Visualizing Hash Match Join Internals And Understanding Their Implications

This post is part 3 in a series about physical join operators (be sure to check out part 1 - nested loops joins, and part 2 - merge joins).

Watch this week's video on YouTube

Hash Match joins are the dependable workhorses of physical join operators.

While Nested Loops joins will fail if the data is too large to fit into memory, and Merge Joins require that the input data are sorted, a Hash Match will join any two data inputs you throw at it (as long as the join has an equality predicate and you have enough space in tempdb). 

The base hash match algorithm has two phases that work like this:

Hash-Match-Join-Looping-1

During the first "Build" phase, SQL Server builds an in-memory hash table from one of the inputs (typically the smaller of the two).  The hashes are calculated based on the join keys of the input data and then stored along with the row in the hash table under that hash bucket.  Most of the time there is only 1 row of data per hash bucket except when:

  1. There are rows with duplicate join keys.
  2. The hashing function produces a collision and totally different join keys receive the same hash (uncommon but possible).

Once the hash table is built, SQL Server begins the "Probe" phase.  During this second phase, SQL Server calculates the join key hash for each row in the second input, and checks to see if it exists in the hash table created in the first build phase.  If it finds a match for that hash, it then verifies if the join keys between the row(s) in the hash table and the row from the second table actually match (it needs to perform this verification due to potential hash collisions).

A common variation on this hash match algorithm occurs when the build phase cannot create a hash table that can be fully stored in memory:

Hash-Match-Join-spill-looping-1

This happens when the data is larger than what can be stored in memory or when SQL Server grants an inadequate amount of memory required for the hash match join.

When SQL Server runs doesn't have enough memory to store the build phase hash table, it proceeds by keeping some of the buckets in memory, while spilling the other buckets to tempdb. 

During the probe phase, SQL Server joins the rows of data from the second input to buckets from the build phase that are in memory. If the bucket that the row potentially matches isn't currently in memory, SQL Server writes that row to tempdb for later comparison. 

Once the matches for one bucket are complete, SQL Server clears that data from memory and loads the next bucket(s) into memory. It then compares the second input's rows (currently residing in tempdb) with the new in-memory buckets.

As with every physical join operator in this series, there are way more details about the hash match operator on Hugo Kornelis's reference on hash matches.

What Do Hash Match Joins Reveal?

Knowing the internals of how a hash match join works allows us to infer what the optimizer thinks about our data and the join's upstream operators, helping us focus our performance tuning efforts. 

Here are a few scenarios to consider the next time you see a hash match join being used in your execution plan:

  • While hash match joins are able to join huge sets of data, building the hash table from the first input is a blocking operation that will prevent downstream operators from executing. Due to this, I always check to see if there is an easy way to convert a hash match to either a nested loops or merge join.  Sometimes that won't be possible (too many rows for nested loops or unsorted data for merge joins) but it's always worth checking if a simple index change or improved estimates from a statistics update would cause SQL Server to pick a non-blocking hash match join operator.

  • Hash match joins are great for large joins - since they can spill to tempdb, it allows them to perform joins on large datasets that would fail an in-memory join with either the nested loops or merge join operators.

    • Seeing a hash match join operator means SQL Server thinks the upstream inputs are big.  If we know our inputs shouldn't be that big, then it's worth checking if we have a stats/estimation problem that is causing SQL Server to choose a hash match join incorrectly.
  • When executed in memory, hash match joins are fairly efficient. Problems arise when the build phase spills to tempdb.

    • If I notice the little yellow triangle indicating that the join is spilling to tempdb, I take a look to see why: if the data is larger than the server's available memory, there's not much that can be done there, but if the memory grant seems unusually small that means we probably have another statistics problem that is providing the SQL Server optimizer estimates that are too low.

Visualizing Merge Join Internals And Understanding Their Implications

This post is part 2 in a series about physical join operators (be sure to check out part 1 - nested loops joins, and part 3 - hash match joins).

Watch this week's video on YouTube

Merge joins are theoretically the fastest* physical join operators available, however they require that data from both inputs is sorted:

Merge-Join-1

The base algorithm works as follows: SQL Server compares the first rows from both sorted inputs.  It then continues comparing the next rows from the second input as long as the values match the first input's value.

