Setting the Sample Rate for Automatic Statistics updates

Statistics are vital in allowing SQL Server to execute your queries in the most performant manner. Having a deeper understanding of how Statistics work really helps when you are performance tuning

I talked a few posts ago about Automatic Sample Sizes for Statistics Updates. From SQL 2016 CU4 we’ve been able to override that. You can manually update a statistics object specifying a given sample rate, and specify that that sample rate is what will be used for any subsequent automatic updates on the same object.

You can’t change the default sample rate globally, but this functionality is actually more useful. It means that if you find that you have a particular statistics object where the automatic sampling rate is too low, and that has a negative effect on query performance, then you can choose a sampling rate specific for that object.

Let’s take a quick look at doing this in practice.

Here’s some reused SQL from the previous post to create a table and throw in a million rows:

--Create table for Testing
CREATE TABLE dbo.Test(
   Id INT IDENTITY(1,1) CONSTRAINT PK_Test PRIMARY KEY CLUSTERED, 
   TextValue VARCHAR(20) NULL
);

--Create index on TextValue
CREATE INDEX IX_Test_TextValue ON dbo.Test(TextValue);

--Insert a bunch of rows
INSERT INTO dbo.Test(TextValue) 
SELECT TOP 1000000 'blah'
FROM sys.objects a, sys.objects b, sys.objects c, sys.objects d; 

I haven’t updated the stats yet. As we can see if I view them:

--View the statistics
DBCC SHOW_STATISTICS('dbo.Test', IX_Test_TextValue) WITH STAT_HEADER;

SetStatsSampleRate1

The stats haven’t any information yet but there is still one thing to notice. See that final column Persisted Sample Percent? That was added to support this functionality.

The stats will only get updated by the auto stats mechanism when I run a query against the table and the optimiser is interested in them but sees they’re stale. From zero to a million rows should be stale enough. Let’s run a quick query:

--Random Query
SELECT * 
FROM dbo.Test
WHERE TextValue = 'not blah’;'

And view the stats again:

SetStatsSampleRate2

We can see the stats got updated and the table was big enough that SQL decided to sample rather than scan the whole index. About 42% of the rows got sampled. Persisted Sample Percent is set to zero, i.e. it is not set.

Let’s say that I want to make sure that this statistics object always updates with a full scan.

What I can now do is manually update the statistics and specific that the sample percentage should be persisted:

--Update the stats and persist the sample rate
UPDATE STATISTICS dbo.Test IX_Test_TextValue 
WITH FULLSCAN, PERSIST_SAMPLE_PERCENT = ON;

Let’s check that did what we wanted by viewing the stats:

SetStatsSampleRate3

Great, we can see all the rows were sampled and the Persisted Sample Percent is now set to 100.

Now let’s see what happens when another auto update kicks in. I insert another million rows with the same SQL from above. Then I run the select query again. The optimiser notices the statistics are now stale and so it updates them and recompiles the plan for the query. We can see this when we check the stats yet again:

SetStatsSampleRate4

SQL has done exactly what we wanted, it performed the auto stats update in the background and it used the 100% persisted sample rate.

Thanks for reading.

Viewing the Statistics Objects Used to Create an Execution Plan

Statistics are vital in allowing SQL Server to execute your queries in the most performant manner. Having a deep understanding of how the SQL Server Optimizer interacts with Statistics really helps when you are performance tuning

One thing that can be useful when looking at an execution plan is to understand what statistics objects the optimizer used to come up with the plan. In this post we look at how that can be achieved using the undocumented traceflag 8666 which can be used to save internal debugging informational into the plan XML – including details of the Statistics objects used. 

There are actually a few other trace flags that do similar things but this seems the simplest and the one that works across the most versions of SQL Server. It looks like it was introduced in SQL 2008 and works on all versions up to and including SQL 2016 – but it doesn’t work on SQL 2005.

Note that this technique only works for plans generated once the trace flag is on, so you can’t view the additional information for existing plans in your cache:

Here’s a quick example using it against the AdventureWorks2012 database. You need to make sure you’ve selected the option to show the actual plan, then run the query as below:

--Turn the trace flag on
DBCC traceon (8666);

--Run the query
SELECT *
FROM Person.Person
WHERE LastName LIKE 'Smith%';

--Turn the trace flag off again
DBCC traceoff (8666);

This query produces the following plan:

optimizer_stats_plan

If you right-click over the SELECT operator and select properties you see the following:

optimizer_stats_plan_props

You’ll notice an extra field “Internal Debugging Information” which contains a bunch of unformatted XML. Rather than grabbing that string and formatting it to make it readable, you can right-click back on the plan itself and select “Show Execution Plan XML…” to view the same information in a more friendly format.

If you scroll down through the XML generated you will get to the following section:

<ModTrackingInfo>

   <Field FieldName=“wszStatName” FieldValue=“_WA_Sys_00000007_693CA210” />

   <Field FieldName=“wszColName” FieldValue=“LastName” />

   <Field FieldName=“m_cCols” FieldValue=“1” />

   <Field FieldName=“m_idIS” FieldValue=“2” />

   <Field FieldName=“m_ullSnapShotModCtr” FieldValue=“19972” />

   <Field FieldName=“m_ullRowCount” FieldValue=“19972” />

   <Field FieldName=“ullThreshold” FieldValue=“4494” />

   <Field FieldName=“wszReason” FieldValue=“heuristic” />

</ModTrackingInfo>

<ModTrackingInfo>

   <Field FieldName=“wszStatName” FieldValue=“IX_Person_LastName_FirstName_MiddleName” />

   <Field FieldName=“wszColName” FieldValue=“LastName” />

   <Field FieldName=“m_cCols” FieldValue=“1” />

   <Field FieldName=“m_idIS” FieldValue=“7” />

   <Field FieldName=“m_ullSnapShotModCtr” FieldValue=“19972” />

   <Field FieldName=“m_ullRowCount” FieldValue=“19972” />

   <Field FieldName=“ullThreshold” FieldValue=“4494” />

   <Field FieldName=“wszReason” FieldValue=“heuristic” />

</ModTrackingInfo>

Each ModTrackingInfo node displays the information about one statistics object that has been referenced. The wszStatName shows us the name of the Statistics object. We have two in this case, _WA_Sys_00000007_693CA210 and IX_Person_LastName_FirstName_MiddleName. The first is an auto-generated one on the LastName column (I happen to know this was generated before I created the index referenced). Interestingly SQL has looked at both – even though they contain pretty much the same info and one isn’t really required.

Why is this useful?

Well, apart from simply the interesting aspect of seeing some of what is going on in the background when SQL decides what plan to use for your query, it is often the case with poor performing queries that there is bad cardinality estimation going on. Sometimes this might be because the statistics aren’t accurate and would benefit from being updated. You can use this technique to see what statistics objects are being used for the estimation (where it is not just obvious) and then you can look at the objects themselves and see whether they might want refreshing, or whether ther may be other issues with your data – such as a skewed distribution – that make esimates difficult.

I see growing opinion in the SQL world that the refreshing of statistics is often more important than rebuilding indexes to reduce fragmentation – the latter operation will also refresh the statistics but is a lot more resource intensive. You also will commonly have statistics on columns that are not indexed, and the threshold for them to be refreshed can be pretty large when you have a lot of data. You can see more information about manually refreshing statistics in my previous posts on the subject:

When do Statistics Get Updated?

