Comparing Estimated and Actual Execution Plans in SQL Server

Let’s say you want to have an addition built on your house. You contact a contractor, who comes to your house, looks at your lot, looks at what exists, and asks you questions about exactly what you want. He then gives you an estimate of the work – approximately how long he thinks it will take his crew, what supplies will be needed, and the cost of those supplies.

SQL Server gives you a similar option. When you write a query, before committing to it, you can request an estimated execution plan.

The estimated execution plan is designed to show what SQL Server would most likely do if it were to execute the query. Using statistics, it estimates how many rows may be returned from each table. It chooses the operators it will use to retrieve the data – scans or seeks. It decides how to best join the tables together – nested loops, merge joins, hash joins. It is a reasonably accurate guide to what SQL Server will do.

You can view an estimated execution plan for an individual statement, a stored procedure, or a function. The plan can be text, XML, or graphical. To view text, use SET SHOWPLAN_TEXT ON. For an XML version, use the command SET SHOWPLAN_XML ON. To view a graphical plan in SSMS, click the Display Estimated Execution Plan button in SSMS.

Est Exec Plan

There are some cases in which SQL Server can’t create an estimated execution plan. If your query has parameters in it and values aren’t passed in, SQL Server can’t interpret those – it needs literal values. If the query references a temp table that is not declared, the plan also can’t be generated.

Now, let’s go back to our construction project. We’ve signed the contract and the contractor begins work. While the addition is being framed, you decide you want to add an extra room, or add windows, or make the ceilings higher. The contractor has to adjust for this in terms of time and cost. This will change how long the project takes, and how expensive it is.

Executing a query in SQL Server is no different. The actual execution plan is shown after a query is executed. The difference here is that SQL Server can tell you exactly how many reads were performed, how many rows were read, and what joins were performed.

If it’s a long-running query, it will take a while to get the execution plan. Parameters, if required, must be passed in.

The text plan is generated using SET STATISTICS PROFILE ON. The XML version of the actual plan can be viewed by using SET STATISTICS XML ON. A graphical version can be generated in SSMS by using the Include Actual Execution Plan button.

Actual Exec PLan

There are some cases in which things that show up in the estimated plan will not show in the actual plan. For example, when you call a scalar-value function, the estimated plan will show it – the actual plan will not. (This is why the impact of functions can be very misunderstood.)


The query optimizer is going to use statistics on the tables and indexes to decide how to perform the actual query execution. If statistics change for any reason between the time you estimate a plan and when the query is actually run, you can see differences.

Changes to table schema, indexes, or even the data can affect the statistics. If a new index is added, or rows are updated in the table, when the query optimizer executes the query, it could choose a different set of operators than it did during estimation. Sometimes the differences between the estimated and actual plans can be large!

How can you prevent this from being a problem? Make sure statistics are updated on your tables and indexes. Auto update stats will automatically refresh statistics if a specific number of rows in a table change – after a table reaches 500 rows, roughly 20% of the rows need to change. (Exact details about that are here The more rows that your table contains, the more changes that need to be made for them to automatically refresh – on large tables, you may need to set up more frequent stats updates.

You also want to be aware that using table variables on large result sets can be wildly inaccurate – they always estimate a low number of rows.


The estimated plan is stored in the plan cache. If you review the XML (doesn’t that sound like fun?!), you will see “ParameterCompiledValue” listed near the end. This is what value the query was run with when the plan was stored. Ensuing executions may use different values, which can lead to less-than-optimal performance if bad parameter sniffing happens.


An example of compiled values in the execution plan XML

An example of compiled values in the execution plan XML

Estimated execution plans can be very useful as you are writing and tuning queries, giving you an idea of how SQL Server will most likely perform query execution. However, if you need to know exactly what steps SQL Server will take, executing the query and reviewing the actual execution plan is the only way to be certain.

Learn More in Our Execution Plan Training

Our How to Read Execution Plans Training explains how to get an execution plan, how to read the operators, and learn solutions to common query problems.