Once the values no longer match, SQL Server increments the row of whichever input has the smaller value - it then continues performing comparisons and outputting any joined records. (For more detailed information, be sure to check out Craig Freedman's post on merge joins.)

This is efficient because in most instances SQL Server never has to go back and read any rows multiple times.  The exception here happens when duplicate values exist in both input tables (or rather, SQL Server doesn't have meta data available proving that duplicates don't exist in both tables) and SQL Server has to perform a many-to-many merge join:

Merge-Join-many-to-many

Note: The image above and the explanation below are "good enough" for understanding this process for practical purposes - if you want to dive into the peek-ahead buffers, optimizations, and other inner workings of this process, I highly recommend reading through Hugo Kornelis's reference on merge joins.

A many-to-many join forces SQL Server to write any duplicated values in the second table into a worktable in tempdb and do the comparisons there.  If those duplicated values are also duplicated in the first table, SQL Server then compares the first table's values to those already stored in the worktable.

What Do Merge Joins Reveal?

Knowing the internals of how a merge join works allows us to infer what the optimizer thinks about our data and the join's upstream operators, helping us focus our performance tuning efforts. 

Here are a few scenarios to consider the next time you see a merge join being used in your execution plan:

  • The optimizer chooses to use a merge join when the input data is already sorted or SQL Server can sort the data for a low enough cost.  Additionally, the optimizer is fairly pessimistic at calculating the costs of merge joins (great explanation by Joe Obbish), so if a merge join makes its way into your plans, it probably means that it is fairly efficient.

  • While a merge join may be efficient, it's always worth looking at why the data coming in to the merge join operator is already sorted:

    • If it's sorted because the merge join is pulling data directly from an index sorted on your join keys, then there is not much to be concerned about.
    • If the optimizer added a sort to the upstream merge join though, it may be worth investigating whether it's possible to presort that data so SQL Server doesn't need to sort it on its own.  Often times this can be as simple as redefining an included index column to a key column - if you are adding it as the last key column in the index then regression impact is usually minor but you may be able to allow SQL Server to use the merge join without any additional sorting required.
  • If your inputs contain many duplicates, it may be worth checking if a merge join is really the most efficient operator for the join.  As outlined above, many-to-many merge joins require tempdb usage which could become a bottle neck!

So while merge joins are typically not the high-cost problem spots in your execution plans, it's always worth investigating upstream operators to see if some additional improvements can be made.

[]{#fastest-exception}

*NOTE: There are always exceptions to the rule.  Merge joins have the fastest algorithm since each row only needs to be read once from the source inputs.  Also, optimizations occurring in other join operators can give those operators better performance under certain conditions.

For example, a single row outer table with an indexed inner table using a nested loops join will outperform the same setup with a merge join because of the inner loops joins' optimizations:

DROP TABLE IF EXISTS T1;
GO
CREATE TABLE T1 (Id int identity PRIMARY KEY, Col1 CHAR(1000));
GO

INSERT INTO T1 VALUES('');
GO

DROP TABLE IF EXISTS T2;
GO
CREATE TABLE T2 (Id int identity PRIMARY KEY, Col1 CHAR(1000));
GO

INSERT INTO T2 VALUES('');
GO 100

-- Turn on execution plans and check actual rows for T2
SELECT *
FROM T1 INNER LOOP JOIN T2 ON T1.Id = T2.Id;

SELECT *
FROM T1 INNER MERGE JOIN T2 ON T1.Id = T2.Id;

*There might also be instances where inputs with many duplicate records that require worktables may be slower than a nested loop join. *

As I mentioned though, I typically find these types of scenarios to be the exceptions when encountering merge joins in the real-world.

Visualizing Nested Loops Joins And Understanding Their Implications

This post is the first in a series about physical join operators (be sure to check out part 2 - merge joins, and part 3 - hash match joins).

Watch this week's video on YouTube

What Physical Join Operators Tell Us

Everyone has their own method of reading an execution plan when performance tuning a slow SQL query.  One of the first things I like to look at are what kind of join operators are being used:

image-1

These three little icons may not seem like the most obvious place to begin troubleshooting a slow query, but with larger plans especially I like starting with a quick glance at the join operators because they allow you to infer a lot about what SQL Server thinks about your data.