Manually updating Statistics

Automatic Sample Sizes for Statistics Updates

Automatic Sample Sizes for Statistics Updates

Statistics are vital in allowing SQL Server to execute your queries in the most performant manner. Having a deep understanding of how Statistics work really helps when you are performance tuning

I mentioned in my previous post about manually updating statistics that you can specify whether they’re updated using a full scan, or you can specify an amount of data to sample, either a percentage of the table size, or a fixed number of rows. You can also choose not to specify this, and SQL Server will decide for you whether to do a full scan, or to sample a certain amount of data.

I thought it would be interesting to look at what the sample sizes are that SQL will choose to use, depending on the amount of data in your table. Note that this occurs if you update statistics without specifying how they should be sampled as below:

UPDATE STATISTICS dbo.Test _WA_Sys_00000002_3AD6B8E2;

This is also the behaviour you will get when SQL updates statistics through the auto-stats mechanism. The fact that auto-stats may sample at a lower rate than is optimal for a given table and the queries against it is another reason you may choose to perform manual statistics updates.

To test this, I created a table and progressively pumped data in. Then after I inserted each batch of rows:

  • I Ran a stats update capturing the CPU time taken
  • Checked the statistics to see what sample size was used in the update
  • Checked the size of the index

Here’s some of the code I used for the test:

--Drop table if exists
IF (OBJECT_ID('dbo.Test')) IS NOT NULL DROP TABLE dbo.Test;

--Create table for Testing
CREATE TABLE dbo.Test(
   Id INT IDENTITY(1,1) CONSTRAINT PK_Test PRIMARY KEY CLUSTERED, 
   TextValue VARCHAR(20) NULL
);

--Create index on TextValue
CREATE INDEX IX_Test_TextValue ON dbo.Test(TextValue);

--Insert a bunch of rows
INSERT INTO dbo.Test(TEXTValue) 
SELECT TOP 100000 'blah'
FROM sys.objects a, sys.objects b, sys.objects c, sys.objects d;  

--Update statistics without specifying how many rows to sample
SET STATISTICS TIME ON;
UPDATE STATISTICS dbo.Test IX_Test_TextValue;
SET STATISTICS TIME OFF;

--View the statistics
DBCC SHOW_STATISTICS('dbo.Test', IX_Test_TextValue) WITH STAT_HEADER;

--Check the size of the index
SELECT
    i.name                  AS IndexName,
    SUM(s.used_page_count)   AS Pages
FROM sys.dm_db_partition_stats  AS s 
JOIN sys.indexes                AS i
ON s.[object_id] = i.[object_id] AND s.index_id = i.index_id
WHERE i.name = 'IX_Test_TextValue'
GROUP BY i.name

The results of my testing are shown in the below table:

StatisticsSamplingRates

You can see that we have a full sample being taken for the statistics updates up to 4000,000 records (896 pages) but that once the table size hits 500,000 sampling is happening. If you look at the number of pages you will see we now have over 1,000 pages, 1000 pages being about 8MB of data, which is the threshold that sampling kicks in.

I wasn’t able to find a nice neat formula to determine the sampling rate based on table size, but if we look at the above figures there are still some insights to be gained. The main one is that you’ll notice that even as we double the table size, the number of rows sampled doesn’t go up by much. For instance from 500,000 to a million rows, only 10,000 more rows are sampled. This also means that even for pretty large tables, the update isn’t taking long – another reason why it’s worth leaving auto stats updates enabled and running synchronously with queries – they’re generally not going to take that long.

Another insight is that the percentage of rows sampled drops off very quickly. As the sample size doesn’t really increase that much even when the table size doubles – the percentage sampled has almost halved each time.

Manually updating Statistics

Having up to date statistics is vital for getting the best performance out of your queries. Even though SQL Server automatically updates statistics in the background for you (When do statistics get updated?), you may find there are times when you want to manage updating them yourself.

  • You may have large tables and find that the interval between the automatic updates is too big and is resulting in sub-optimal query plans.
  • You might need timely updates to a specific object – maybe as part of an ETL process to make sure that statistics are up to date after a particular part of the process, perhaps after a daily load into a table.
  • You may find that the automatic updates look at too small a sample size and you need to scan more of the table to enable accurate estimates for your queries.

My previous post on the Ascending Key problem demonstrated a common issue where the first of these scenarios could be affecting you. We’ll look at examples of the other scenarios in subsequent posts.

For now though, let’s just look at how you go about updating statistics.

UPDATE STATISTICS

At the heart of all the methods we’ll look at is the UPDATE STATISTICS command. There are a lot of options for using this command, but we’ll just focus on the ones you’re most likely to use. For full documentation here is the official reference:
https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/sql/t-sql/statements/update-statistics-transact-sql

You can use this at the table level in which case all statistics objects belonging to that table will be updated:

UPDATE STATISTICS dbo.Test;

Or you can specify the specific statistics object you want to update:

UPDATE STATISTICS dbo.Test _WA_Sys_00000002_3AD6B8E2;

FULL SCAN or SAMPLE

The other thing you may be likely to want to specify is whether the statistics should be updated using a full scan of the table, or just be looking at a sample of the rows. In the above examples we didn’t specify this so SQL Server will decide for us. In general sampling (as opposed to full scans) kicks in when we have about 8MB of data in the table (or about 1000 pages).

If you want to specify a full scan the syntax is as follows:

UPDATE STATISTICS dbo.Test _WA_Sys_00000002_3AD6B8E2 WITH FULLSCAN;

If you want the statistics update to use sampling (more on how this works in subsequent posts) then you can choose to specify a percentage of the total table to be sampled:

UPDATE STATISTICS dbo.Test _WA_Sys_00000002_3AD6B8E2 WITH SAMPLE 10 PERCENT;

Or you can specify a fixed number of rows:

UPDATE STATISTICS dbo.Test _WA_Sys_00000002_3AD6B8E2 WITH SAMPLE 10000 ROWS;

You might want to use a sample as once your tables get large full scans can take a little time. Equally though if you’re updating statistics in a quieter time (e.g. overnight) you may feel you can afford the extra time for the full scans. Here’s some comparison figures I produced on my local machine showing how long full scans take. Obviously this will change depending on your hardware and other factors including how much of the table is already in memory:

FullScanTimes

You can see however that the time taken pretty much scales linearly as the table size increases.

One thing to be aware of is parallelism. A full scan can run as a parallel operation on your server which can speed it up considerably. When you update statistics using a sample however this can only run single-threaded unless you’re on SQL Server 2016 (or higher). Sampling data to build statistics in parallel was one of the many excellent little improvements in 2016.

sp_UpdateStats

This is another method you might use for manually updating statistics (perhaps as part of a scheduled maintenance job). This system stored procedure can be used for updating all of the statistics objects in a database:

USE Test;
EXEC sp_UpdateStats;

This stored procedure iterates through your database using a WHILE loop and executes the UPDATE STATISTICS command as it goes. One nifty thing about using this procedure is that it only updates statistics objects where rows have changed, so you don’t have any overhead for refreshing statistics where the underlying data hasn’t been modified. You can see this from this extract of the output of the stored procedure:

Updating [dbo].[TestMemory]
[PK__TestMemo__3214EC070D799003], update is not necessary…
0 index(es)/statistic(s) have been updated, 1 did not require update.

Updating [dbo].[TestMemory2]
[PK__TestMemo__3214EC07D3DC52DE], update is not necessary…
0 index(es)/statistic(s) have been updated, 1 did not require update.

Updating [dbo].[Test]
[PK_Test] has been updated…
[IX_Test_TextValue] has been updated…
2 index(es)/statistic(s) have been updated, 0 did not require update.

