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SQL Tip of the Day: Be Wary of SELECT COUNT(*)

Recently, I’ve encountered this sort of query all over the place at a customer site:

DECLARE
  v_var NUMBER(10);
BEGIN
  SELECT COUNT(*)
  INTO   v_var
  FROM   table1
  JOIN   table2 ON table1.t1_id = table2.t1_id
  JOIN   table3 ON table2.t2_id = table3.t2_id
  ...
  WHERE  some_predicate;
 
  IF (v_var = 1) THEN
    do_something
  ELSE
    do_something_else
  END IF;
END;

Unfortunately, COUNT(*) is often the first solution that comes to mind when we want to check our relations for some predicate. But COUNT() is expensive, especially if all we’re doing is checking our relations for existence. Does the word ring a bell? Yes, we should use the EXISTS predicate, because if we don’t care about the exact number of records that return true for a given predicate, we shouldn’t go through the complete data set to actually count the exact number. The above PL/SQL block can be rewritten trivially to this one:

DECLARE
  v_var NUMBER(10);
BEGIN
  SELECT CASE WHEN EXISTS (
    SELECT 1
    FROM   table1
    JOIN   table2 ON table1.t1_id = table2.t1_id
    JOIN   table3 ON table2.t2_id = table3.t2_id
    ...
    WHERE  some_predicate
  ) THEN 1 ELSE 0 END
  INTO   v_var
  FROM   dual;
 
  IF (v_var = 1) THEN
    do_something
  ELSE
    do_something_else
  END IF;
END;

Let’s measure!

Query 1 yields this execution plan:

Query 2 yields this execution plan:

You can ignore the TABLE ACCESS FULL operations, the actual query was executed on a trivial database with no indexes.

What’s essential, however, are the much improved E-Rows values (E = Estimated) and even more importantly the optimal A-Rows values (A = Actual). As you can see, the EXISTS predicate could be aborted early, as soon as the first record that matches the predicate is encountered – in this case immediately.

See this post about more details of how to collect Oracle Execution plans

Conclusion

Whenever you encounter a COUNT(*) operation, you should ask yourself if it is really needed. Do you really need to know the exact number of records that match a predicate? Or are you already happy knowing that any record matches the predicate?

Answer: It’s probably the latter.


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