This will be a three part series where we'll learn how each join algorithm works and what they can reveal about our upstream execution plan operators.

Nested Loops Join

Nested-Loop-Join-50fps-1

Nested loops joins work like this: SQL Server takes the first value from our first table (our "outer" table - by default SQL Server decides for us which table of the two this will be), and compares it to every value in our second "inner" table to see if they match. 

Once every inner value has been checked, SQL Server moves to the next value in the outer table and the process repeats until every value from our outer table has been compared to every value in our inner table.

This description is a worst case example of the performance of a nested loop join.  Several optimizations exist that can make the join more efficient.  For example, if the inner table join values are sorted (because of an index you created or a spool that SQL Server created), SQL Server can process the rows much faster:

nest-loops-sorted-50fps-2

In the above animation, the inner input is a index sorted on the join key, allowing SQL Server to seek directly to the rows it needs, reducing the total number of comparisons that need to be made

For more in-depth explanations of the internals and optimizations of nested loops joins, I recommend reading this post by Craig Freedman as well as Hugo Kornelis's reference on nested loops.

What Do Nested Loops Joins Reveal?

Knowing the internals of how a nested loops join works allows us to infer what the optimizer thinks about our data and the join's upstream operators, helping us focus our performance tuning efforts. 

Here are a few scenarios to consider the next time you see a nested loops join being used in your execution plan:

  • Nested loops joins are CPU intensive; at worst, every row needs to be compared to every other row and this can take some time.  This means when you see a nested loops join, SQL Server probably thinks that one of the two inputs is relatively small.
  • ... and if one of the inputs is relatively small, great!  If instead you see upstream operators that are moving large amounts of data, you may have a estimation problem going on in this area of the plan and may need to update stats/add indexes/refactor the query to have SQL Server provide better estimates (and maybe a more appropriate join).

  • Nested loops sometimes accompany RID or key lookups.  I always check for one of these because they often leave room for some performance improvements:

    • If a RID lookup exists, it's usually easy enough to add a clustered index to that underlying table to squeeze out some extra performance.
  • If either RID or key lookup exist, I always check what columns are being returned to see if a smaller index could be used instead (by including a column in a key/column of an existing index) or if the query can be refactored to not bring back those columns (eg. get rid of the SELECT *).

  • Nested loops joins do not require data to be sorted on input.  However, performance can improve with an indexed inner data source (see animation above), and SQL Server might choose a more efficient operator if the inputs are both sorted. 

    • At the very least, nested loops joins make me think to check whether the input data isn't sorted because of some upstream transformations, or because of missing indexes.

So while nested loops in your plans will always require more investigation, looking at them and the operators around them can provide some good insight into what SQL Server thinks about your data.

Does The Join Order of My Tables Matter?

pan-xiaozhen-252035

I had a great question submitted to me (thank you Brandman!) that I thought would make for a good blog post:

...I've been wondering if it really matters from a performance standpoint where I start my queries. For example, if I join from A-B-C, would I be better off starting at table B and then going to A & C?

The short answer: Yes.  And no.

Watch this week's video on YouTube

Table join order matters for performance!

Disclaimer: For this post, I'm only going to be talking about INNER joins.  OUTER (LEFT, RIGHT, FULL, etc...) joins are a whole 'nother animal that I'll save for time.

Let's use the following query from WideWorldImporters for our examples:

/* 
-- Run if if you want to follow along - add  a computed column and index for CountryOfManufacture
ALTER TABLE Warehouse.StockItems SET (SYSTEM_VERSIONING = OFF);   
ALTER TABLE Warehouse.StockItems
ADD CountryOfManufacture AS CAST(JSON_VALUE(CustomFields,'$.CountryOfManufacture') AS NVARCHAR(10)) 
ALTER TABLE Warehouse.StockItems SET (SYSTEM_VERSIONING = ON); 
CREATE INDEX IX_CountryOfManufacture ON Warehouse.StockItems (CountryOfManufacture)
*/

SELECT
  o.OrderID,
  s.CountryOfManufacture
FROM
  Sales.Orders o                        -- 73595 rows
  INNER JOIN Sales.OrderLines l         -- 231412 rows
    ON o.OrderID = l.OrderID            -- 231412 rows after join
  INNER JOIN Warehouse.StockItems s     -- 227 rows
    ON l.StockItemID = s.StockItemID    -- 1036 rows after join 
    AND s.CountryOfManufacture = 'USA'  -- 8 rows for USA   

Note: with an INNER join, I normally would prefer putting my 'USA' filter in the WHERE clause, but for the rest of these examples it'll be easier to have it part of the ON.