Ola Hallengren

Of course, if you’re looking to implement statistics update as part of regular maintenance, then you should definitely be considering using Ola Hallengren’s maintenance solution. Ola maintains a great solution for managing database backups and integrity checks as well index and statistics maintenance, and he shares it with the SQL community for free.

You can find full details of Ola’s solution and download it here:
https://ola.hallengren.com/

What are Statistics in SQL Server?

Statistics are vitally important in allowing SQL Server to find the most efficient way to execute your queries. In this post we learn more about them, what they are and how they are used.

Cardinality Estimation

Cardinality is a term originally from Mathematics, generally defined as “The number of objects in a given set or grouping”. In SQL we’re continually dealing with sets so this becomes a very relevant topic, which in our context is just the “number of rows”.

When you have a query across multiple tables there any many ways in which SQL Server could decide to physically go about getting you the results you want. It could query and join the tables in any order and it could use different methods for matching records from the various tables you have joined together. It also needs to know how much memory to allocate for the operation – and to do that it needs to have an idea of the amount of data generated at each stage of processing.

A lot of this requires cardinality estimation, and SQL Server uses something called Statistics objects to perform that calculation.

Let’s look at a simple example:
SELECT *
FROM Person.Person p
INNER JOIN Person.[Address] a
ON p.AddressId = a.AddressId
WHERE p.LastName = 'Smith'
AND a.City = 'Bristol'

When it comes to gathering the results for this query there are a number of ways the database engine could go about it. For instance:

a) It could find all the records in the Person table with a LastName of Smith, look each of their addresses up and return only the ones who live in Bristol.
b) It could find all the Addresses in Bristol, look up the people associated with each address and return only the ones called Smith.
c) It could grab the set of people called Smith from the People table, grab all the addresses in Bristol, and only finally match up the records between those two sets.

Which of those operations is going to be most efficient depends very much on the number of records returned from each table. Let’s say that we have a million people called Smith, but there’s only one address in our whole database that is in Bristol (and let’s say that address does actually belong to someone called Smith).

In the first method above I would grab the million Smiths and then look their address up one by one in the address table until I found the one that lived in Bristol.

If I used method b) though, I would find the one matching address first, and then I would simply look up the owner of that address. Clearly in this rather contrived example, that’s going to be a lot quicker. So if SQL knows ahead of time roughly how many records to expect from each part of the query, hopefully it can make a good decision about how to get the data.

But how can it work out how many rows will be returned without actually running the query?

Statistics

That’s where statistics objects come in. SQL Server maintains in the background data that equates to a histogram showing the distribution of the data in certain columns within a table. It does this any time you create an index – statistics will be generated on the columns the index is defined against, but it also does it any time it determines that it would be useful. So if SQL encounters a Where clause on Person.LastName – and that column isn’t involved in a useful index, SQL is likely to generate a statistics object to tell it about the distribution of data in that column.

I say “likely to” because it actually depends on the settings of your SQL instance. Server configuration is beyond the scope of this post but suffice to say you can let SQL automatically create Statistics objects – or not. You can let it automatically update them when the data has changed by more than a given threshold – or not. And you can specify whether updates to statistics should happen asynchronously or synchronously – i.e. in the latter case if your query determines that statistics needs updating then it will kick that off and wait until the update is complete before processing the query.

It’s generally recommended that auto creation and updating is on, and async updating is off.

Viewing Statistics Objects
Let’s have a look at some actual statistics and see what they hold. There are a couple of ways of doing this, the first is through SSMS. If you look under a table in the object browser you will see a Statistics folder which holds any statistics objects relating to that table:

Statistics1

In the above example you can see some that have friendly names, these are Statistics that  are related to an actual index that has been defined on the table and they have the same name as the Index – e.g. IX_Address_StateProvinceId.

You’ll also see we have some prefixed _WA_Sys and then with some random numbers following. These are statistics objects that SQL has created automatically on columns that aren’t indexed – or at least they weren’t indexed at the time the Statistics objects were created.

You can open these up with a double-click and see what’s inside:

Statistics2

This is the General tab you open up to. You’ll see it tells you what table the Statistics are for and what column(s). There are options for adding columns and changing the order – but you never really need to do this – as well as information to tell you when the statistics were last updated, and a check box if you want to update them now.

In the details tab there’s a lot more info:

Statistics3

I don’t find this the easiest display format to work with though, so rather than delving into what everything means here let’s look at the other way you can view statistics, which is by running the following command:

DBCC SHOW_STATISTICS('Person.Address', '_WA_Sys_00000004_164452B1')

The format is straightforward, you just specify the table you are interested in the Statistics for, and the actual name of the Statistics object you want. You can see the same information as if you double-clicked on it, but the results are output in the results pane like any other query and are (I think) a lot easier to read. Allegedly there will soon be a third way in SQL Server to view Statistics as DBCC commands are considered a bit “clunky” – but we don’t know what that will look like yet.

The command outputs three resultsets:

Statistics4

This post is just an introduction to statistics – and generally you don’t need to know that much, it’s just handy to understand the basics. So let’s just run over the key bits of information you can see above:

First of all in the first recordset – otherwise know as the…

Stats Header

Rows – is the number of rows in your table

Rows Sampled – this is how many rows were sampled to generate the statistics. SQL can generate or update statsitics using sampling rather than reading all the rows. In this case you’ll see it did actually read the whole table.

Steps – If you imagine the statistics as a bar chart – this is the number of bars on the chart. Statistics objects have a maximum of 200 steps so if you have more distinct values in your column than that they will be grouped into steps.

Density – This is supposed to be the probability of a row having a particular value (calculated as 1 / Number of Distinct values in column). According to books online “This Density value is not used by the query optimizer and is displayed for backward compatibility with versions before SQL Server 2008.”  I am using SQL 2012, and this number is just plain incorrect so don’t use it…

Recordset Number 2: The Density Vector

All Density – this is the accurate version of the Density statistic described above. So your probability of a given row having a specific value is about 0.0017. That’s a little less than one in 500. I happen to know there are 575 different Cities in the table so that makes sense. Sometimes SQL will use this value to form a plan – if it knows you’re going to search this table for a specific City and it doesn’t know that City when it makes the plan, then it could guess that about 1/500th of the rows will match your criteria.

Average Length – Is what it says on the can. The average length of data in this column.

Columns – The names of any column measured in this statistics objects. You can have statistics across multiple columns but I’m not going to cover that in this post. In this case it tells us these statistics are based on the “City” column.

Recordset Number 3: The Histogram

This last recordset shows the distribution of the data, and is what you could effectively use to to draw a graph of the relative frequencies of different groups of values. Each row represents a step – or bar on the bar chart – and as mentioned above there can be a maximum of 200 steps. So you can see, a statistics object is quite lightweight, even for a massive table.

RANGE_HI_KEY – This upper limit of each step, so each step contains all the values bigger than the RANGE_HI_KEY of the last step, right up to and including this value.

RANGE_ROWS – This is how many rows in the table fall in this range – not including the number that match the RANGE_HI_KEY itself.

EQ_ROWS – The number of rows equal to the HI_KEY

DISTINCT_RANGE_ROWS – The number of different values in the range that there is data for (excluding the HI_KEY).

AVERAGE_RANGE_ROWS – The average number of rows for a given value within the range.

That’s a whistle-stop tour of the Statistics SQL Server holds on your data.

