Delete Data from Large SQL Server Tables with Minimal Logging

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As SQL Server DBAs or developers, we periodically are tasked with purging data from a very large table. However, typical data delete methods can cause issues with large transaction logs and contention especially when purging a production system. My recent challenge was to purge a log table that had over 650 million records and retain only the latest 1 million rows.


My goal is to build a strategic technique to purge a very large table, retaining only a fraction of the data. On a typical SQL Server, 1 million records is not a massive amount and with my recent production challenge it was only 1/650 of the current table size. To do a fast data purge we will utilize a little used feature in SQL Server, Partition Switching. Every table in SQL Server has at least 1 partition. In SQL Server you can quickly move an entire table from one table to another using the Alter Table Switch command. This leaves the original table fully intact, but empty. Then we can move the small sub set of data from the new table back to the original. I chose to use Partition Switch vs. renaming the table because I believe it is a less intrusive method, in which the object and index definitions do not get altered or destroyed during the operation.  It is hard to know on many database systems the effects on an application of renaming objects or the effects of system cache. 

Note: it is best to do this during off peak hours! According to Microsoft "Executing a SWITCH prevents new transaction from starting and might significantly affect the workload throughput and temporarily delay access to the underlying table."

Note: In this scenario the source table is not referenced by any foreign keys.  If other tables reference the source table in a foreign key you will have a multi-table scenario which will have to be handled as to not break referential integrity.  This article is meant for a simple scenario such as large log tables without foreign key constraints.

SQL Server Fast Delete from Large Table Demo

In this demo we will create a starting table and populate it with sample data. Then create an identical 'switch' table including indexes. Next, we will move the records to the new table using ALTER TABLE SWITCH command. Show that the record move (very quickly) and the original table is empty. After that we will move a small set of data back to the original table. Last drop the un-needed switch table.

Review the requirement and restrictions for SWITCH at Microsoft:

Step 1: Create a Test Table

For this step we will create a test table: dbo.Test1.

CREATE TABLE [dbo].[Test1]  (
   Col1_id INT IDENTITY(1,1),
   Col3_C NCHAR(20) DEFAULT 'My test desc!',
   Col4_T NVARCHAR(MAX) DEFAULT REPLICATE('0123456789', 100)

Step 2: Load Test Data

For this limited example we will only load 5000 rows and create 2 indexes.  This also works for tables with millions of records.

--2. Load Test Data

INSERT [dbo].[Test1]  (Col2_D, Col3_C, Col4_T)
VALUES (DEFAULT, 'My test desc!', DEFAULT);
GO 5000 
--Check it.
SELECT top 10 * FROM [dbo].[Test1];
SELECT COUNT(*) As 'Test1' FROM [dbo].[Test1];
--Create Indexes
CREATE CLUSTERED INDEX [ClusteredIndex_Test1_Col2_D] ON [dbo].[Test1]
([Col2_D] ASC) 
CREATE UNIQUE NONCLUSTERED INDEX [NonClusteredIndex_Test1_Col1_ID] ON [dbo].[Test1]
([Col1_id] ASC) 

The image below shows example results and 5000 rows loaded.


Step 3: Create a Duplicate Table

Create a duplicate with new names for the table and indexes. You might script the original table from SSMS and do a find and replace on the table names. Be sure to script all table attributes and indexes. You do not need to include Foreign Keys in the switch table!

--3. Now let's duplicate the original schema and change the table and index names
   Col1_ID INT IDENTITY(1,1),
   Col3_C NCHAR(20) DEFAULT 'My test desc!',
   Col4_T NVARCHAR(MAX) DEFAULT REPLICATE('0123456789', 201)
CREATE CLUSTERED INDEX [ClusteredIndex_Test1_SWITCH_Col2_D] ON [dbo].[Test1_SWITCH]
([Col2_D] ASC) 
([Col1_id] ASC) 

--Check it
SELECT COUNT(*) AS 'Test1' FROM [dbo].[Test1];
SELECT COUNT(*) AS 'Test1_SWITCH' FROM [dbo].[Test1_SWITCH];			

The image below shows 5000 rows in the original table and 0 rows in the new table.


Step 4: The SWITCH!

Run the Alter Table SWITCH command and check the counts.

--4. Switch the data to a new table
ALTER TABLE [dbo].[Test1] SWITCH to [dbo].[Test1_SWITCH];
SELECT COUNT(*) AS 'Test1' FROM [dbo].[Test1];
SELECT COUNT(*) AS 'Test1_SWITCH' FROM [dbo].[Test1_SWITCH];			

Voilà! The records quickly moved to the new table and the original table is now empty!


