What to Look for in SQL Server Execution Plans

Execution Plan Example

When people are learning about the SQL Server Query Execution Plans, they often wonder what are the most important things to look at, in what order should I review, or what are the first things that indicate an issue. In this article by Grant Fritchey, we learn a little about reviewing Query Execution Plans.

The question came up, what are the top 3-5 things that you look at in a query. I realized then that I hadn’t really written them down. There are some areas that let me know pretty much immediately where problems lie within a plan. You don’t necessarily know the answer from looking at these things, but you know you have a problem. Being me, I couldn’t stick to 5, so here are 6:

  1. Immediately check the properties on the first operator (SELECT/DELETE/INSERT). There’s tons of information in here and people frequently just ignore it. You can see if the plan is based on full optimization or not. That immediately tells me if I’m working on the optimizer’s best estimate at a plan or I’m looking at a timeout. If it’s a timeout, I know I can’t count on this plan being good. Also I get the parameter compile time & run time values to help determine parameter sniffing issues in the properties.
  2. Warnings. If you see no join predicate warnings, that should jump up and poke you in the eye like some jumping eye-poking little monster. Same goes with missing statistics. The new warnings in plans in 2012 are equally important to know about. These are quick pieces of information that should immediately point you in a direction of inquiry within the plan.
  3. The most costly operations. Yes, I know you can’t trust these values because they are just estimates. Yes, the estimated operator cost is the same in both estimated and actual plans. No measurements of actual cost are taken by an execution plan. But these are the numbers available, so I use them. They’re accurate more often than not and quickly lead you to the possible source of the problem.
  4. Fat pipes. Now really, these are usually just an indication of volume and knowing that you’re moving lots of rows helps you read a plan (umpty-million rows joining umpty-million rows through a Loop might be an issue). But the real alarm bells go off when you see big fat pipes going to little skinny ones or skinny ones to big fat ones or even skinny-fat-skinny. That’s a huge indicator of something
  5. Extra operators. This is like that old statement about pornography “I can’t give you a precise definition, but I know it when I see it.” It’s looking for stuff that doesn’t belong. For example, you don’t have a single ORDER BY statement, but there sits a Sort operation. Why? That’s my “extra operator” indicator telling me to dig deeper.
  6. Scans. Scans are not necessarily bad and Seeks are not necessarily good. In general terms, with smaller data sets, you usually would expect to see a Seek over a Scan. Scans can be the right, good, and best choice, especially for very large data sets and in other situations, but they are an indicator of potential issues.
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