Currently, I have a categories table with 2 columns - category VARCHAR(50) NOT NULL PRIMARY KEY and parent VARCHAR(50). The parent column is a foreign key (FK) to the category column.

This seems like the most obvious approach. However, alarm bells are ringing in my head because I am using a VARCHAR column for a primary key, which might slow down operations when querying the table.

I could introduce a third column called cat_id INT AUTO_INCREMENT and set that to be the PK, but it would introduce a new column which have no meaning.

Apart from which one would be faster, what other considerations should be taken?

N.B. I predict there will be at most 1000 categories or so so the number of rows are not very high. However, the categories PK column will be a reference column for many foreign keys, in other tables.

Should I use (unique) usernames as PK's also?

2 Answers 2


VARCHAR column as Primary Key is not a good choice as normally we create Cluster Index on same column.

Cluster Index on VARCHAR columns is a bad choice because of expected high fragmentation rate. Every new inserted key value will try to find its place somewhere between existing keys and normally cause page split and high index fragmentation. As a result poor performance and extra index rebuild/reorganise cost.

Secondly while using varchar key column as Foreign Key will take extra space as compared to Pseudo key auto-incremented column.


Clustered index on auto-incremented column may create "hot spot". Read this carefully Is 'Avoid creating a clustered index based on an incrementing key' a myth from SQL Server 2000 days?

Though hot spot could be a problem, when to many users are trying to insert values but still in your case i would like to go for auto-incremented column as compare to varchar.


Yes, I would add a surrogate 4-byte integer key. Your current two columns are 100 bytes, this could then be reduced to 58 bytes by the addition of the new identity column. You could even make the surrogate key a 2-byte smallint if you are sure you will never exceed 65,535 categories (might be still a good idea to leave as INT just in case).

The space savings are not great for a 1,000 row table, but it is where cat_id is added to other tables you can save significant space (4 bytes instead of 50 in each FK). You will probably also want to index these foreign keys, so the space savings will be even greater in all your non-clustered indexes too.

Also your clustered index is now sequential to avoid fragmentation (page splits) when adding new categories

Table structure: -

create table dbo.Cateogory (
    CateogoryID int not null identity(1,1) constraint pkCateogory primary key clustered,
    Cateogory varchar(50) not null constraint ukCateogory unique nonclustered,
    ParentCateogoryID int null constraint fkCateogory references dbo.Cateogory(CateogoryID)

You can also add index options in production (fillfactor etc) depending on your requirements.


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