The key thing to notice is that we are joining  three tables - Orders, OrderLines, and StockItems - and that OrderLines is what we use to join between the other two tables.

We basically have two options for table join orders then - we can join Orders with OrderLines first and then join in StockItems, or we can join OrderLines and StockItems first and then join in Orders.

In terms of performance, it's almost certain that the latter scenario (joining OrderLines with StockItems first) will be faster because StockItems will help us be more selective.

Selective?  Well you might notice that our StockItems table is small with only 227 rows.  It's made even smaller by filtering on 'USA' which reduces it to only 8 rows.

Since the StockItems table has no duplicate rows (it's a simple lookup table for product information) it is a great table to join with as early as possible since it will reduce the total number of rows getting passed around for the remainder of the query.

If we tried doing the Orders to OrderLines join first, we actually wouldn't filter out any rows in our first step, cause our subsequent join to StockItems to be more slower (because more rows would have to be processed).

Basically, join order DOES matter because if we can join two tables that will reduce the number of rows needed to be processed by subsequent steps, then our performance will improve.

So if the order that our tables are joined in makes a big difference for performance reasons, SQL Server follows the join order we define right?

SQL Server doesn't let you choose the join order

SQL is a declarative language: you write code that specifies *what* data to get, not *how* to get it.

Basically, the SQL Server query optimizer takes your SQL query and decides on its own how it thinks it should get the data.

It does this by using precalculated statistics on your table sizes and data contents in order to be able to pick a "good enough" plan quickly.

So even if we rearrange the order of the tables in our FROM statement like this:

SELECT
  o.OrderID,
  s.CountryOfManufacture
FROM
  Sales.OrderLines l
  INNER JOIN Warehouse.StockItems s
    ON l.StockItemID = s.StockItemID
    AND s.CountryOfManufacture = 'USA'
  INNER JOIN Sales.Orders o
    ON o.OrderID = l.OrderID

Or if we add parentheses:

SELECT
  o.OrderID,
  s.CountryOfManufacture
FROM
  (Sales.OrderLines l
  INNER JOIN Sales.Orders o
    ON l.OrderID = o.OrderID)
  INNER JOIN Warehouse.StockItems s
    ON l.StockItemID = s.StockItemID
    AND s.CountryOfManufacture = 'USA'

Or even if we rewrite the tables into subqueries:

SELECT
  l.OrderID,
  s.CountryOfManufacture
FROM
  (
  SELECT 
    o.OrderID,
    l.StockItemId
  FROM
    Sales.OrderLines l
    INNER JOIN Sales.Orders o
      ON l.OrderID = o.OrderID
  ) l
  INNER JOIN Warehouse.StockItems s
    ON l.StockItemID = s.StockItemID
    AND s.CountryOfManufacture = 'USA'

SQL Server will interpret and optimize our three separate queries (plus the original one from the top of the page) into the same exact execution plan:

2017-11-16_21-42-37

Basically, no matter how we try to redefine the order of our tables in the FROM statement, SQL Server will still do what it thinks it's best.

But what if SQL Server doesn't know best?

The majority of the time I see SQL Server doing something inefficient with an execution plan it's usually due to something wrong with statistics for that table/index.

Statistics are also a whole 'nother topic for a whole 'nother day (or month) of blog posts, so to not get too side tracked with this post, I'll point you to Kimberly Tripp's introductory blog post on the subject: https://www.sqlskills.com/blogs/kimberly/the-accidental-dba-day-15-of-30-statistics-maintenance/)

The key thing to take away is that if SQL Server is generating an execution plan where the order of table joins doesn't make sense check your statistics first because they are the root cause of many performance problems!

Forcing a join order

So you already checked to see if your statistics are the problem and exhausted all possibilities on that front.  SQL Server isn't optimizing for the optimal table join order, so what can you do?