Capturing Deadlocks in SQL Server [Video]

If you’re experiencing deadlocks in SQL Server, you want to know more about them. What queries are causing them? What tables and indexes are at the root of the problem? You can find this information by using tools such as trace flags, Profiler, and Extended Events. Jes shows you how in this 25-minute video:

Download the scripts here.

For more videos like this:

Capturing Deadlocks in SQL Server

What’s a deadlock? Well, let’s say there’s a fight going on between Wonder Woman and Cheetah, and, in the same room, a fight between Batman and Mr. Freeze. Wonder Woman decides to help Batman by also attempting to throw her lasso around Mr. Freeze; Batman tries to help Wonder Woman by unleashing a rope from the grappling gun at Cheetah. The problem is that Wonder Woman already has a lock on her opponent, and Batman has his. This would be a superhero (and super) deadlock.

When a deadlock occurs in SQL Server, two or more tasks are running and holding locks on data. Then, each task requests to lock the data the other task is already holding. Both tasks wait for the other to give up. Neither does. SQL Server could let this showdown continue indefinitely, but it won’t. It picks one task – usually, whichever will be the least expensive to roll back – as the victim, and that task is killed.

How do I know if it’s happening to me?

You might notice slowness in your application. Users might complain about slowness or error messages. And, you’ll see a message in the SQL Server Log that says “Transaction (Process ID 103) was deadlocked on resources with another process and has been chosen as the deadlock victim.”

Your server has encountered a deadlock.

How can I capture more information about it?

You have several options: you can enable a trace flag to write more information to the log, you can capture deadlocks graphs using Profiler or Extended Events, and you can track the number of deadlocks occurring using Performance Monitor.

Use trace flags to write to the log

Two trace flags can be enabled to capture more information in the log: 1204 and 1222. 1204 lists the information by node; 1222 lists it by process and resource. You can enable both simultaneously. To enable the flags, use the command

DBCC TRACEON (1204, 1222)

Here’s a small sample of what would appear in the log:

tf 1222

No one wants to read through that, manually parsing it to figure out what database it occurred in, what tasks were involved, and which was the victim. Wouldn’t it be great if this was represented graphically?

Capture a deadlock graph with Profiler or Extended Events

It is – you just have to know where to look to for a deadlock graph. In SQL Server 2005, 2008, and 2008R2, I prefer to use a Profiler trace; in SQL Server 2012 and 2014 I rely on Extended Events.


When you set up a Profiler session to gather deadlock information, select the “Deadlock graph”, “Lock:Deadlock” and “Lock:Deadlock Chain” events. Make sure you go to the Events Extraction Settings tab and select the option “Save Deadlock XML events separately”. This ensures that the .xdl files – the graphs – will be saved as separate files. When you start the session, if a deadlock occurs, you will see “Deadlock graph” captured as an event.

deadlock graph

The task with the blue X on it is the victim. By holding your mouse over the process oval, you can see what statement was being executed by that task. The Key Lock rectangles will help you find the object and index that the locking and blocking occurred on.

Extended Events

In the future, Profiler will be removed from SQL Server. Extended Events (EE) is taking its place. You have two options for getting deadlock information using EE. First, there is the system_health session that, by default, runs continuously. You can mine this for deadlocks that have happened in the past. You can also set up your own session to capture only deadlock information (and any other relevant events).

If using the system_health session, filter on “xml_deadlock_report”. If setting up your own session, capture the same event. If you are using the GUI available in 2012 and 2014, you can open the file and view the deadlock graph on the “Deadlock” tab.


If parsing the results using T-SQL and XQuery, you would use the .query method to extract the deadlock XML, like such:

SELECT DeadlockEventXML.query('(event/data[@name="xml_report"]/value/deadlock)[1]') AS deadlock_graph

This generates the XML, which you would then save as an .xdl, then close and re-open with SSMS to view the graph.

Track Performance Counters

Performance Monitor (PerfMon) is valuable for tracking many statistics. One of the metrics you can track for SQL Server is SQLServer:Locks – Number of Deadlocks/sec. This is the least informational of the methods mentioned here – it only gives you a count of how many are happening per second in your system. It can be helpful, however, to track this to see what times of the day produce the most deadlocks. You can then use the other methods mentioned here to research what is happening during that time to cause the deadlocks.