 

The algorithms that SQL then uses to calculate the number of rows for a given part of your query are pretty transparent when there’s just one column involved. If we look at the above example and let’s say you wanted to look up the rows where the City is “Abingdon” – the statistics tell us there is 1 matching row and that’s the figure SQL will use for cardinality estimation. Where a value is within a range then it will use a calculation based on the AVERAGE_RANGE_ROWS.

When there’s multiple columns involved it’s more complicated there are various algorithms and assumptions that come into play. If you’re interested in digging deeper, one very good resource is the Whitepaper on the 2014 Cardinality Estimator written by Joe Sack: https://www.sqlskills.com/blogs/joe/optimizing-your-query-plans-with-the-sql-server-2014-cardinality-estimator/

Conclusions

The main takeaway from this should just be the understand the extent – and limitations – of the information about the distribution of your data that SQL holds in the background.

If, when you’re tuning queries, you notice that the estimated row counts don’t match the actual, then this could be encouraging SQL to form a bad plan for the query. In these cases you might want to investigate what’s going on with the statistics.

Maybe your query is written in a way that it can’t use statistics effectively, one example of this can be where you store constant values in variables, then query using that variable in a WHERE clause. SQL will then optimise based on the average, rather than on your actual value.

Maybe the plan is based on one data value that has a very different cardinality to the one currently being queried. For instance when you first run a stored procedure, the plan is formed based on the parameters passed. Those parameters could have a cardinality that is quite different to those used in later executions.

Maybe the statistics are out of date and need refreshing. Stats get updated when approximately 20% of the data in the table changes, for a large table this can be a big threshold, so current statistics may not always hold good information about the data you are querying for.

Or maybe SQL is doing as good a job as it can with the information it has at its disposal. You might need to work out how you can give it a little extra help.

Here are some other recent posts about Statistics you may find useful:

When do Statistics get updated?

Rowcount estimates when there are no Statistics

Rowcount estimates when there are no Statistics

I find this is a question that comes up again and agan. What estimate for the number of rows returned does SQL Server use if you’re selecting from a column where there are no statistics available?

There are a few different algorithms used depending on how you’re querying the table. In this post we’ll look at where we have a predicate looking for a fixed value.

(If you want the short answer, it’s the fourth root of n cubed before SQL 2014 and the square root of n after that – where n is the number of rows)

This scenario can occur if you have AUTO CREATE STATISTICS turned off for your database, which we don’t recommend you do, but which you might choose to do anyway, and if you query a table with a predicate against a column with no index defined against it.

Let’s look at example querying against the AdventureWorks2012 database. I’ll start by looking at SQL Server 2012 then we’ll see how it behaves in later versions.

I’ve taken the following preparatory steps:

  • Set AUTO CREATE STATISTICS OFF for the database
  • Remove the Index on the LastName column for the Person.Person table
  • Removed any ad-hoc statistics that existed against the table

Then I run a simple query, with the Actual Execution Plan turned on:

SELECT *
FROM Person.Person p
WHERE p.LastName = 'Fox';

I only get one result out as there is only one Fox (Ms. Dorothy J.). Let’s look at the execution plan:

RowCountNoStatistics1

A clustered index scan as we might expect as I’ve removed any useful indexes from the table. You’ll notice there is a warning. If we view the tooltip you’ll see SQL warns us about the lack of statistics:

RowCountNoStatistics2

If we look at the estimated and actual row-counts we’ll see how that has affected us:

RowCountNoStatistics3

In the absence of any useful information – it knows the number of rows in the table but that is about it – SQL has estimated that there will be 1680 Foxes in the table. A bit of playing shows that we get the same estimate whatever value we search for.

If I turn AUTO CREATE STATISTICS on and run the query again then SQL generate a Statistics object against the LastName column and comes up with an estimate of 2.3 rows – which is a lot closer.

This matters a lot once you start running more complicated queries. The incorrect estimate is likely to affect the choice of plan that the optimizer makes, and may also affect the amount of memory it requests in order to run the query. Let’s look at a quick example of how the plan changes if we join the above query to another table.

First, without statistics (so I have to turn AUTO CREATE off again, and remove the statistics that got created):

SET STATISTICS IO ON;

SELECT e.EmailAddress
FROM Person.Person p
INNER JOIN Person.EmailAddress e
    ON p.BusinessEntityID = e.BusinessEntityID
WHERE LastName = 'Fox';

Here’s the execution plan:

RowCountNoStatistics4

You can see I’ve got a Merge Join as SQL thinks I’m expecting 1680 rows from the top table. A Nested Loops join would generally be better when I only expect one or two rows from that table.

I’ve also captured the IO so I can see how expensive the query was:

Table ‘EmailAddress’. Scan count 1, logical reads 10, physical reads 0, read-ahead reads 0, lob logical reads 0, lob physical reads 0, lob read-ahead reads 0.

Table ‘Person’. Scan count 1, logical reads 3818, physical reads 0, read-ahead reads 0, lob logical reads 0, lob physical reads 0, lob read-ahead reads 0.

Let’s look at the behaviour of the same query with statistics creation enabled:

RowCountNoStatistics5

You can see we now have the desired Nested Loops join and the Clustered Index Scan on the EmailAddress table has been changed to a Seek.

The IO output is below:

Table ‘EmailAddress’. Scan count 1, logical reads 2, physical reads 0, read-ahead reads 0, lob logical reads 0, lob physical reads 0, lob read-ahead reads 0.

Table ‘Person’. Scan count 1, logical reads 3818, physical reads 0, read-ahead reads 0, lob logical reads 0, lob physical reads 0, lob read-ahead reads 0.

There’s not much difference in the overall IO, but you can see the Reads for the EmailAddress table have dropped from 10 to 2 due to the change from the Scan to the Seek. If the table was a lot bigger then we could see a large difference here.

So where does that estimate come from?

I thought I’d have a play and see if I could work out how SQL decided on that estimate of 1680 rows. I did some googling and found a suggestion that it might be a straight 9% of the total number of rows in the table, but that doesn’t quite add up and when I compared the same query pattern against a few tables I found I got a different ratio depending on the amount of rows in the table.

So I pumped rows incrementally into a fresh table and looked at the estimate and what the ratio was as the number of rows increased. Here’s my SQL for that:

--Create a Horrible Heap for my testing  
CREATE TABLE dbo.TestStats(TestVal INT NOT NULL, TestText VARCHAR(255) NULL);

--Insert a bunch of rows using dodgy old-style cross joins
INSERT INTO TestStats
SELECT TOP 1 --Amount of rows I'm going to insert
    1 , 'blah'
FROM sys.objects a, sys.objects b, sys.objects c, sys.objects d, sys.objects e;

--Clear the plan cache so SQL generated a new estimate  
DBCC freeproccache;

--Query the table, then I go check the execution plan generated 
--for the estimated number of rows
SELECT * FROM dbo.TestStats
WHERE TestVal = 1;   

(One thing to note was that I got the same answers whether I was querying the text column or the integer column – SQL seems to use the same algorithm for both.)

I started to notice a pattern quite quickly, that the ratio halved when the number of rows went up by a factor of 16. I then restarted my test, targeting my row-counts to be where the estimated number of rows would be a nice round number. You can see that in the table below:

RowCountNoStatistics6

I then attempted to work out a formula for that. Rather than take you through the shoddy process of mathematics that led me to an answer, I’ll just tell you that the formula came out as:

RowCountNoStatistics6b

Where e is the estimated number of rows for a given predicate value, and n is the total number of rows in the table. I checked that against the full set of results I’d gathered and it held true across all values of n I’d tested.

