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The Clustered Index Is Vital to Your Database Design

''You get one clustered index per table.'' See how SQL Server is designed to work with clustered indexes to make sure you can organize and use your data how you want.

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This is post #9 supporting  Tim Ford’s (b|t) initiative on #iwanttohelp, #entrylevel. Read about it here.

You get one clustered index per table.

That bears repeating — you get one clustered index per table.

Choosing a clustered index is an extremely important and fundamental aspect of all your SQL Server work. The one clustered index that you get determines how the data in your table is stored. Because the clustered index determines how your data is stored, it also determines how your data is retrieved. Much of SQL Server is engineered around the clustered index because it is such a foundational object for the rest of all behavior.

Without a clustered index, the data in your table is stored in what is called a heap. It is essentially a pile, a heap, of data, stored without internal structure. The data in a heap can be found fairly quickly when only a single value is needed, but as soon as you start to retrieve ranges of data, more than one row, heaps become extremely problematic. Meanwhile, the clustered index stores all your data at the bottom of a B+Tree, structured storage, that is used to retrieve this data through the key, or keys, that you give your clustered index. Further, each non-clustered index also uses the key value from your clustered index as it’s means of retrieving data from the clustered index.

All this means that the vast majority of your tables should have a clustered index. Yes, there are exceptions, but, exceptions should be exceptional.

The standard advice, and it’s not wrong, is to make the clustered key as narrow as possible. Next, clustered indexes are designed to support monotonically increasing values extremely well. Clustered indexes must be unique. You either have to create them on a unique value, or, internally you’ll get a UNIQUIFIER applied to the key to ensure that each value is unique. All this taken together means that they work nicely on IDENTITY columns. Because of this advice, you’ll frequently see all the clustered indexes in a database on the IDENTITY columns.

However, this is a bit of a trap.

You need to remember that the clustered index is not just about storage, but about retrieval. If the most common access path to your data is through, for example, a foreign key, that value might be a better choice for the clustered key. If you always retrieve the data through a date range, that might be a better choice for the clustered key. Keep in mind the standard advice for clustered keys; narrow, monotonically increase, unique. However, also remember, they are where your data is stored. It is frequently better to sacrifice one or more of the standard practices in order to be able to use your clustered index to retrieve the data in most of your queries.

Think through where and how to apply your clustered indexes, and don’t get stuck into using them in a single manner, everywhere, within your system. You get one clustered index on a table. Be sure you put it somewhere that it will work well and somewhere that it will be well used, both.

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Published at DZone with permission of Grant Fritchey, DZone MVB. See the original article here.

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