Don’t be a victim!

Take charge of your SQL Servers! Become familiar with detecting deadlocks, finding out what caused them, and fixing them! For more tools and advice, visit Locking and Blocking in SQL Server.

Treasure Hunt: SQL Server Error Log [Video]

What secrets lie within SQL Server’s error log? Many! This day-by-day record of your server’s actions can be a treasure trove of information. Here you’ll learn what to look for, how to effectively search it, and how to get alerted of potential problems.

Backups, Restores, Corruption, and You: How Strong are You?

You and your databases have a strong relationship. You back them up, and check them for corruption. They provide the business with information day after day.

Don't let your relationship come to this!

Don’t let your relationship come to this!

Then, one day, your relationship is rocked. The backups are too slow. The restores are too slow. There is…gasp…corruption. Are you prepared to handle this? Will your working relationship continue? Take this quiz to find out!

  • 0 points – I’ve never done this in real life before
  • 1 point – I’ve done it once or twice in a test environment 
  • 2 points – I’ve done it in production
  • 3 points – I’ve done it in production and I’ve documented it
Here are your questions!
  1. You run DBCC CHECKDB regularly. Your job fails one day, with an error that corruption was detected. You need to figure out what object has the problem – a clustered index? a nonclustered index? a metadata page? – and repair it.You can identify the object and corruption, and several ways to fix it.
  2. After this incident, the business owners of the database would like extra assurance that their data is safe. You’ve identified the steps you could take to validate backups and restores.
  3. You have a database that is very large. You have a window of 60 minutes to complete the backup each day, but it’s taking much longer. You implement a process to make backups faster.
  4. Due to its size, this database is also exceeding its RTO in a disaster recovery test. You re-architect the database and the restore process to make it faster.
  5. There are several related single-tenant databases for an application. You need to ensure that all related databases can be rolled back to immediately before a single transaction when upgrades occur.

0-2 points: Your relationship is doomed. You need to get my Backup & Recovery, Advanced training stat. As a matter of fact, you may want to start with my Backup & Recovery Step by Step training, to make sure you have the basics down.

3-6 points: Your relationship is rocky at best. Review my Backup & Recovery, Advanced training to make sure you’re prepared for all of the potential crises you could encounter.

7-10 points: Solid, but you still have room for improvement. Perhaps a few days in a test environment, with a little one-on-one attention and a review of all of the modules in my Backup & Recovery, Advanced training is just what you two need.

11+ points: You clearly have a great relationship. Take it to the next level by reviewing all of the scenarios outlined above and documenting those you haven’t tackled yet. Check out my video training for additional tips and ideas.

Spotting Trouble – and Help! – in Execution Plans [Video]

The execution plan is a step-by-step map of how SQL Server has returned the data from your query to you. Sometimes, there are detours and potholes in the road that make the journey more difficult. Sometimes, there’s an alternate, faster route. Watch this webcast to find out how to read the warning signs and identify the helpful information.

Learn More in Our Execution Plan Training

Our How to Read Execution Plans Training explains how to get an execution plan, how to read the operators, and learn solutions to common query problems.

What the Execution Plan Doesn’t Tell You [Video]

The execution plan is a gold mine of information about how your query performed. You can tell the steps that were taken, the number of rows that were processed, and even get index or statistics hint. But what isn’t the execution plan telling you? Jes will show things that you might not realize are problems – and how to fix them! 


Don’t Fear the Execution Plan [Video] 

Craig Freedman’s Parallel Query Execution Presentation 

Paul White’s Forcing a Parallel Query Execution Plan 

Learn More in Our Execution Plan Training

Our How to Read Execution Plans Training explains how to get an execution plan, how to read the operators, and learn solutions to common query problems.

Advice to an IT newcomer

Women in Technology

Women in Technology (yes, Clippy is a woman, too)

We recently got the following question for Kendra and Jes in the Brent Ozar Unlimited® mailbox:

Six months ago I stumbled into the IT world. Do you have any advice for someone (a woman) starting off in the IT industry, specially someone without a computer science degree? I really enjoy working with databases and data. I would love to one day be a Database Administrator and get into business intelligence.


