I have a pretty complicated data model. I can't understand most SQL examples without an explanation of what's being modeled, so I'll try to explain.

Mainlines -> Releases -> Overlays -> Calibrations <- Parameters

Calibrations, then, is the child of the the Mainline-Release-Overlay chain, and Parameters. This is the set I want to return.

Now, the complexity is that -- to save space -- we are storing the base Mainline's calibrations, and then just the DIFFERENCES when changes happen at the Release and Overlay levels. This produces a "base" set of Calibrations of about 16K rows, and then a few hundred changes each Release, and perhaps just a few changes each Overlay. Deletions of parameters happen. To keep track of this, Calibrations has a Status field (tinyint) which is set to 1 for a deletion.

Overlays get versioned successively. So, to get a complete "calibration," we need to query the Calibrations table for the latest version of a Parameter's data, up to a particular Overlay version number. Parameter metadata may change, but the names stay the same, so these Calibrations may refer to differing versions of Parameters, albeit with the same name.

Up till now, the following has worked perfectly, and instantaneously (with the following caveats):

SELECT c.Parameter_ParameterID, p.Designation AS Name, c.Data, o.Version
 FROM Calibrations c, Parameters p, Overlays o, Releases r
 WHERE r.Mainline_MainlineID = 9
    AND o.Release_ReleaseID = r.ReleaseID
    AND c.Overlay_OverlayID = o.OverlayID
    AND c.Parameter_ParameterID = p.ParameterID
    AND o.Version =
        (SELECT MAX(o1.Version)
            FROM Parameters p1, Calibrations c1, Overlays o1, Releases r1
            WHERE r1.Mainline_MainlineID = 9
            AND o1.Release_ReleaseID = r1.ReleaseID
            AND c1.Overlay_OverlayID = o1.OverlayID
            AND c1.Parameter_ParameterID = p1.ParameterID
            AND p1.Designation = p.Designation  -- New condition
            AND o1.Version <= 68)
    AND c.Status != 1 -- Changed from boolean to tinyint
ORDER BY Version DESC, Name

The problem has come in since we have started (properly) tracking Parameter versions, so the inner match for the Parameter can no longer by on the ParameterID, but rather the Designation (i.e., Name). At first this wasn't a problem, but it is now that Calibration Status is no longer a boolean for deletion. Now it can also be set to 2 for newly introduced, and 3 for reinserted.

Adding these two changes have caused this query to take 10-15 minutes to run! How is that even possible? Even if I contorted the query to connect every row to every other row, it shouldn't take this long!

There are two maddening things here. One is that, when this initially became a problem, I put an index on the Parameters Designation field, and it made it work again. Now, deleting and recreating it doesn't make a difference. Also, there's still a special case, in that, if I have exactly two Mainlines in the database, it still runs instantaneously. If I have only one or more than two, it takes forever.

I've tried variously commenting out sections, like the o1.Version <= condition and the c.Status != condition, and sometimes, it works again. I can't get a handle on the differences in the various cases, and I'm at the end of my rope. I know I'm a tiny trick away from getting it to run fast again, but it's apparently beyond me, and this is a show-stopper for my beta plans next month.

I've been programming for 35 years, but I've never had to deal with SQL like this before, and SSMS's tools for showing explain plans mean nothing to me. I would like to understand the fundamental issues and get a fix.

Execution plan for the long query.
Execution plan for the query when commenting out c.Status != 1

  • I've tried TOP 1 o1.Version ... ORDER BY o1.Version DESC, and it takes just as long, though the results trickle in, instead of appearing all at once. – David Krider Feb 27 '15 at 19:47

A full analysis would require access to the execution plans, table and index definitions, and database statistics (or a copy of the database itself). That's possibly unrealistic, so here's some general observations, and a possible solution for you to try. (Strictly, this question is probably beyond this site's remit.)

General background

The SQL Server query optimizer is the component responsible for choosing an execution plan for the logical results specification represented by your query. For even modestly complex queries, there are an enormous number of possible physical plans. The optimizer uses heuristics and cost estimation to choose from the limited plan space it explores.

