Let’s Make a Match: Index Intersection

SQL Server

Most of the time, when you run a query, SQL Server prefers to use just one index on a table to do its dirty work.

Let’s query the Users table in the StackOverflow database (I’m using the March 2016 version today), looking for people with a certain reputation score OR a certain number of upvotes:

Query doing a table scan
Query doing a table scan

If I create an index on each field, will SQL Server use it?

Create the indexes, but SQL Server ignores them
Create the indexes, but SQL Server ignores them

Diabolical. The cost on this query is 74 query bucks – not a small operation, and large enough to go parallel, but SQL Server still turns up its nose at the indexes.

But the indexes weren’t perfect – they weren’t covering. I was doing a SELECT *, getting all of the fields. What happens if I only get the fields that are on the index itself – the clustering key, the ID of the table?

Eureka! Index intersection.
Indexes gone mild!

Presto! Now SQL Server is doing an index seek on two different indexes on the same table in order to accomplish my where clause.

Now, that’s not really index intersection – it’s doing two two index seeks to get two different populations of users – those that match the reputation filter, and those who match the upvotes filter. What happens if we change our query’s OR to an AND?

Query with a key lookup
Query with a key lookup

Now we’re down to a query plan you know and tolerate: an index seek followed by a key lookup. The reason is that the filters on reputation are extremely selective – there just aren’t that many users with those exact reputation numbers.

In order to get real index intersection – finding the overlapping Venn diagram in two filters – we need to use ranges of data that are less selective. It’s an interesting challenge:

  • If either filter is too selective, we get an index seek on that one, followed by a key lookup
  • If neither filter is selective enough, we get a clustered index scan
The unicorn in the wild: index intersection.
The unicorn in the wild: index intersection.

Presto! SQL Server is doing index seeks on two different indexes, on the same table, and then finding the rows that match both filters. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen this in the wild, but that probably has to do with the kinds of servers I usually see. I’ll leave that interpretation to you, dear reader.


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4 Comments. Leave new

  • indexes gone mild. LOL
    Why dont you add Comedian to your true skills also. You are much comedian then interpretive dance.

  • Ah, so this is what my granddad was telling me about since SQL Server 7.0.

    Nonetheless, hard to demo so thank you for the lovely post.

    Would have been nice to see the reads, but I guess much less reads for the intersection.

  • Was there something in the screenshots that lines up w/ the comment “74 query bucks”? Or is that just an awesome saying? 😀


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