To check it finally against my original query – the Person.Person table had 19,972 rows. I put that through the calculator with the formula and get 1680.027. If we look back at the original estimate you’ll see that SQL stated 1680.03  – so that is all good.

As I mentioned earlier I was using SQL Server 2012 for this test, and a new Cardinality Estimator came into effect in SQL 2014. So I thought I’d run the test again with SQL 2016 and see if the results changed:

RowCountNoStatistics7

We can see the estimated rows drop off a lot quicker here. Clearly Microsoft have decided to lower the estimate. Actually it is now just the square root of the total number of rows.

RowCountNoStatistics8

Hopefully you’re not in the scenario where you regularly have queries running without the appropriate statistics to support them. The above comparison though shows us that if you have such a query its behaviour could dramatically change if you are on on older version of SQL Server version and you upgrade. It could become better or it could become a lot worse.

There are a lot of changes like this that came in with the new version of the Cardinality Estimator in 2014. Places where underlying assumptions have been adjusted to make better guesses about the number of rows that will be returned by an operator. But they are still guesses based on the same information – there is no new data being captured in the Statistics to better inform the process. Of course Microsoft has made these changes to try and better model data out in the wild – but they are still fixed assumptions, which means sometimes they will be better and sometimes they will be worse.

One thing I should re-iterate is that these formulae we’ve discovered above are for a fairly specific querying pattern. There’s no guarantee that the calculation will be the same for a similar – but different query. It might be interesting to explore that further in a later post.

Also there may be other information in your database – such as constraints – that SQL can use to educate its guesses.

The main takeaway from all of this though, should of course be:

MAKE SURE AUTO CREATE STATISTICS IS TURNED ON FOR YOUR DATABASES!

When do Statistics get updated?

Statistics objects are important to us for allowing SQL to make good estimates of the row-counts involved in different parts of a given query and to allow the SQL Optimiser to form efficient execution plans to delivery those query results.

Statistics get updated automatically when you rebuild (or re-organise) an index they are based on – but we only tend to rebuild indexes that are fragmented, and we don’t need fragmentation for statistics to be stale. We also may have many auto-created statistics objects that are not related to an index at all.

It’s generally recommended to have the database level setting AUTO_UPDATE_STATISTICS turned on, so that SQL can manage the process of keeping statistics up to date for us. The only excuse to turn it off is that you are managing the updates to stats yourself in a different manner. And you can always turn the auto update off at an individual table or statistics level if you need to, rather than for the whole database.

SQL Server has had the ability to automatically update statistics since version 7.0. Nonetheless for a long part of my career working with SQL Server, whenever a performance issue raised its head everyone’s knee-jerk response would be “Update Statistics!” In most cases though the people shouting that didn’t really understand what the “Statistics” were, or what mechanisms might already be in place for keeping them up to date.

Of course SQL Server isn’t perfect and sometimes it is helpful for human intelligence to intervene. But to provide intelligent intervention one has to understand how things work.

So how does the automatic updating of statistics work?

In the background SQL maintains a count of changes to tables that might affect statistics. This can be updates, inserts or deletes. So if I inserted 100 records, updated 100 records and then deleted 100 records, I would have made 300 changes.

When SQL forms an execution plan for a query it references various distribution statistics objects to estimate row-counts and to use that to try find the best plan. The statistics objects it looks at are referred to as being “interesting” in the context of the query.

Before using values from the statistics, the Optimizer will check to see if the statistics are “stale”, i.e. the modification counter exceeds a given threshold. If it does, SQL will trigger a resampling of the statistics before going on to form an execution plan. This means that the plan will be formed against up to date statistics for the table.

For subsequent executions of the query, the existing plan will be loaded from the plan cache. Within the plan, the Optimiser can see a list of the statistics objects that were deemed “interesting” in the first place. Once again it will check each of them to see if they are “stale”. If they are, an auto-update of the statistics object(s) will be triggered and once that is complete the plan will be recompiled, in case the updated statistics might suggest a better way of executing the query. Equally, if any of the statistics objects have been updated since the last execution then the plan will also be recompiled.

One important caveat to this is the database level setting AUTO_UPDATE_STATS_ASYNC (Asynchronously). Generally it is best to have this turned off, in which case the above behaviour is observed. If you turn it on however, in the case of stale stats the query execution will not wait for the stats to be updated, but will start them updating in the background while the query executes. The plan will only recompile to be based on the new stats at the next execution.

From SQL Server2008 R2 SP2 and SQL Server 2012 SP1 we have a new DMF (Dynamic Management Function) sys.dm_db_stats_properties that allows us to see how many row modifications have been captured against a given statistics object as well as when it was last refreshed, how many rows were sampled etc. Modifications are captured on a per column basis (though when statistics were originally introduced in SQL Server it was per table) so the counter will only be affected if the leading column for the statistics object has been affected by a given operation.

SELECT
s.name AS StatsName, sp.*
FROM sys.stats s
CROSS apply sys.dm_db_stats_properties(s.OBJECT_ID, s.stats_id) sp
WHERE s.name = 'IX_Test_TextValue'

Results:

Statistics_Properties

So what are the thresholds?

For a long time the thresholds were as follows. Statistics were considered stale if one of the following was true:

  • The table size has gone from 0 rows to more than 0 rows
  • The table had 500 rows or less when the statistics were last sampled and has since had more than 500 modifications
  • The table had more than 500 rows when the statistics were last sampled and the number of modifications is more than 500 + 20% of the row-count when the statistics were last sampled (when talking about tables with larger row-counts a lot of the documentation just describes this as 20% as the additional 500 becomes less and less relevant the larger the number you are dealing with).

Those thresholds did mean that when a table had a large number of rows, Statistics might not get updated that often. A table with a million rows would only have stats updated if about 200,000 rows changed. Depending on the distribution of the data and how it is being queried this could be a problem.

So, in SQL 2008 R2 SP2 Microsoft introduced Traceflag 2371 which when set would reduce the stale statistics threshold for larger tables. From SQL 2016 this is the default functionality.

That adds the following test for statistics being stale:

  • If the number of rows (R) when the statistics were last sampled is 25,000 or more and the number of modifications is more than the square root of R x 1000:

Statistics_1000R

Now, I’m just going to correct myself here, the documentation I’ve found SAYS the threshold is 25,000 but when I started to have a play that didn’t seem to be the case at all.

What actually seems to happen is that whichever of the two estimates is smaller gets used i.e

Either:

Statistics_20pcnt

Or:

Statistics_1000R

Whichever is smaller.

I don’t know if this means that both get evaluated and the smaller is used, or if the threshold between the two rules is simply defined at the point where the second formula gives the smaller result – which is after 19,682 rows. I discovered that threshold by solving where the two equations above would give the same result – then by experimenting to prove it in practice.

I think this incorrect stating of 25,000 as the threshold probably comes from confusion, taking an approximation (20%) as the actual figure. Remember I mentioned that people often generalise to say that statistics are stale after 20% of the rows change, and forget about the extra 500 rows. If that was true and it was exactly 20%, then the threshold would be 25,000 as that would be the point that both equations are equal.

Anyway it’s not even vaguely important to know that. I just found it interesting! Note that the tests above were carried out on SQL Server 2012 SP3 so could well be different on later versions.

To more visually understand the above rules, here’s a table showing the thresholds for some example table sizes under both the Old algorithm (without the traceflag) and the New algorithm (with the traceflag or on SQL 2016 or later).

