I have, in the past, made way too much of the need for Actual Plans when doing performance troubleshooting. The primary reason for this is to get the Actual Plan in order to see the differences between the Actual and Estimated Row Counts as a means of understanding how the optimizer saw the data. But, is that the only thing that’s different between Actual & Estimated Plans? Well, pretty much, yeah.
I took two fairly average execution plans from SQL Server 2014 and ran them through Altova’s XML Spy, which does XML comparisons similar to how Redgate SQL Compare will compare two data structures for you. Here is every single difference I found. Everything was additional information in the Actual Plan.
In the information for the first operator, in my case, a SELECT operator, in the QueryPlan element, two properties:
In the MemoryGrantInfo element, six properties:
Then, in all the operators, in each RelOp element in the XML of the execution plan, one additional XML element, RuntimeInformation with these properties:
This data is not exhaustive. I used a relatively benign query (it hit about 10 tables, had some suggested missing indexes, and about 40 operators all told). I’m sure if I tried lots of different types of queries, I might find a few additional differences. But for your average, “Hey, Let’s Tune This”, query, we’re looking at one additional element in the operators and twelve (12) additional properties, only four of which are in the majority of the operators.
Don’t get me wrong. If I have the choice, I want to see the Actual Plan, because that Actual/Estimated row count and execution count comparison are important. However, they are not the be all, end all, of reading execution plans and query tuning. This means, if you can get the Estimated Plan, it’s probably good enough most of the time. Heck, you can look at the estimates and then look at the data and statistics directly to get a sense if they’re accurate or not. The only time you’re likely to see any differences (other than those noted above) between an Actual and Estimated Plan is in the event of a recompile. It’s also worth noting, the plan you’re going to retrieve from the cache is going to be an Estimated Plan.
Do not be afraid of the Estimated Plan.
If you want to spend a lot of quality time with me, talking execution plans and query tuning, I’ve got a couple of different all day pre-conference seminars coming up. The first is in Las Vegas at the Connections conference. Click here to register. The second will be down in San Diego, the day before their SQL Saturday event.