12 Ways To Rewrite SQL Queries for Better Performance

Published on: 2019-05-28

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Over the past several week’s I’ve been exploring ways to rewrite queries to improve execution performance.

I learned a lot of these techniques over time from trial an error, attending presentations, reading blog posts, speaking to other dbas and developers, etc… but never knew of a good resource that summarized these techniques in one place.

This post will be a quick round-up of everything I’ve covered so far, as well as 8 additional techniques that I use occasionally but don’t necessarily require a full detailed post to explain them.

Why Rewrite Queries?

I often find myself working in environments where modifying indexes or changing server settings is out of the question when performance tuning. I usually run into these scenarios when dealing with:

  • Vendor databases
  • “Fragile” systems
  • Not enough disk space
  • Limited tooling/ad hoc analysis
  • Features limited by security software

While solving the root cause of a performance problem is always preferable, sometimes the only way I’m able to fix problems in these environments is by rewriting the queries.

I decided to write this summary post because it is a resource I would have loved to have when starting out. Sometimes it can be easy to get “writer’s block” when trying to think of ways to rewrite a SQL query, so hopefully this list of techniques can provide ideas and get your creative juices flowing.

So, without further ado, here is a list of 12 techniques in no particular order that you can use to rewrite your queries to change their performance.

12 Ways to Refactor a Query to Change Performance

1. Window functions vs GROUP BY

Sometimes window functions rely a little too much on tempdb and blocking operators to accomplish what you ask of them. While using them is always my first choice because of their simple syntax, if they perform poorly you can usually rewrite them as an old-fashioned GROUP BY to achieve better performance.

2. Correlated subqueries vs derived tables

Many people like using correlated subqueries because the logic is often easy to understand, however switching to derived table queries often produces better performance due to their set-based nature.


When filtering rows of data on multiple values in tables with skewed distributions and non-covering indexes, writing your logic into multiple statements joined with UNION ALLs can sometimes generate more efficient execution plans than just using IN or ORs.

4. Temporary Staging Tables

Sometimes the query optimizer struggles to generate an efficient execution plan for complex queries. Breaking a complex query into multiple steps that utilize temporary staging tables can provide SQL Server with more information about your data. They also cause you to write simpler queries which can cause the optimizer to generate more efficient execution plans as well as allow it to reuse result sets more easily.

5. Forcing Table Join Orders

Sometimes outdated statistics and other insufficient information can cause the SQL Server query optimizer to join tables in a less than ideal sequence. Adam Machanic has a fantastic presentation on forcing table join order with blocking operators without having to resort to join hints.

6. DISTINCT with few unique values

Using the DISTINCT operator is not always the fastest way to return the unique values in a dataset. In particular, Paul White uses recursive CTEs to return distinct values on large datasets with relatively few unique values. This is a great example of solving a problem using a very creative solution.

7. Eliminate UDFs

UDFs often cause poor query performance due to forcing serial plans and causing inaccurate estimates. One way to possibly improve the performance of queries that call UDFs is to try and inline the UDF logic directly into the main query. With SQL Server 2019 this will be something that happens automatically in a lot of cases, but as Brent Ozar points out you might occasionally have to manually inline a UDF’s functionality to get the best performance.

8. Create UDFs

Sometimes a poorly configured server will parallelize queries too frequently and cause poorer performance than their serially equivalent plan. In those cases, putting the troublesome query logic into a scalar or multi-statement table-valued function might improve performance since they will force that part of the plan to run serially. Definitely not a best practice, but it is one way to force serial plans when you can’t change the cost threshold for parallelism.

9. Data Compression

Not only does data compression save space, but on certain workloads it can actually improve performance. Since compressed data can be stored in fewer pages, read disk speeds are improved, but maybe more importantly the compressed data allows more to be stored in SQL Server’s buffer pool, increasing the potential for SQL Server to reuse data already in memory.

10. Indexed Views

When you can’t add new indexes to existing tables, you might be able to get away with creating a view on those tables and indexing the view instead. This works great for vendor databases where you can’t touch any of the existing objects.

11. Switch cardinality estimators

The newer cardinality estimator introduced in SQL Server 2014 improves the performance of many queries. However, in some specific cases it can make queries perform more slowly. In those cases, a simple query hint is all you need to force SQL Server to change back to the legacy cardinality estimator.

12. Copy the data

If you can’t get better performance by rewriting a query, you can always copy the data you need to a new table in a location where you CAN create indexes and do whatever other helpful transformations you need to do ahead of time.

…And more

By no means is this list exhaustive. There are so many ways to rewrite queries, and not all of them will work all the time.

The key is to think about what the query optimizer knows about your data and why it’s choosing the plan it is. Once you understand what it’s doing, you can start getting creative with various query rewrites that address that issue.