R is the number of rows when the statistics were last sampled and T is the number of modifications for statistics to be considered stale:

Statistics_Thresholds

You can see for the larger table sizes there is a massive difference. If you’ve got large tables you’re querying against and are having to update the statistics manually to keep them fresh then you may find implementing the traceflag is a help.

For large tables statistics are sampled when being updated rather than the whole table being necessarily being read. I have details on that in this post:

Automatic Sample Sizes for Statistics Updates

How does Query Store capture cross database queries?

When I was writing the script shared in my last post Identify the (Top 20) most expensive queries across your SQL Server using Query Store a question crossed my mind:

Query Store is a configuration that is enabled per database, and the plans and stats for queries executed in that database are stored in the database itself. So what does query store do when a query spans more than one database?

Does it record the execution stats in all databases involved or does it store them in one based on some criteria (e.g. the one where the most work occurs)? Or does it somehow proportion them out between the databases?

This was relevant as it crossed my mind that if it records them in multiple database then my query in the above post could be double counting.

Time to test and find out.

I created three databases, Fred, Bert and Ernie. Then a table called Fred in database Fred, and a table called Bert in database Bert. In table Fred I created a bunch of records, then in table Bert I created a much bigger bunch of records:

DROP DATABASE IF EXISTS Fred;
DROP DATABASE IF EXISTS Bert;
DROP DATABASE IF EXISTS Ernie;

CREATE DATABASE Fred;
CREATE DATABASE Bert;
CREATE DATABASE Ernie;

USE Fred;
CREATE TABLE dbo.Fred(Id INT IDENTITY(1,1) PRIMARY KEY CLUSTERED, FredText NVARCHAR(500));

INSERT INTO dbo.Fred(FredText)
SELECT a.name + b.name
FROM sys.objects a, sys.objects b;

USE Bert;
CREATE TABLE dbo.Bert(Id INT IDENTITY(1,1) PRIMARY KEY CLUSTERED, BertText NVARCHAR(500));

INSERT INTO dbo.Bert(BertText)
SELECT a.name + b.name + c.name 
FROM sys.objects a, sys.objects b, sys.objects c;

Then I turned on Query Store for all three databases:

USE MASTER;
ALTER DATABASE Fred SET query_store = ON;
ALTER DATABASE Bert SET query_store = ON;
ALTER DATABASE Ernie SET query_store = ON;

Once that was done I concocted a horrible query that was bound to be horrendously slow – so I knew it would be easy to find when I queried the Query Store runtime stats:

SET STATISTICS IO ON

SELECT TOP 100000 *
FROM Fred.dbo.Fred f
INNER JOIN Bert.dbo.Bert b
   ON b.BertText LIKE  '%' + f.FredText + '%';

I turned STATISTICS IO on so I could see how much work was happening in each database.

I ran the query first in a query window pointing at the Fred database, then I ran my query store query from the previous post (Capture the most expensive queries across your SQL Server using Query Store) to see what had been captured. I made it slightly easier for myself by adding an additional where clause to the cursor so that it only looked at these databases:

--Cursor to step through the databases
DECLARE curDatabases CURSOR FAST_FORWARD FOR
SELECT [name]
FROM sys.databases 
WHERE is_query_store_on = 1
AND name IN ('Fred','Bert','Ernie');

I cleared down Query Store for all the databases:

USE MASTER;
ALTER DATABASE Fred SET QUERY_STORE CLEAR;
ALTER DATABASE Bert SET QUERY_STORE CLEAR;
ALTER DATABASE Ernie SET QUERY_STORE CLEAR;

Then I repeated these steps for Bert and Ernie.

The Statistics IO for the query (regardless of which database context I had set) was as follows:
Table ‘Bert’. Scan count 24, logical reads 5095742, physical reads 0, read-ahead reads 0, lob logical reads 0, lob physical reads 0, lob read-ahead reads 0.
Table ‘Fred’. Scan count 25, logical reads 50, physical reads 0, read-ahead reads 0, lob logical reads 0, lob physical reads 0, lob read-ahead reads 0.
Table ‘Worktable’. Scan count 0, logical reads 0, physical reads 0, read-ahead reads 0, lob logical reads 0, lob physical reads 0, lob read-ahead reads 0.

So you can see most of the work occurs in the Bert database, a little in Fred, and none in Ernie.

Now let’s see what query store captured when I ran the query pointing at database Fred:
QS_Fred

And pointing at database Bert:
QS_Bert

And pointing at database Ernie:
QS_Ernie

You can see that the figures get recorded against whichever database you are pointing at – regardless of where the data being accessed resides. I left the “TotalLogicalReads %” in the above screen shots so you can see I’m not hiding anything.

This has a few implications. First, I’m happy because it means my “Expensive queries” script isn’t double counting.

Second though, as you can’t turn on query store on in any of the system databases, you won’t be able to capture details for any queries executed with those as the context. That includes ad-hoc queries where the user may connect to master, but execute queries against your other databases.

Fortunately (because Query Store would be pretty pointless if it did) this doesn’t apply to stored procedures.

I’m going to wrap my horrible query into a stored procedure, and deploy it into database Ernie:

USE Ernie;
CREATE PROCEDURE dbo.Horrible
AS
BEGIN
   SELECT TOP 100000 *
   FROM Fred.dbo.Fred f
   INNER JOIN Bert.dbo.Bert b
      ON b.BertText LIKE  '%' + f.FredText + '%';
END;

Now I clear my Query Stores for the three database one last time. Then I’ll called the stored procedure from database Fred:

USE Fred;
EXEC Ernie.dbo.Horrible;

Here’s what I get from query store now:
QS_Sproc

So, Query Store logs the execution against database Ernie – where the stored procedure resides, rather than Fred – where it was called from, or Bert – where most of the work was done.

I hope you’ll trust me enough on that that I don’t have to demonstrate all the other combinations!

Related posts:

Introduction to SQL Server Query Store

Identify the (Top 20) most expensive queries across your SQL Server using Query Store

Identify the (Top 20) most expensive queries across your SQL Server using Query Store

I’m a big fan of using queries based on the dynamic management view sys.dm_exec_query_stats to identify the most resource hungry queries across a SQL instance. There are lots of versions of this sort of query around the place if you google for “Top 20 queries”.

That approach has some limitations though. First, it is cleared out every time an instance restarts, and second it only keeps figures for currently cached plans, so when a query recompiles, data is lost.

The DMVs provided by SQL Server Query Store solve these issues, as data is persisted in the database over time, so nothing is lost on restarts etc. And one extra thing you gain by using the Query Store DMVs is that you can slice by time interval, for instance if you want to look at the before and after states relating to a change that has been made – or you want to look at an interval where performance degradation has been reported.

Some time ago I wrote a query store version of the “Top 20 queries” query that will produce a ranked list of your most expensive queries – and I’ve ended up using this a lot.

The only downside of using the DMVs for Query Store is that they are per database whereas dm_exec_query_stats is a view across the whole instance. So I had to use a cursor and a temp table, populating the temp table for each database in turn.

