Jul 21 2010

SQL University: Introduction to Indexes, Part the Second

Welcome once more to the Miskatonic branch of SQL University. Please try to concentrate. I realize the whipoorwills singing outside the window in a coordinated fashion that sounds almost like laboured breathing can be distracting, but we’re talking about indexes here.

We left last class with a general idea what an index is, now it’s time for some specifics. There are several different kinds of indexes, as we talked about last class. But the two you’re probably going to work with the most are clustered, non-clustered. Each of these indexes is stored in a structure called a B-Tree, a balanced tree, not a binary tree. That’s a very important distinction.

A B-Tree is a double-linked list that is defined by the keys of the indexes on the top and intermediate pages, and at the leaf level by the data itself in the case of clustered indexes. Some of you no doubt think I’m quoting from De Vermis Mysteriis. Basically, for our purposes, a B-Tree consists of a series of pages. There is a top page, or root page, that defines the beginning of the index key. It points to a series of intermediate pages. Each intermediate page contains a range, a previous and a next value. These all point to each other, hence, double linked. The idea is that SQL Server can quickly identify which intermediate page has the pointers down to the leaf node, the final node in the stack. The values of these pointers are defined by the key of the index, the column or columns that you define when you create the index. There are always at least two levels, leaf & root, but there can be more, depending on the amount of data and the size of the keys. Just remember, the size of the key, which refers both to the data types in the key and the number of columns, determines how many key values can get on a page, the more key values on a page, the faster access will be, the fewer key values, the more pages that have to be read, and therefore, the slower the performance.

In general the purpose is to be able to quickly navigate to a leaf or set of leaf pages. When a B-Tree is used and the query engine is able to navigate quickly down to the leaf needed, that is an index seek. But when the B-Tree has to be moved through, in whole or in part, scanning for the values, you’re looking at an index scan. Obviously, in most cases, a seek will be faster than a scan becuase it’s going to be accessing fewer pages to get to the leaf needed to satsify the query. Just remember, that’s not always true.

Let’s get on to the indexes. It’s already been mentioned, but it bears repeating, the principle difference between a clustered and non-clustered index is what is at the leaf level. In a non-clustered index, it’s simply the key values and an values added through the use of the INCLUDE option along with a lookup value to either the clustered index key or an identifier within a table. In a clustered index, the data is stored down at the leaf. This is why people will frequently refer to a clustered index as being “better” than a non-clustered index, because you’re always going directly to the data when you’re looking information up within a clustered index. But, as with the scans vs. seek argument, this is not always true either.

I mentioned that a non-clustered index refers back to the clustered index, if there is one on the table. Because the data is stored at the leaf level of the clustered index, when you need to retreive other columns after performing a seek on a non-clustered index, you must go and get those columns from the clustered index. This is known as a key lookup, or in older parlance, a bookmark lookup. This operation is necessary when data not supplied by the non-clustered index, but can be very expensive because you’ve just added extra reads to your query.

What if there isn’t a clustered index on the table? What does the non-clustered index use to find other columns? If the table doesn’t have a clustered index, then that table is referred to as a heap. It’s called a heap because the data is simply stored in a pile, with no logical or physical ordering whatsoever. With a heap, SQL Server takes it on itself to identify the leaf level storage and creates a row id value for all the rows in the table. This row id can be used by the non-clustered index to find the data. That is referred to by the completely arcane and incomprehensible term, row id lookup. You might be thinking, hey, that means I don’t have to create a clustered index because SQL Server will create one for me. You’d be wrong. Maintaining the row id is an expensive operation  and it doesn’t help in retrieving the data in an efficient manner. It’s just necessary for SQL Server to get the data back at all. In general, this is something to be avoided.

A non-clustered index doesn’t necessarily have to perform a lookup. If all the columns referred to in a query are stored within a non-clustered index, either as part of the key or as INCLUDE columns at the leaf, it’s possible to get what is called a “covering” query. This is a query where no lookup is needed. Indexes that can provide a covering query everything it needs are referred to as covering indexes. A covering query is frequently one of the fastest ways to get at data. This is because, again, depending on the size of the keys and any INCLUDE columns, a non-clustered index will have more information stored on the page than a clustered index will and so fewer pages will have to be read, making the operation faster.

By and large, a good guideline is to put a clustered index on all tables. SQL Server works extremely well with clustered indexes, and it provides you with a good access mechanism to your data. If you don’t put a clustered index on the table, SQL Server will create and maintain a row ID anyway, but as I said before, this doesn’t save much work on the server and it doesn’t provide you with any performance enhancement.

That’s a basic introduction to the three concepts of the clustered index, the non-clustered index and the heap. The points I’d like you to remember are:

  • Indexes are stored in Balanced Trees
  • Balanced Trees have, generally, three levels, root page, intermediate page, and leaf page
  • In clustered indexes, data is stored at the leaf page
  • In non-clustered indexes, a pointer is maintained back to the clustered index or the row id
  • A heap is a table without a clustered index

Remember those things and you can really begin to dig down on how indexes work. Understanding how they work will assist you in designing them for your database and your queries.

Next class we’ll go over statistics.

I wouldn’t walk back to your dorm by way of the shore. I’ve seen some rather odd looking people near the docks lately that didn’t give me a good feeling. See you next time… maybe.


  • By Janice Lee, July 21, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

    I’m one of the odd looking people so watch out. ;)

    Really good post. I did read this as if I was really in “a class”…and all those times when you said that something’s “not always true”, I just wanted to raise my hand and ask, “why?”.

    Looking forward to the next installment. :)

  • By scarydba, July 21, 2010 @ 9:58 pm

    And I’d love to answer all the places where “it’s not always true.” Unfortunately I’d be writing a heck of a lot more than a blog post. It’s hard to make absolute statements about topics like this because there is so much nuance. I tried to hedge appropriately just to avoid people saying “Yeah, but, what about when…”

    Hopefully this was helpful. Thanks for reading.

Other Links to this Post

  1. SQL University: Introduction to Indexes, Part the Third « Home of the Scary DBA — July 23, 2010 @ 5:05 am

  2. SQL University: Index Usage | Home Of The Scary DBA — April 6, 2011 @ 9:15 am

  3. SQL in the Wild » Blog Archive » SQL University: Advanced indexing – Sorting and Grouping — November 7, 2011 @ 3:43 pm

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