Table LogCount:

Column1 int       not null
Column2 int       not null
Column3 int       not null
[Date]  datetime  not null
[Count] float(53) not null

This table contains ~86 million rows and has the following indexes:

alter table LogCount add constraint PK_LogCount_Id primary key clustered 
( [Date], Column1, Column2, Column3 )
create nonclustered index IX_Column2_Date on LogCount ( Column2, [Date] )
include ( [Count] )

sp_spaceused gives the following:

name        rows        reserved    data        index_size  unused  
LogCount    85800181    8089216 KB  4226664 KB  3860968 KB  1584 KB

The Count column doesn't and never will store floating-point numbers, only integers, so I changed it to a smallint which (I expected) will save 6 bytes per row (float(53) = 8 bytes, smallint = 2 bytes):

drop index LogCount.IX_Column2_Date
alter table LogCount alter column [Count] smallint not null
create nonclustered index IX_Column2_Date on LogCount ( Column2, [Date] )
include ( [Count] )

Then I reran sp_spaceused:

name        rows        reserved    data        index_size  unused
LogCount    85800181    7670848 KB  5255528 KB  2414496 KB  824 KB

As expected, the index size has decreased drastically, but the data size has increased by a gigabyte!

I then reran the drop/alter/create statement above but using int (4 bytes) and got the following result:

name        rows        reserved    data        index_size  unused
LogCount    85800181    7848032 KB  5255528 KB  2591688 KB  816 KB

Then I tried float(1) (also 4 bytes):

name        rows        reserved    data        index_size  unused
LogCount    85800181    7848016 KB  5255528 KB  2591672 KB  816 KB

Finally I went back to the original float(53):

name        rows        reserved    data        index_size  unused
LogCount    85800181    10680584 KB 7726896 KB  2952464 KB  1224 KB

Compared to the original, the data size has increased by ~3.3 GB (almost doubled) while the index size has decreased by ~900MB.

A colleague suggested the culprit could be that MSSQL is allocating additional pages for the alter column statement and not freeing them afterwards, so I also tried executing dbcc shrinkdatabase after each step, but the results were the same.

So my questions:

  1. Why does altering a column from a larger to a smaller datatype, cause more data space to be used?
  2. Is sp_spaceused reliable? If not, what should I be using instead? If there isn't a better option, how do I determine if changing a column's datatype will have a positive or negative effect on disk space usage?
  • 1
    Have you rebuilt your table and indexes? Mar 22, 2016 at 12:34
  • 1
    This is not a situation for dbcc shrinkdatabase. Very few situations exist where this is the right course of action - in most cases this will make things worse, not better. You likely have free space on pages, which can be reclaimed through a rebuild / create index with drop_existing. Shrink operations just move existing pages around - so while you might be able to make your file smaller, you won't change any of the metrics you're capturing (it won't do anything page-level). Also, sp_spaceused is a bit unreliable in that you have to be sure to pass in the argument for @updateusage=true. Mar 22, 2016 at 13:39
  • Thanks all - I didn't know about alter table ... rebuild which is exactly what I needed.
    – Ian Kemp
    Mar 29, 2016 at 6:31

2 Answers 2


When changing the data type of a column, SQL Server will choose to either:

  • Change the metadata only;
  • Change the metadata and read all the existing values to ensure they fit; or
  • Change every row physically

Even if every row must be changed, SQL Server still take steps (where possible) to prioritize speed over final size, on the basis that we want DDL changes to complete as quickly as possible. Optimizing the storage space can wait for a maintenance window.

Changing float to smallint can be accommodated within the existing space allocated for the row, but it does leave some unused space. As has been mentioned, this can be reclaimed by fully rebuilding the changed structure.


You need to run ALTER TABLE ... REBUILD to free the space left unused by the DDL modifications.

See MSDN for details at https://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ms190273.aspx?f=255&MSPPError=-2147217396

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