Here’s the query:

--Gather and report on most resource hungry queries
DECLARE @Reportinginterval int;
DECLARE @Database sysname;
DECLARE @StartDateText varchar(30);
DECLARE @TotalExecutions decimal(20,3);
DECLARE @TotalDuration decimal(20,3);
DECLARE @TotalCPU decimal(20,3);
DECLARE @TotalLogicalReads decimal(20,3);
DECLARE @SQL varchar(MAX);

--Set Reporting interval in days
SET @Reportinginterval = 1;

SET @StartDateText = CAST(DATEADD(DAY, -@Reportinginterval, GETUTCDATE()) AS varchar(30));

--Cursor to step through the databases
DECLARE curDatabases CURSOR FAST_FORWARD FOR
SELECT [name]
FROM sys.databases 
WHERE is_query_store_on = 1;

--Temp table to store the results
DROP TABLE IF EXISTS #Stats;
CREATE TABLE #Stats (
   DatabaseName sysname,
   SchemaName sysname NULL,
   ObjectName sysname NULL,
   QueryText varchar(1000),
   TotalExecutions bigint,
   TotalDuration decimal(20,3),
   TotalCPU decimal(20,3),
   TotalLogicalReads bigint
);

OPEN curDatabases;
FETCH NEXT FROM curDatabases INTO @Database;

--Loop through the datbases and gather the stats
WHILE @@FETCH_STATUS = 0
BEGIN
    
    SET @SQL = '
	   USE [' + @Database + ']
	   INSERT intO #Stats
	   SELECT 
		  DB_NAME(),
		  s.name AS SchemaName,
		  o.name AS ObjectName,
		  SUBSTRING(t.query_sql_text,1,1000) AS QueryText,
		  SUM(rs.count_executions) AS TotalExecutions,
		  SUM(rs.avg_duration * rs.count_executions) AS TotalDuration,
		  SUM(rs.avg_cpu_time * rs.count_executions) AS TotalCPU,
		  SUM(rs.avg_logical_io_reads * rs.count_executions) AS TotalLogicalReads
	   FROM sys.query_store_query q
	   INNER JOIN sys.query_store_query_text t
		  ON q.query_text_id = t.query_text_id
	   INNER JOIN sys.query_store_plan p
		  ON q.query_id = p.query_id
	   INNER JOIN sys.query_store_runtime_stats rs
		  ON p.plan_id = rs.plan_id
	   INNER JOIN sys.query_store_runtime_stats_interval rsi
		  ON rs.runtime_stats_interval_id = rsi.runtime_stats_interval_id
	   LEFT JOIN sys.objects o
		  ON q.OBJECT_ID = o.OBJECT_ID
	   LEFT JOIN sys.schemas s
		  ON o.schema_id = s.schema_id     
	   WHERE rsi.start_time > ''' + @StartDateText + '''
	   GROUP BY s.name, o.name, SUBSTRING(t.query_sql_text,1,1000)
	   OPTION(RECOMPILE);';

    EXEC (@SQL);

    FETCH NEXT FROM curDatabases INTO @Database;
END;

CLOSE curDatabases;
DEALLOCATE curDatabases;

--Aggregate some totals
SELECT 
    @TotalExecutions = SUM(TotalExecutions),
    @TotalDuration = SUM (TotalDuration),
    @TotalCPU  = SUM(TotalCPU),
    @TotalLogicalReads = SUM(TotalLogicalReads)
FROM #Stats

--Produce output
SELECT TOP 20
    DatabaseName,
    SchemaName,
    ObjectName,
    QueryText,
    TotalExecutions,
    CAST((TotalExecutions/@TotalExecutions)*100 AS decimal(5,2)) AS [TotalExecutions %],
    CAST(TotalDuration/1000000 AS decimal(19,2)) AS [TotalDuration(s)],
    CAST((TotalDuration/@TotalDuration)*100 AS decimal(5,2)) AS [TotalDuration %],
    CAST((TotalDuration/TotalExecutions)/1000 AS decimal(19,2)) AS [AverageDuration(ms)],
    CAST(TotalCPU/1000000  AS decimal(19,2)) [TotalCPU(s)],
    CAST((TotalCPU/@TotalCPU)*100 AS decimal(5,2)) AS [TotalCPU %],
    CAST((TotalCPU/TotalExecutions)/1000 AS decimal(19,2)) AS [AverageCPU(ms)],   
    TotalLogicalReads,
    CAST((TotalLogicalReads/@TotalLogicalReads)*100 AS decimal(5,2)) AS [TotalLogicalReads %],
  CAST((TotalLogicalReads/TotalExecutions) AS decimal(19,2)) AS [AverageLogicalReads]   
FROM #Stats
--Order by the resource you're most interested in

--ORDER BY TotalExecutions DESC
--ORDER BY TotalDuration DESC
ORDER BY TotalCPU DESC
--ORDER BY TotalLogicalReads DESC

DROP TABLE #Stats;

The script limits itself to looking at databases where query store is enabled.

If you want to bring back more results you can just change the TOP statement, and if you want to look at the results ordered by a different resource (e.g. Reads) then just make sure the relevant ORDER BY clause is uncommented. With other small modifications I find this script useful in a myriad of scenarios. I hope you find it useful too.

Related:

How does Query Store capture cross database queries?

Introduction to SQL Server Query Store

Introduction to SQL Server Query Store

Introduced with SQL 2016, Query Store was, probably without doubt, the most anticipated and talked out new feature. In this post we’ll just take a brief look at it, what it is, how you set it running, and what you can use it for. This will be a fairly brief overview – you’d need a book to cover it in detail – but hopefully this will give you a flavour of how useful this will be and how to get started.

What it does, at a base level, is actually quite simple. It just stores information relating to query execution over time.

That information consists of two things:
• Execution Plans – the execution plans generated for each query are stored in the query store, and if the plan changes the new plan is also stored.
• Performance metrics – information such as CPU consumption, reads and writes, are captured and stored for each query.

This information is aggregated over intervals (default is one hour) so you can see how query performance changes over time.

This isn’t earth shatteringly new, you can already query to find out the execution plan for a query and you can also query to find aggregated performance metrics related to a given query.

The difference is that now a history can be maintained without implementing additional monitoring. Previously the performance metrics would be aggregated as a single total since the last restart of the SQL instance – and would be cleared at the next restart. Now they are persisted and time-sliced so you can actually measure change over time.

The simple activity of storing old execution plans is also profound for performance troubleshooting. Anyone who’s worked with large scale production data will have experienced the issue when a function that was working fine, fairly suddenly starts to develop performance problems.

A common cause of this is what’s known as “plan regression”. Basically this is where the execution plan has changed – and the new one’s just not as good as the old one for most executions. Previously you might suspect this was the cause of an issue you were seeing, but there was no way to easily prove it, now you can use query store to view and compare the old and new plans to verify this. You can even with a click or two force the query to go back to using the old (better) plan – though we hope people won’t overuse this and will try to at least delve into the cause and think about resolving it. There is usually a reason SQL thought the new plan would be better – and a particular plan may work for now but may not always be the best plan in the future as your data changes.

Let’s have a look at these features in little more detail.

Enabling Query Store
Query store is a database level configuration. It’s important to understand that, and that the information stored is actually stored within system tables in the database. That means that if you backup and restore the database, the information is retained. Also very importantly, the information is stored asynchronously – so there shouldn’t be any performance impact on the executed queries themselves. There will of course be some overall server overhead at the point the data does get saved, but that shouldn’t be too significant in most cases.

You can enable Query Store for a database through T-SQL (or in your source code) or through the GUI in SSMS. I just want to demonstrate doing this through the GUI so you can see some of the options. Right-click on the database, select properties, and then select the Query Store page all the way at the bottom:

QueryStore1

Above you can see Query Store enabled for the WideWorldImporters database, with all default settings.

The first setting is “Operation Mode”. By default this is set to “Off”. To enable Query Store and get it running for a particular database you change it to “Read Write”. Job Done.

The Data Flush interval is how often the query store data gets written to disk – remembered I said this was asynchronous.

