Joining on NULLs

Published on: 2019-03-26

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It’s important to be aware of columns that allow NULL values since SQL Server may handle NULLs differently than you might expect.

Today I want to look at what things to consider when joining on columns containing NULL values.

Natural, Composite, NULLable keys

Let’s pretend we have an Account table containing the accounts of various users and an AccountType table describing the different types of accounts:

Account and AccountType tables

These tables have the unfortunate design characteristics of:

  1. They use a natural, composite key of YearOpened and AccountType
  2. NULL is the valid default for AccountType

Not that either of the above attributes are outright bad, just that we need to handle them appropriately. For example, if we want to bring back a description of each user’s account, we might write a query with an inner join like this:

SELECT
    a.UserId,
    at.YearOpened,
    at.AccountType,
    at.Description
FROM
    dbo.Account a
    INNER JOIN dbo.AccountType at
        ON a.YearOpened = at.YearOpened
        AND a.AccountType = at.AccountType

Only to discover the rows with NULLs are not present:

Inner join with no NULLs

Joining on NULLs

Since it’s not possible to join on NULL values in SQL Server like you might expect, we need to be creative to achieve the results we want.

One option is to make our AccountType column NOT NULL and set some other default value. Another option is to create a new column that will act as a surrogate key to join on instead.

Both of the above options would fix the problem at the source, but what about if we can only make changes to our queries?

One common approach is to convert the NULLs to some other non-NULL value using a function like COALESCE or ISNULL:

SELECT
    a.UserId,
    at.YearOpened,
    at.AccountType,
    at.Description
FROM
    dbo.Account a
    INNER JOIN dbo.AccountType at
        ON a.YearOpened = at.YearOpened
        AND ISNULL(a.AccountType,'`') = ISNULL(at.AccountType,'`')
Correct results with ISNULL

While this returns the results we want, there are two major issues with this approach:

  1. In the above example we converted NULLs to the ` character. If we had a valid ` character in our data, we would get logically incorrect joins.
  2. Our query can no longer perform index seeks.

The first issue isn’t a huge deal if you can guarantee the character you are replacing NULLs with will never appear in the column of data.

The second issue is more important since ISNULL prevents your query from being SARGable and will cause poor performance on large tables of data.

SARG Killer

Those Compute Scalar operators are forcing SQL Server to Scan the indexes and compute a value for every row.

A More Efficient Solution

If using a function like ISNULL hurts the performance of our queries, what can we do instead?

SELECT
    a.UserId,
    at.YearOpened,
    at.AccountType,
    at.Description
FROM
    dbo.Account a
    INNER JOIN dbo.AccountType at
        ON a.YearOpened = at.YearOpened
        AND (a.AccountType = at.AccountType OR (a.AccountType IS NULL AND at.AccountType IS NULL))
Correct results with efficiency

This produces the same exact results while allowing SQL Server to Seek when possible and avoid costly row by row computations:

There are no seeks here since I don’t have any additional filters, but the lack of Compute Scalar operators should be enough to prove the point.

While there are a few more variations that can achieve the same results using different execution plans (writing a query that joins non-nulls and unioning it with a query that selects only the nulls, using a computed column to convert the NULLs to non-null values, etc…) the key to good performance is to choose a solution that will not force SQL Server to compute values for every single row.

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How to Search and Destroy Non-SARGable Queries on Your Server

Published on: 2017-08-22

Unexpected SQL Server Performance Killers #3

Photo by Cibi Chakravarthi on Unsplash

In this series I explore scenarios that hurt SQL Server performance and show you how to avoid them. Pulled from my collection of “things I didn’t know I was doing wrong for years.”

Watch this post on YouTube.


Looking for a script to find non-SARGable queries on your server? Scroll to the bottom of this post.

What is a “SARGable” query?

Just because you add an index to your table doesn’t mean you get immediate performance improvement. A query running against that table needs to be written in such a way that it actually takes advantage of that index.

SARGable, or “Search Argument-able”, queries therefore are queries that are capable of utilizing indexes.

Examples please!

Okay let’s see some examples of SARGable and non-SARGable queries using my favorite beverage data.

There are non-clustered indexes on the Name and CreateDate columns

First, let’s look at a non-SARGable query:

SELECT Name
FROM dbo.CoffeeInventory
WHERE CONVERT(CHAR(10),CreateDate,121)  = '2017-08-19'

Although this query correctly filters our rows to a specific date, it does so with this lousy execution plan:

SQL Server has to perform an Index Scan, or in other words has to check every single page of this index, to find our ‘2017–08–19’ date value.