There has been a lot written about women in technology – positive and negative. I’m happy to say that my experience as a woman in technology has been incredible. The SQL Server community has been accepting, helpful, and nurturing. If anyone, man or woman, came to me, asking how to succeed, I’d give them this advice.

Ask questions. Constantly learn. There is no such thing as too much knowledge. The most successful people I know in IT – not just the SQL Server world – are lifelong learners. They read books and blogs, attend user group meetings and conferences, and learn new programming languages in their spare time. Build your own computers. Know how to set up a network. You don’t have to be an expert at every facet of technology, but knowing enough to talk to other people in “their” language will go a long way.

Speaking of user groups…find the closest user group, and attend it regularly. Don’t have one nearby? Start one, or join a virtual user group (like those at Not only will you learn about things you may not be exposed to at work, you’ll have a chance to build a network. I can’t tell you the number of questions I’ve gotten answered through this channel, or the number of people I know that have gotten new (better!) jobs this way.

Never, ever be afraid to say, “I don’t know, but I can find the answer.” People will respect you far more if you are honest. Don’t try to be a know-it-all. If you haven’t dealt with a particular technology or situation before, acknowledge that, make note of what the person is asking for, and research it later. You’ll learn something new, and you won’t get caught giving bad – or wrong – answers.

Don’t think, “I’ll never know as much as him/her.” Yes, there are some people in IT that started building computers or robots or software before they could drive a car. Instead of thinking that you will never know as much as they do, remind yourself how many years of experience they have – and how they can help you. Ask to pick their brains. Ask them what books they read or what tools they use. Learn from them.

Most of all, don’t fall victim to the so-called “impostor syndrome”. Someone always appears smarter, faster, more organized, more accomplished, less stressed, or hasn’t spilled coffee all over herself yet today. Don’t let that invalidate where you started from and what you have accomplished. Keeping a blog – even if it’s private – that you can go back and reference over the years is a great way to value yourself. I know I’ve seen a dramatic change in my writing over five years, from both a technical and editorial perspective.

Good luck! Being in IT – and especially the SQL Server field – is exciting and rewarding.


Remind yourself that you’re qualified to be a DBA. You mention that you don’t have a computer science degree. Great news: that’s not required. There’s no degree or certification that is the Official DBA Training Program or Proving Ground.

I had a period where I felt I wasn’t “legitimately a DBA” because I also worked with some C# and drove some non-SQL software development processes. But I was doing some really cool things with SQL Server administration, too. I should have felt awesome about being a DBA, regardless of my job title.

Never feel that your background or your current job have to fit a specific mold for you to be a “real” DBA. There is no mold!

Remind yourself that you are designing your own career as you go. Just like there’s no set educational and certification “solution” to end up with all the right skills, job progression for DBAs is usually not linear. It’s a rare person who starts with a “Junior DBA” job title and works their way up to “Mid Level DBA” and then “Senior DBA”.

Instead, most people these days struggle to find the right training, the right mentor, and discover if they want to specialize (Virtualization? Performance Tuning? Data modeling?), be a generalist, or dive off into uncharted waters (Hadoop? Different Platforms? Business Intelligence?). There are many paths, and there are new paths all the time.

Expect to repeatedly redefine your interests and redesign your career. Make sure that every six months you have a conversation with your manager about what kind of work makes you excited, and where you’d like to be in a year or two.

Remind yourself that you do great stuff: and write it down. For a few years, I had a formal review process where I was regularly required to write out my accomplishments. And you know what? That was great for me! Each item on the list seemed small, but when I put it all together it gave me a new view of myself.

This may be difficult, but it’s worth it. Keeping track of the great things you do boosts your confidence and makes you ready when opportunity comes around.


Is this advice only for women? Heck no! Sometimes it’s just nice to ask advice from someone who’s part of a group you also identify with and hear their perspective.

Want to learn more about how to build a great career working with data? Hop on over to Brent’s classic post, “Rock Stars, Normal People, and You.”

Five Reasons a Production DBA Should Learn to Read Execution Plans

While chatting with attendees before my Don’t Fear the Execution Plan webcast, a question was posed: “As a DBA who mainly worries about backups, index fragmentation and checkdb, should I also be looking at execution plans?”