The Statistics Collection interval determines the size of the time slices that your query performance metrics get aggregated into.

Then we have some stuff about data retention. It’s worth noting that if your query store fills up and nothing is happening to clear it out then it flips to Read-Only mode and won’t store any more data until space is freed up. The default amount of space set for it is 100MB – that’s not a lot of space so I really can’t see any justification from that point of view for not enabling this feature.

Leaving the “Size Based Cleanup Mode” set to Auto should make sure that old data gets purged if the query store starts to fill up. Above that is the “Query Store Capture Mode” – if you leave that to AUTO it will ignore infrequent queries or those with negligible overhead.

The last setting “Stale Query Threshold” is how long it keeps data for in days. So 30 days for default. I can see it being useful to up this significantly it we want to use Query Store to be able to monitor performance over a long period, but it may depend on how much space Query Store wants to consume for your database – remember the default is 100MB but you can up that to whatever you like.

At the bottom of the properties page you can also see some nice pie charts that show how much of a proportion of your database Query Store has allocated, and how much of that space it is using.

So that’s Query store set up and configured, let’s have a look at a few of the things it gives us.

Query Store in Action and Forcing a Plan
I’ve set up Query Store as above in a copy of the WideWorldImporters databases on a SQL 2016 instance. I’ve created a stored procedure that I’m running every two seconds and I’ve set the Statistics Collection Interval in Query Store to 1 minute (rather than an hour) so that I can get some figures and graphs out fairly quickly.

Under the database in SSMS, there is now a Query Store folder where some built in reports reside:

QueryStore2

For the sake of this blog post I’m just going to look at a couple of these. Let’s open the “Top Resource Consuming Queries” Report:

QueryStore3

You can see a few things here. On the top left is a bar chart of the most expensive queries (you’ll notice one large one and the rest are negligible in comparison – the large one’s my query). You can configure whether you want to look by CPU or Logical Reads amongst other options and whether you want to look at averages, or maximums or minimums. Basically there a whole bunch of ways you can configure your view.

I’ll be honest that I struggled with some of these built-in Query Store reports to get them to show me what I wanted, so expect a bit of playing around to figure things out if you are using this feature.

In the bar chart, the bar highlighted in green is the currently selected query, on the right we can then see a scatter graph of the execution figures for this query across our statistics intervals (remember I’ve set it to have intervals of 1 minute). You can see I’m looking at average logical reads. You will also see that this query was ticking along nicely until about 14:05 when something happened (that was me!) and the logical reads for each execution of the query suddenly shot up. The blobs on the scatter graph have also changed colour at this point and that represents that the query is now using a new execution plan.

Next to this graph is a key telling us which plan each colour of blob represents and if you click on the plan in the key that you want, the plan itself is displayed in the bottom pane. At the moment I’m looking at the original plan (Plan 1). You will notice that the title specifies that it is “not forced”, you’ll also notice a button to the right of the title that gives us the option to “Force Plan”. Let’s just hold off a minute before we do that.

Before we change anything to try and fix the issue with this query, let’s look at the “Regressed Queries” report. This is pretty similar, but you may use it from a different direction. I.e. it may not be one your most expensive queries that has started going bad, so if you look in the Regressed Queries report it will focus on ones for which the execution plan has changed in the interval you are looking at. Again I found it a little challenging to get this report to show me the query I was interested in, some playing around can be required:

QueryStore4

You can see here that I have just one big fat bar on my bar chart – as I only have one regressed query in the interval (last 30 minutes) I chose to look at. This can make it easier to identify queries suffering this issue.

I’m going to go back the the previous Resource Consumers report and try and fix the problem. Now, in reality I know what I did and why the query went bad. It was the result of something caused parameter sniffing, which is where, if a stored procedure recompiles, the execution plan that is formed may be different depending on the parameters it is executed with. Basically it forms the best plan for the parameters supplied – but that might not be the best plan for all sets of parameters. In this case I forced the stored procedure to form a plan that was going to be expensive in most cases. More on that in my next set of performance tuning workshops.

That issue would be best fixed in the code of the stored procedure, but in production, turning around a fix may take days and we have the problem right now. So let’s use the Force Plan functionality to fix the symptom – just for the moment.

I select the plan I want, and I click the “Force Plan” button. The effect is immediate and I notice it within minutes because my statistics collection interval is so small. I’ll let it run for a bit and then show you the new graph:

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You can see the query has now returned back to healthy (quick) execution. Note the Orange blobs all now have a tick over them to denote that this plan is now forced.

Comparing Plans

A related feature in SQL 2016 is the ability to compare two execution plans to see what’s changed. I haven’t found this that amazing myself when I’ve looked at it, but that’s mainly due to the natural limitations – if two plans are significantly different then something that highlights the differences is just going to highlight the whole thing. However it can be useful at least to have both plans on screen at the same time so you can go back and forth easily.

You don’t need to do this through Query Store – if you right-click on any Execution Plan in SSMS there is now the “Compare ShowPlan” option, and as long as you have the plan you want to compare against saved as a file then you can go ahead. Note that one good thing is that this is an SSMS feature, so as long as you have SSMS 2016 or higher you can use it to compare plans from on earlier versions of SQL Server.

With Query Store you can compare plans directly from the Store. If we go back to one of the reports above, the plans are listed in the key for the scatter graph. You can select more than one by using Shift+Click. Then you can click the button in the toolbar above the scatter graph which has the ToolTip “Compare the Plans for the selected query in separate window.”

Let’s do that for the two plans formed for our query above. The resulting view shows us two views side by side. It may be useful to look at these separately so they fit better on this page. On the left we have:

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The area highlighted in Red is where the tool had identified that the two plans are the same. The rest it is not so sure about. All the same it’s a nice visual view just to be able to see what both plans are doing. On the right hand side of the screen you then get this view:

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This shows us a comparison of the properties of whichever operator is selected in each plan – note this need not be equivalent operator in each plan. You can select the Nested Loop operator in the top and the Index Scan operator in the bottom and it will show you those – though the comparison may not be that meaningful!

So, this is kind of a useful tool, but don’t expect it to magically solve the process of comparing plans for you. In general too much changes from one plan to the next for it to be that simple – but this may help – a bit…

Query Store Catalog Views

Like everything else in SQL Server – all the information you can access through the GUI in SSMS, is available directly through the use of system catalogs and views. So if you want to examine the information in a way that isn’t supported by the built in reports then you can just go ahead and write your own queries.

The new views available are:

sys.database_query_store_options
sys.query_context_settings
sys.query_store_plan
sys.query_store_query
sys.query_store_query_text
sys.query_store_runtime_stats
sys.query_store_runtime_stats_interval

Rather than me going into detail here, I’ll just refer you to the MSDN reference:

https://msdn.microsoft.com/en-gb/library/dn818149.aspx

Conclusions

Query store is a great feature. It’s not rocket-science but it is very useful. In particular it massively aids the investigation of production issues, saving time for those troubleshooting them at exactly the point they need time saving – right when everything’s hitting the fan.

It is also very useful for monitoring performance over time and being able to keep ahead of scalability issues with specific queries.

The methods for forcing a plan are also excellent for quick fixes – but try not to overuse them. It is possible to force plans in earlier versions of SQL – but tricky, so people usually just fixed the code. Forcing plans can end up being a case of treating the symptoms rather than the cause – and can lead to other problems later on.

Other Posts about Query Store

Identify the (Top 20) most expensive queries across your SQL Server using Query Store

How does Query Store capture cross database queries?