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SQL Server Clustered Index Behavior Explained via Execution Plans

By:   |   Updated: 2018-08-28   |   Comments   |   Related: More > Indexing

Problem

In SQL Server there are several types of indexes like: clustered, non-clustered and columnstore indexes (columnstore was added in SQL Server 2012).  However, creation of indexes and usage of indexes are not known to many users and there are lot of myths around indexes. This article explains the behavior of clustered indexes with the help of looking at execution plans.

Solution

To explain this, the Sales. SalesOrderDetail table from the AdventureWorks2012 database was used.  Following is the table structure for the Sales.SalesOrderDetail table.

sample table

This table has three indexes.

table indexes

As shown above, there is a clustered index named PK_SalesOrderDetail_SalesOrderID_SalesOrderDetailsID which contains the SalesOrderID and SalesOrderDetailID columns.

Following is sample set of data in the Sales.SalesOrderDetail table.

sample data

Scenario 1 - SQL Server Select Test

The first test will do a simple SELECT using both parts of the clustered index key to see how the query behaves and we will look at the execution plans.

--Query 1
SELECT SalesOrderID, SalesOrderDetailID
FROM Sales.SalesOrderDetail
WHERE SalesOrderID = 58950

--Query 2
SELECT SalesOrderID, SalesOrderDetailID
FROM Sales.SalesOrderDetail
WHERE SalesOrderDetailID = 68531

In the above two queries, the same columns are selected from the same table and the only difference is the column used in the WHERE clause.

In the first query SalesOrderID is used in the WHERE clause and in the second query SalesOrderDetailID is used in the WHERE clause.  The first query returns 28 records and the second query returns one record. So, the question is what performs better. 

Below we can see the query plans for the two queries.

sql server execution plan

Without much analysis, from the execution plans we can see the relative cost of the first query is 1% where the second query is 99%. When further analysis is done, it can be observed that the first query does an index seek on the clustered index and the second query does an index scan on the non-clustered index. In this scenario, the non-clustered index scan was used because it is faster to scan than scanning the clustered index. The reason it just uses the non-clustered index is that the non-clustered index includes the clustered key (SalesOrderID and SalesOrderDetailID) which are the two columns used in the query. Each non-clustered index includes the key of the clustered index which is the pointer to the get the rest of the data in the clustered index.

Let's compares the clustered index to a paper telephone directory. In a telephone directory, data is indexed by Last Name and First Name. Let's assume you need to search for “Robin Hood” where the first name is Robin and the second name is Hood. If you are asked to do two searches, the first search for First Name = Robin and the second search Last Name = Hood, it is easy to say that searching for Last Name = Hood from the telephone directory will be much faster since it is indexed by Last Name and First Name. In the case of searching for First Name = Robin, you have no choice but to search the entire directory or at least until you find the entry you are looking for.

Since SalesOrderDetail table has a clustered index which contains columns SalesOrderID and SalesOrderDetailID, the first query searches for SalesOrderID and the second query searches for SalesOrderDetailID. The first query will be able to use the index and perform a seek, but the second query needs to scan the entire table until it finds the matching value.

An important aspect of this scenario is to note that the number of records returned does not have a direct correlation to the performance of the queries, as in this case the better performing query is the query which returns more rows.

Scenario 2 - SQL Server Select Test with Different WHERE Clauses

Let's look at another scenario as shown below.

-- Using full index

--Query 1
SELECT SalesOrderID, SalesOrderDetailID
FROM Sales.SalesOrderDetail
WHERE SalesOrderDetailID = 68531

--Query 2
SELECT SalesOrderID, SalesOrderDetailID
FROM Sales.SalesOrderDetail
WHERE SalesOrderID = 58950
AND SalesOrderDetailID = 68531

In the above two queries, both queries will return the same row. In these queries, the only difference is that WHERE clause for query 1 has one parameter and the second query has two parameters. If we refer back to the previous example of “Robin Hood”, we can ask what is easier? Searching by “Robin” or (“Robin” AND “Hood”). Considering the fact the index is on Last Name and First Name, it is easy to say that (“Robin” AND “Hood”) is a better performing search.

Let's examine the query execution plans.

sql server execution plan

The query execution plans confirm that when the index is fully covered it is performing better. This breaks the myth of some users who think that when the WHERE clause is complex the query performance will be worse.

Scenario 3 - SQL Server Select Test with Varying WHERE Clauses

Let's look at another scenario as shown below.

-- Changing the Where clause order
--Query 1
SELECT SalesOrderID, SalesOrderDetailID
FROM Sales.SalesOrderDetail
WHERE SalesOrderID = 43683
   AND SalesOrderDetailID = 240

--Query 2
SELECT SalesOrderID, SalesOrderDetailID
FROM Sales.SalesOrderDetail
WHERE SalesOrderDetailID = 240
   AND SalesOrderID = 43683

In the above two queries, the only difference is the order of the WHERE clause. Many users believe that the WHERE clause should have the same order as the index column order.

Let's verify this with the query execution plans.

sql server execution plan

The query execution plan confirms that the relative cost of both queries is 50% and the query plan is the same for both queries which means the order of WHERE clause does not matter.

Scenario 4 - SQL Server Select Test with AND vs. OR Logic

Let's look at another scenario as shown below.

-- Difference between AND and OR
--Query 1
SELECT SalesOrderID, SalesOrderDetailID
FROM Sales.SalesOrderDetail
WHERE SalesOrderID = 43683
   AND SalesOrderDetailID = 240   

--Query 2   
SELECT SalesOrderID, SalesOrderDetailID
FROM Sales.SalesOrderDetail
WHERE SalesOrderID = 43683
    OR SalesOrderDetailID = 240

In this scenario, it is the same query but the only change is the AND /OR combination in the WHERE clause. If you refer back to the Robin Hood example, is it easier to find (Robin and Hood) or (Robin OR Hood). Well, to find (Robin OR Hood) you have no choice but to scan through the entire directory. 

Let's confirm this with the query execution plans.

sql server execution plan

The above execution plans confirm that the query with OR is worse performing than the query with AND.

Scenario 5 - SQL Server Select Test with Varying Columns

Let's look at another scenario as shown below.

-- Different Columns
--Query 1
SELECT SalesOrderID, SalesOrderDetailID, CarrierTrackingNumber
FROM Sales.SalesOrderDetail
WHERE SalesOrderID = 43683
   AND SalesOrderDetailID = 240

--Query 2 
SELECT SalesOrderID, SalesOrderDetailID
FROM Sales.SalesOrderDetail
WHERE SalesOrderID = 43683
   AND SalesOrderDetailID = 240

In this query, the only change is the additional column in the SELECT. It is easier to make a conclusion that since the query has to retrieve more columns in the first query, the first query would perform worse.

Let's examine the query execution plans.

sql server execution plan

We can see the query plans are similar and the cost is also same. It is important to remember that SalesOrderId, SalesOrderDetailID make up the clustered index, so when additional columns are requested from the clustered index there is no additional overhead. In the case of the non-clustered index things would have been different, since a lookup would need to occur to get the additional columns from the clustered index.

Next Steps


Last Updated: 2018-08-28


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About the author
MSSQLTips author Dinesh Asanka Dinesh Asanka is a 10 time Data Platform MVP and frequent speaker at local and international conferences with more than 12 years of database experience.

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