YES! Here’s why.

  1. Performance is important. A production DBA’s main focus should be the safety and security of the data, but the performance of servers is also something to be concerned with. Companies pay a lot of money in hardware, support, and licensing costs for these servers. Being able to squeeze every bit of performance from them will save the company money – which helps everyone in the company in the long run.
  2. Be a superhero. Your first response to an ongoing, persistent performance problem may be a hardware fix. Add more memory, add more disks, ask the SAN team to give you dedicated LUNs, beg for a new server. But at some point, it is going to be worth your time – and the company’s money – to tune bad queries. By being the person that can identify the bad queries and provide ways to improve them, you are putting on your superhero cape and saving the day. (How can you find those queries? Find out in Jeremiah’s Exploring the Magic of the Plan Cache blog!) superhero-no-paper-shutterstock_163129538-[Converted]
  3. You’re being proactive, not reactive. We all need to be reactive sometimes – that’s a facet of the job. But being proactive – identifying top resource-consuming queries on a server, identifying problem spots in the queries, and suggesting fixes – makes us look better. We show we are bringing value to the company.
  4. Grow your knowledge of SQL Server. You never know when you may need the information. A new developer may have been able to ask the DBAs questions at her last job; you may need the skill at your next job. You will also learn things along the way about SQL Server internals, and that’s great knowledge to have.
  5. Increase communication between DBAs and developers. If your developers already use execution plans to tune queries, you will be able to speak their language. If they don’t, you can teach them as you learn – and there is no better way to learn than to teach something! Breaking down communication barriers is a goal my clients typically have. It involves some work and willingness to give, but will make your job better.

Learn More in Our Execution Plan Training

Our How to Read Execution Plans Training explains how to get an execution plan, how to read the operators, and learn solutions to common query problems.

What happens to in-flight data compression in an emergency?

Data compression can have many uses and advantages, but it also has its drawbacks. It’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all strategy. One of the things to be aware of is that initial compression of a table or index can take quite some time, and will be resource-intensive. It also is an offline operation, so the object can’t be accessed while it’s being compressed or uncompressed. (Clarification: by default, an ALTER TABLE statement is an offline operation. You can declare it online, but, as David notes in the comments, “Although the operation is ONLINE, it’s not completely idiot-proof.”)

So what would happen if your SQL Server service or server restarted while you were in the middle of (or, as it usually goes, 90% of the way through) compressing an index? Let’s investigate.

I have a table that is 1.1 GB in size, with a 1.0 GB nonclustered index.

Table name Index name total_pages PagesMB
bigTransactionHistory pk_bigTransactionHistory 143667 1122
bigTransactionHistory IX_ProductId_TransactionDate 131836 1029

I need to reduce the size of the nonclustered index, so I decide to compress it. After using sp_estimate_data_compression_savings, I determine that I will benefit more from page compression.

I apply page compression, and allow my server to work.

ALTER INDEX IX_ProductId_TransactionDate
ON dbo.bigTransactionHistoryPage

Now, let’s say there is an emergency during this operation. Perhaps a component in the server breaks; maybe the data center loses power. (Or I restart the SQL Server service.) Uh-oh! What happened?

When the service is running, I check SSMS. I see the following error.

Msg 109, Level 20, State 0, Line 0
A transport-level error has occurred when receiving results from the server. 
(provider: Shared Memory Provider, error: 0 - The pipe has been ended.)

What happened to the data? Is compression all or nothing, or is it possible that some pages are compressed and others aren’t? I first check the index size.

Table name Index name total_pages PagesMB
bigTransactionHistory pk_bigTransactionHistory 143667 1122
bigTransactionHistory IX_ProductId_TransactionDate 131836 1029

Nothing has changed – the index is not one byte smaller. This tells me the operation was not successful.

I also check the error log to see what information it can provide.

error log rollback

There are 2 transactions that are rolled back. As I am the only person in this instance right now (the benefits of a test environment), I know those were my transactions.

SQL Server has treated my data compression operation as a transaction. If there is a restart at any point, the operation will be rolled back to maintain data integrity.