SQL Server does this because it can’t immediately look at the value in the index and see if it is equal to the ‘2017–08–19’ date we supplied — we told it first to convert every value in our column/index to a CHAR(10) date string so that it can be compared as a string.

Since the SQL Server has to first convert every single date in our column/index to a CHAR(10) string, that means it ends up having to read every single page of our index to do so.

The better option here would be to leave the column/index value as a datetime2 datatype and instead convert the right hand of the operand to a datetime2:

SELECT Name
FROM dbo.CoffeeInventory
WHERE CreateDate = CAST('2017-08-19' AS datetime2)

Alternatively, SQL Server is smart enough to do this conversion implicitly for us if we just leave our ‘2017–08–19’ date as a string:

SELECT Name
FROM dbo.CoffeeInventory
WHERE CreateDate = '2017-08-19'

In this scenario SQL gives us an Index Seek because it doesn’t have to modify any values in the column/index in order to be able to compare it to the datetime2 value that ‘2017–08–19’ got converted to.

This means SQL only has to read what it needs to output to the results. Much more efficient.

One more example

Based on the last example we can assume that any function, explicit or implicit, that is running on the column side of an operator will result in a query that cannot make use of index seeks, making it non-SARGable.

That means that instead of doing something non-SARGable like this:

SELECT Name, CreateDate
FROM dbo.CoffeeInventory
WHERE DAY(CreateDate)  = 19

We want to make it SARGable by doing this instead:

SELECT Name, CreateDate
FROM dbo.CoffeeInventory
WHERE 
  CreateDate  >= '2017-08-19 00:00:00' 
  AND CreateDate < '2017-08-20 00:00:00'

In short, keep in mind whether SQL Server will have to modify the data in a column/index in order to compare it — if it does, your query probably isn’t SARGable and you are going to end up scanning instead of seeking.

OK, non-SARGable queries are bad…how do I check if I have any on my server?

The script below looks at cached query plans and searches them for any table or index scans. Next, it looks for scalar operators, and if it finds any it means we have ourselves a non-SARGable query. The fix is then to rewrite the query to be SARGable or add a missing index.

-- From https://github.com/bertwagner/SQLServer/blob/master/Non-SARGable%20Execution%20Plans.sql
-- This script will check the execution plan cache for any queries that are non-SARGable.
-- It does this by finding table and index scans that contain a scalar operators

SET TRANSACTION ISOLATION LEVEL READ UNCOMMITTED
 
DECLARE @dbname SYSNAME
SET @dbname = QUOTENAME(DB_NAME());
 
WITH XMLNAMESPACES (DEFAULT 'http://schemas.microsoft.com/sqlserver/2004/07/showplan')

SELECT
   stmt.value('(@StatementText)[1]', 'varchar(max)') AS [Query],
   query_plan AS [QueryPlan],
   sc.value('(.//Identifier/ColumnReference/@Schema)[1]', 'varchar(128)') AS [Schema], 
   sc.value('(.//Identifier/ColumnReference/@Table)[1]', 'varchar(128)') AS [Table], 
   sc.value('(.//Identifier/ColumnReference/@Column)[1]', 'varchar(128)') AS [Column] ,
   CASE WHEN s.exist('.//TableScan') = 1 THEN 'TableScan' ELSE 'IndexScan' END AS [ScanType],
   sc.value('(@ScalarString)[1]', 'varchar(128)') AS [ScalarString]
FROM 
	sys.dm_exec_cached_plans AS cp
	CROSS APPLY sys.dm_exec_query_plan(cp.plan_handle) AS qp
	CROSS APPLY query_plan.nodes('/ShowPlanXML/BatchSequence/Batch/Statements/StmtSimple') AS batch(stmt)
	CROSS APPLY stmt.nodes('.//RelOp[TableScan or IndexScan]') AS scan(s)
	CROSS APPLY s.nodes('.//ScalarOperator') AS scalar(sc)
WHERE
    s.exist('.//ScalarOperator[@ScalarString]!=""') = 1 
    AND sc.exist('.//Identifier/ColumnReference[@Database=sql:variable("@dbname")][@Schema!="[sys]"]') = 1
	AND sc.value('(@ScalarString)[1]', 'varchar(128)') IS NOT NULL

 

I’ve found this script useful for myself, but if you find any issues with it please let me know, thanks!

Thanks for reading. You might also enjoy following me on Twitter.

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