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Window Functions vs GROUP BYs

Published on: 2019-04-16

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There are many options available for improving the performance of a query: indexes, statistics, configuration settings, etc…

However, not all environments allow you to use those features (eg. vendor databases), leaving query rewriting as the only option.

This is the first post in a series to document common ways to refactor queries without otherwise altering the database. The goal of these posts will be to provide examples of performance pitfalls in queries and how to rewrite those queries to generate different query plans that (hopefully) improve performance.

I’ll be using the StackOverflow 2014 data dump for these examples if you want to play along at home.

Who was first to earn each badge?

StackOverflow awards users badges for things like asking good questions, hitting certain vote thresholds, and more.

I want to write a query that figures out who is the first person awarded each badge. In cases where there is a tie for the first person to receive that badge, I want to return the user with the lowest UserId.

Window functions make this type of question easy to write a query for:

    dbo.Badges b

If you’ve used FIRST_VALUE before, this query should be easy to interpret: for each badge Name, return the first UserId sorted by Date (earliest date to receive the badge) and UserId (pick the lowest UserId when there are ties on Date).

This query was easy to write and is simple to understand. However, the performance is not great: it takes 46 seconds to finish returning results on my machine.

Window function execution plan

Note: I assumed this table started off with the following index:

CREATE NONCLUSTERED INDEX IX_Badges__Name_Date_UserId ON [dbo].[Badges] (Name,Date,UserId);

Why so slow?

If we SET STATISTICS IO ON we’ll notice that SQL Server reads 46767 pages from a nonclustered index. Since we aren’t filtering our data, there’s not much we can do to make that faster.

Reading right to left, next up we see two Segment operators. These don’t add much overhead since our data is sorted on our segments/groups, so making SQL Server identify when our sorted rows change values is trivial.

Next up is the Window Spool operator which “Expands each row into the set of rows that represent the window associated with it.” While it looks innocent by having a low relative cost, this operator is writing 8 million rows/reading 16 million rows (because of how Window Spool works) from tempdb. Ouch.

After that the Stream Aggregate operator and Compute Scalar operators check to see if the first value in each window being returned from the Window Spool is null and then return the first non-null value. These operations are also relatively painless since the data flowing through is already sorted.

The Hash Match operator then dedupes the data for our DISTINCT and then we sort the remaining ~2k rows for our output.

So while our query looks simple, the fact that our whole table of data is getting written to and read from tempdb before being deduped and sorted is a real performance killer.

Removing tempdb usage the old-fashioned way

When I say “the old fashioned way”, I mean rewriting our window function to use more traditional aggregate functions and a GROUP BY:

    MIN(b.UserId) AS UserId
    dbo.Badges b
        MIN(Date) AS Date
    ) m
        ON b.Name = m.Name
        AND b.Date = m.Date

I think by most people’s standards, this query is not as easy to read. While not overly complex, it does take up a lot more screen space and is complicated by multiple GROUP BYs and a derived table.

And while the query may look ugly on the outside, it’s what lies below the surface that really matters:

GROUP BY execution plan

What a beautifully simple execution plan. And it finishes executing almost instantly.

Let’s break down what’s going on. First, we start with similar Index Scan and Segment operators as the previous query so no real difference there.

At this point you may have noticed that while the written query uses two GROUP BYs and two MIN functions that are then joined together, there are not two Index Scans, two sets of aggregations, and no join happening in the execution plan.

SQL Server can use an optimization with the Top operator that allows it to take the sorted data and return only the Name and UserId rows for the top Name and Date values within a group (essentially matching the MIN logic). This is a great example of how the optimizer can take a declarative SQL query and decide how to efficiently return the data needs.

At this point, the Top operator filters our 8 million rows down to around 30k rows. 30k rows get deduped a lot faster with our Stream Aggregate operator, and since the data is already sorted we don’t need an extra Sort operator.

Overall, this second query runs so much better than the original because SQL Server doesn’t have to go to tempdb for any operations – all the data is pre-sorted in the index and can flow through.

So I shouldn’t use Window Functions?

Not necessarily – it comes down to a trade offs.

I almost always start with a window function because of how easy they are to write and read. Plus I think they are fun to write as well.

However, if the window function is having to read/write a lot of data to tempdb and it’s affecting the overall performance of your query, a rewrite may be necessary.

In that case, I much rather take more verbose syntax to get a 2000x performance boost.

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Gaps and Islands Across Date Ranges

Published on: 2019-03-12

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In a traditional gaps and islands problem, the goal is to identify groups of continuous data sequences (islands) and groups of data where the sequence is missing (gaps).

While many people encounter gaps and islands problems when dealing with ranges of dates, and recently I did too but with an interesting twist:

How do you determine gaps and islands of data that has overlapping date ranges?

Continue reading “Gaps and Islands Across Date Ranges”

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