Step 5: Move Back!

Now we can move the small set of records back to the original table. In this case I have a table column that has an auto incrementing field, so we must use IDENTITY_INSERT to keep these values. This may not be the same in your real-world scenario.

--5. Now we can load the small subset of data back to the table.

INSERT dbo.Test1 (Col1_ID, Col2_D, Col3_C, Col4_T)
SELECT Col1_ID, Col2_D, Col3_C, Col4_T FROM [dbo].[Test1_SWITCH] WHERE Col1_ID <= 1000;
SELECT COUNT(*) AS 'Test1' FROM [dbo].[Test1];
SELECT COUNT(*) AS 'Test1_SWITCH' FROM [dbo].[Test1_SWITCH];			

The results show 1000 rows back in the original table.

test switch

Step 6: Eliminate the Original Data!

Let drop the switch table that is no longer needed. Note the DROP writes a lot less to the transaction log versus DELETEs when done in mass amounts!

--6. Finally drop the newly created switch table. 
DROP TABLE [dbo].[Test1_SWITCH];			

Last: Clean Up the Demo

For this demo we are done with the original table, so go ahead and delete it.

--X. Clean Up the Demo
DROP TABLE [dbo].[Test1]			

Wrap up of how to delete millions of records in SQL Server

This concludes this demo. Obviously, your production situation with be significantly greater than this 5000-row demo. If you find yourself in a situation where you need to purge a very large table, consider this technique to optimize the run time and minimize transaction log growth. Remember to target off peak hours to avoid contention. Also, be sure to test in a lab prior to running in production. Most important, be sure you have a recoverable backup before running any data purges in production!

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About the author
MSSQLTips author Jim Evans Jim Evans is an IT Manager currently for Crowe who has managed DBA, Developer, BI and Data Management teams for over 20 years.

This author pledges the content of this article is based on professional experience and not AI generated.

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Comments For This Article

Tuesday, June 29, 2021 - 8:33:23 AM - jj Keller Back To Top (88918)
This only works if you don't have foreign keys to other tables....

Tuesday, June 9, 2020 - 2:56:52 PM - Jim Evans Back To Top (85884)

Hello Alex,  Good older version of Books online Microsoft stated that clustered and non-clustered indexes must be the same on both tables to do the switch (SQL 2005 - SQL 2008 R2).  I assume it is still required on new versions of SQL, however I have not been able to find it docuemnted in new versions of Microsoft Docs.  You might just set up a test to verify.  If you do please post your results.

Jim Evans

Monday, June 8, 2020 - 11:20:18 AM - alex Back To Top (85856)

Great article. one question i have regarding creation of the switch table is, is it a requirment to create it with identical indexes?

Sunday, September 1, 2019 - 11:40:02 AM - Antonio Cortina Back To Top (82208)

Nice article, but I think if we insert into the Test1_SWITCH (empty table) the records that we want to keep (not deleted) and switch them back to [dbo].[Test1]. This approach could protect from any failure keeping the data in the original table

Saturday, April 6, 2019 - 7:36:48 PM - Jim Evans Back To Top (79490)

Thanks for reading and responding to the article Elena.  This technique is intended for huge tables and when doing deletes is more time consuming with higher transactions then inserting the retained records.  Also, this is best done in an outage window.  

Monday, February 18, 2019 - 6:21:46 AM - Elena Pilipushko Back To Top (79052)

I am not sure that it can be used for
* huge table or
* with big % of saving rows in this table or
* with online API which works with this source table full time.

1) If you have to save the big % of rows in the big source table, then the next INSERT command will be very hard, moreover you can lose the all execution plans for this source table
2) what will be with API if it have to work with these 1000 rows during the time when you have switched the all rows into second table?
3) If you have Identity Col1_ID column and datetime Col2_D column with GETDATE(), in this case the Col1_ID column order will be equal to the Col2_D column order.

   Col1_ID INT IDENTITY(1,1),

In this case for big table the more correct will be:
a) Create a clustered INDEX on Identity Col1_ID column.
b) Create a non-clustered INDEX on Col2_D
2) Get the value MIN(Col1_ID) / MAX(Col1_ID) with the datetime value for delete command
2) Delete the all rows before or past MIN(Col1_ID) / MAX(Col1_ID)

I agree that the SWITCH command is very good for a partitioned table, when you can use SWITCH command at time for one partition from a set of all partitions.

Thursday, February 14, 2019 - 1:47:16 PM - bernard black Back To Top (79036)

 Nice article.  I'd always purged in batches....this is much more straight forward.

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