed, as with all things there are trade-offs. but the results are I think interesting none the less. Disks are getting faster and cheaper all the time, however no amount of progress in this area will ever give you free IO, the cheapest IO will always be the IO you don’t make. If we can tune our query to do less it will often give a far better bang for buck than any advancements in hardware.

If you want to follow along the Stack Overflow database I’m using can be downloaded from here.

Let’s take this fairly simple query on the Stack Overflow database to get the top 5 users by posts and return their name along with the amount of posts they have…

SET STATISTICS IO ON
SET STATISTICS TIME ON
SELECT TOP 5 
  Users.DisplayName,
  COUNT(*)
FROM 
  Posts
  INNER JOIN Users ON Users.Id = Posts.OwnerUserId
GROUP BY 
  Posts.OwnerUserId,Users.DisplayName
ORDER BY COUNT(*) DESC

On my machine the statistics output I get is this…

Table ‘Posts’. Scan count 5, logical reads 800230, physical reads 0, read-ahead reads 797892,

lob logical reads 0, lob physical reads 0, lob read-ahead reads 0.

Table ‘Users’. Scan count 0, logical reads 121, physical reads 39, read-ahead reads 0,

lob logical reads 0, lob physical reads 0, lob read-ahead reads 0.

SQL Server Execution Times: CPU time = 7294 ms, elapsed time = 7178 ms.

So roughly 7 seconds to execute the query with our biggest hit on reads being 799999 on the Posts table and 121 on Users. I should probably add that at this point both our posts and users table have a single index and that’s a clustered index on their ID columns. Let’s start on the small but easy low hanging fruit….

Lightweight Covering Index

The user table is currently scanning the clustered index to get the DisplayUsername, because the clustered index contains all the fields it’s having to read data we don’t need, we can create a lightweight covering index with just Id and an include on DisplayName to stop the query reading any pages with data in them that it doesn’t need.

CREATE NONCLUSTERED INDEX ndx_user_id_include_displayname 
	ON Users(Id) INCLUDE(DisplayName)

Now let’s try our query again…

SELECT TOP 5 
  Users.DisplayName,
  COUNT(*)
FROM 
  Posts
  INNER JOIN Users ON Users.Id = Posts.OwnerUserId
GROUP BY 
  Posts.OwnerUserId,Users.DisplayName
ORDER BY COUNT(*) DESC

Table ‘Users’. Scan count 0, logical reads 69, physical reads 21, read-ahead reads 0,

lob logical reads 0, lob physical reads 0, lob read-ahead reads 0.

It’s a small gain but we’ve halved the reads required for our join to the users table.

Now to tackle that posts table, this is a bit more difficult as we have to touch every record in order to group and count. An obvious place to start is to create a nonclustered index with a sort order more suited to our aggregation and without any of the fields we don’t need…

CREATE NONCLUSTERED INDEX ndx_posts_owner_userId
	ON Posts(OwnerUserId)

Then let’s try our query again…

SELECT TOP 5 
  Users.DisplayName,
  COUNT(*)
FROM 
  Posts
  INNER JOIN Users ON Users.Id = Posts.OwnerUserId
GROUP BY 
  Posts.OwnerUserId,Users.DisplayName
ORDER BY COUNT(*) DESC

Table ‘Posts’. Scan count 5, logical reads 6539, physical reads 0, read-ahead reads 11,

lob logical reads 0, lob physical reads 0, lob read-ahead reads 0.

SQL Server Execution Times: CPU time = 1157 ms, elapsed time = 738 ms.

For me, the query now runs in less than a second and our reads on the posts table have gone from 799999 down to 6539. We could happily stop here but in the interest of this post, I wanted to see how much further I could take it.

We’re now at the point where our query is reading only information it absolutely needs in order to complete, so how can we reduce reads further? Compression!

Compressed Indexes

We have a couple of options here, we can compress our indexes with Row or Page level compression or we can change tracks a little and use a Columnstore index. Let’s compare these options…

First up lets set our posts index to use page compression…

ALTER INDEX ndx_posts_owner_userId 
	ON Posts REBUILD WITH (DATA_COMPRESSION = PAGE)

Then let’s try our query again…

SELECT TOP 5 
  Users.DisplayName,
  COUNT(*)
FROM 
  Posts
  INNER JOIN Users ON Users.Id = Posts.OwnerUserId
GROUP BY 
  Posts.OwnerUserId,Users.DisplayName
ORDER BY COUNT(*) DESC

Table ‘Posts’. Scan count 5, logical reads 4137, physical reads 0, read-ahead reads 16, lob logical reads 0, lob physical reads 0, lob read-ahead reads 0.