The quality of information provided to the optimizer (including database design, indexing, and the accuracy of the current statistics) all have a great impact on the likelihood of the plan chosen by the optimizer performing well in practice. Where the design is relational, well-indexed, and with representative statistics, good plan choices will be the norm. Otherwise, all bets are off.

The query in question is moderately complex, and while its intent will be reasonably clear to most humans, the optimizer sees it as a SQL query like any other. The correlated sub-query with multiple joins and a MAX aggregate means the potential plan search space will be large, and estimates may not be accurate (due to accumulated errors, if nothing else). The optimizer may well end up choosing a plan that would work well if its assumptions were borne out, but which may perform horribly in reality.

The query and a potential rewrite

In broad terms, it appears you are asking SQL Server for the highest version per designation, with a limit on the version number. An alternative way to express this query (that is likely to have more predictable performance) is to number the rows (partitioned and ordered appropriately) then return the single row per group that is ranked #1:

WITH MaxVersionPerDesignation AS
    -- Do the joins and number the rows
    -- per designation, in descending
    -- Version order
        p.Designation AS Name, 
        rn = ROW_NUMBER() OVER (
            PARTITION BY p.Designation
            ORDER BY o.[Version] DESC)
    FROM dbo.Releases AS r
    JOIN dbo.Overlays AS o
        ON o.Release_ReleaseID = r.ReleaseID
    JOIN dbo.Calibrations AS c
        ON c.Overlay_OverlayID = o.OverlayID
    JOIN dbo.[Parameters] AS p
        ON p.ParameterID = c.Parameter_ParameterID
        r.Mainline_MainlineID = 9
        AND c.[Status] <> 1
        AND o.[Version] <= 68
-- Return the row with the highest Version per designation
FROM MaxVersionPerDesignation AS MVPD
    -- Row #1 per Designation
    MVPD.rn = 1
    MVPD.[Version] DESC, 

Hopefully, the logic in the SQL above is reasonably easy to understand.

Analysis of the uploaded plan

The query optimizer produces an execution plan that attempts the execute the subquery once per outer row. This would be a good idea if the outer query did only produce one row, but sadly it qualifies 16,794 rows at runtime (execution plans captured using SQL Sentry Plan Explorer):

Outer plan

This mis-estimation is the root cause of your problem. Most probably, statistics on the base tables are not representative of the current data. You should refresh these statistics and have an ongoing plan to ensure statistics stay reasonably current. Another side-effect of the erroneous 1-row estimation is that the optimizer considers the whole query to be very low cost, almost trivial, and so does not spend long examining alternatives.

Anyway, the subquery (which is very similar to the outer query aside from the correlation and an extra predicate) is fully executed 16,794 times (with a different value for Designation and Version each time). This is an awful strategy of course (but it would have been just fine for 1 outer row).

Inner plan

The cumulative effect is to generate over 282 million rows (over all 16k iterations). This results in 282 million executions of the Key Lookup in the plan fragment shown above. This latter fact is likely the primary cause of the poor performance, though executing the correlated subquery 16,794 times would never be quick in any case (and the optimizer would not choose this strategy if it knew 16,794 rows would be driving it).

With optimal indexing (following a more detailed analysis than I can do right now), it would be possible to rewrite the query using CROSS APPLY and TOP 1 instead of MAX (see this related question) for possibly-optimal performance, but you may find the ROW_NUMBER alternative (again, see the related question) performs well enough, with good plan-choice stability.

Key Lookups:

You can eliminate the Key Lookups (in the long plan) by including the Parameter_ParameterID, Data, and Status columns in the IX_Overlay_OverlayID index. For example:

CREATE INDEX [IX_Overlay_OverlayID]
ON dbo.Callibrations (Overlay_OverlayID)
INCLUDE (Parameter_ParameterID, Data, Status)

This will likely not cause the optimizer to choose a better or more stable plan without updating statistics, but it would be remiss of me not to mention it.

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