Row goals

If SQL Server isn't behaving and I need to force a table join order, my preferred way is to do it via a TOP() command.

I learned this technique from watching Adam Machanic's fantastic presentation on the subject and I highly recommend you watch it.

Since in our example query SQL Server is already joining the tables in the most efficient order, let's force an inefficient join by joining Orders with OrderLines first.

Basically, we write a subquery around the tables we want to join together first and make sure to include a TOP clause. 

SELECT
  o.OrderID,
  s.CountryOfManufacture
FROM
  (
  SELECT TOP(2147483647) -- A number of rows we know is larger than our table.  Watch Adam's presentation above for more info.
    o.OrderID,
    l.StockItemID
  FROM
    Sales.Orders o
    INNER JOIN Sales.OrderLines l
      ON o.OrderID = l.OrderID
  ) o
  INNER JOIN Warehouse.StockItems s
    ON o.StockItemID = s.StockItemID
    AND s.CountryOfManufacture = 'USA'

Including TOP forces SQL to perform the join between Orders and OrderLines first - inefficient in this example, but a great success in being able to control what SQL Server does.

2017-11-17_12-16-05

This is my favorite way of forcing a join order because we get to inject control over the join order of two specific tables in this case (Orders and OrderLines) but SQL Server will still use its own judgement in how any remaining tables should be joined.

While forcing a join order is generally a bad idea (what happens if the underlying data changes in the future and your forced join no longer is the best option), in certain scenarios where its required the TOP technique will cause the least amount of performance problems (since SQL still gets to decide what happens with the rest of the tables).

The same can't be said if using hints...

Query and join hints

Query and join hints will successfully force the order of the table joins in your query, however they have significant draw backs.

Let's look at the FORCE ORDER query hint.  Adding it to your query will successfully force the table joins to occur in the order that they are listed:

SELECT
  o.OrderID,
  s.CountryOfManufacture
FROM
  Sales.Orders o
  INNER JOIN Sales.OrderLines l
    ON o.OrderID = l.OrderID
  INNER JOIN Warehouse.StockItems s
    ON l.StockItemID = s.StockItemID
    AND s.CountryOfManufacture = 'USA'
OPTION (FORCE ORDER)

Looking at the execution plan we can see that Orders and OrderLines were joined together first as expected:

2017-11-17_12-23-37

The biggest drawback with the FORCE ORDER hint is that all tables in your query are going to have their join order forced (not evident in this example...but imagine we were joining 4 or 5 tables in total).

This makes your query incredibly fragile; if the underlying data changes in the future, you could be forcing multiple inefficient join orders.  Your query that you tuned with FORCE ORDER could go from running in seconds to minutes or hours.

The same problem exists with using a join hints:

SELECT
  o.OrderID,
  s.CountryOfManufacture
FROM
  Sales.Orders o 
  INNER LOOP JOIN Sales.OrderLines l
    ON o.OrderID = l.OrderID
  INNER JOIN Warehouse.StockItems s
    ON l.StockItemID = s.StockItemID
    AND s.CountryOfManufacture = 'USA'

Using the LOOP hint successfully forces our join order again, but once again the join order of all of our tables becomes fixed:

2017-11-17_12-28-21

A join hint is probably the most fragile hint that forces table join order because not only is it forcing the join order, but it's also forcing the algorithm used to perform the join.

In general, I only use query hints to force table join order as a temporary fix.

Maybe production has a problem and I need to get things running again; a query or join hint may be the quickest way to fix the immediate issue.  However, long term using the hint is probably a bad idea, so after the immediate fires are put out I will go back and try to determine the root cause of the performance problem.

Summary

  • Table join order matters for reducing the number of rows that the rest of the query needs to process.
  • By default SQL Server gives you no control over the join order - it uses statistics and the query optimizer to pick what it thinks is a good join order.
  • Most of the time, the query optimizer does a great job at picking efficient join orders.  When it doesn't, the first thing I do is check to see the health of my statistics and figure out if it's picking a sub-optimal plan because of that.
  • If I am in a special scenario and I truly do need to force a join order, I'll use the TOP clause to force a join order since it only forces the order of a single join.
  • In an emergency "production-servers-are-on-fire" scenario, I might use a query or join hint to immediately fix a performance issue and go back to implement a better solution once things calm down.

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