SQL Server Execution Times: CPU time = 1457 ms, elapsed time = 695 ms.

That’s just over another 2000 reads knocked off and about 200ms faster. We’ve traded off reads for CPU a little here as the compression/decompression process will add overhead on the processor.

Columnstore

Let’s now drop our compressed index and try a Columnstore index…

DROP INDEX ndx_posts_owner_userId ON Posts
CREATE NONCLUSTERED COLUMNSTORE INDEX ndx_cs_owner_user_id ON Posts(OwnerUserId)

I’ll leave you to read more about Columnstore elsewhere but just know they work great on large reporting tables with lots of duplication, because of the way they store data a lot of duplication in the storage is removed.

Now let’s see what this does…

SELECT TOP 5 
  Users.DisplayName,
  COUNT(*)
FROM 
  Posts
  INNER JOIN Users ON Users.Id = Posts.OwnerUserId
GROUP BY 
  Posts.OwnerUserId,Users.DisplayName
ORDER BY COUNT(*) DESC

Table ‘Posts’. Scan count 2, logical reads 0, physical reads 0, read-ahead reads 0,

lob logical reads 6382, lob physical reads 0, lob read-ahead reads 22818.

Table ‘Posts’. Segment reads 5, segment skipped 0.

SQL Server Execution Times: CPU time = 187 ms, elapsed time = 276 ms.

Clearly, our read counts have shot up here, whilst we only read 6382 pages (Similar to our non compressed index) 22818 were pre-fetched in anticipation that we might need them as can be seen in the “lob read-ahead reads”. So in the interest of just trying to reduce reads, our columnstore was a failure, however I should also add that this query ran in less than 300ms being more than twice as fast as our previous compressed covering index. The compression of a Columnstore index will vary massively depending on how much duplication you have in your data, the more duplication the more compression you will see.

Indexed Views

We’ve created lightweight indexes to reduce the data touched, we’ve compressed them to reduce IO and we’ve tried Columnstore for it’s aggregation and compression wizardry. So what next? This one feels a bit like cheating but we can harness indexed views to pre-calculate our aggregations and automatically manage them going forwards…

CREATE VIEW vw_TopPosters_Indexed WITH SCHEMABINDING
AS
SELECT 
   Users.Id,
  Users.DisplayName,
  COUNT_BIG(*) Posts
FROM 
  dbo.Posts
  INNER JOIN dbo.Users ON Users.Id = Posts.OwnerUserId
GROUP BY 
  Users.Id,Posts.OwnerUserId,Users.DisplayName
GO
CREATE UNIQUE CLUSTERED INDEX pk_PostAggregates ON vw_TopPosters_Indexed(Id)
CREATE NONCLUSTERED INDEX ndx_test ON vw_TopPosters_Indexed(Posts)

We’ll need to make a couple of changes to our query to get it to use the indexed view and return the results we need…

SELECT TOP 5
   DisplayName,
   Posts
FROM vw_TopPosters_Indexed WITH(NOEXPAND)
ORDER BY Posts DESC

Table ‘vw_TopPosters_Indexed’. Scan count 1, logical reads 22, physical reads 0, read-ahead reads 0, lob logical reads 0, lob physical reads 0, lob read-ahead reads 0.

SQL Server Execution Times: CPU time = 0 ms, elapsed time = 283 ms.

22 reads! Jackpot? Maybe, the indexed view is a bit of a cheat as it’s just moved the IO to the writes rather than reads. Depending on how read or write heavy your system is you may or may not see this as a worthwhile tradeoff. Something to highlight here that I think is often missed is whilst the clustered index on an indexed view has a lot of restrictions, once you’ve created it you can create a restriction free nonclustered index (not unique, non grouped fields etc).

Summary

Any thing I’ve missed? Do you have other tricks for lowering IO? Let me know in the comments or drop me a message on one of the social networks in the header/footer.

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