Home > DBA, EXPLAIN PLAN, Oracle, SQL > The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the EXPLAIN PLAN: The story so far (Part 1–10)

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the EXPLAIN PLAN: The story so far (Part 1–10)

On the Toad World site, I’m writing a series of blog posts and articles on the subject of EXPLAIN PLAN. I’m using EXPLAIN PLAN as a motif to teach not just SQL tuning but also relational theory, logical database design, and physical database design. In a year’s time, I hope to have enough material for a self-published book.

Part 1—DON’T PANIC: Even experienced application developers may not understand EXPLAIN PLAN output. As the great Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci said in his discourse on painting: “Those who are in love with practice without science are like the sailor who gets into a ship without rudder or compass, who is never certain where he is going. Practice must always be built on sound theory … The painter who copies by practice and judgement of eye, without rules, is like a mirror which imitates within itself all the things placed before it without any understanding of them.”

Part 2—A Long Time Ago: When magnetic disk drives first became a reality in the 1960s, a software engineer at General Electric, Charles Bachman, invented the first database management system (DBMS). He conceived of the application developer as a navigator, navigating through records of different types using indexes and pointers. For his tremendous accomplishment, he received the ACM Turing Award, the equivalent of the Nobel prize in the computer field. We call his system the “network model” because of its emphasis on the pathways between individual records.

Part 3—The Impossible Dream: To make application development easier, an IBM researcher named Edgar Codd suggested that application developers should not have to concern themselves with indexes and pointers. Instead, they should use non-procedural languages and leave the choice of access paths to the DBMS. Dr. Codd used the mathematical term “relation” (table) for a set of records of a single type and called his theory the “relational model.” In contrast, Bachman had never once used the words “table” or “relation.” Dr. Codd also received the ACM Turing Award.

Part 4—Secret Sauce: The secret sauces of the relation model are “relational algebra” and “relational calculus.” Relational algebra is a collection of operations—such as selection, projection, union, difference, and join—that can be used to produce new tables from old while relational calculus is an English-like non-procedural language for specifying the characteristics of the desired information. A relational calculus expression has to be converted into an equivalent sequence of relational algebra operations (a query execution plan) but this is the job of the DBMS not the application developer.

Introduction to Relational Algebra and Relational Calculus: Just as you can combine numbers using the operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, you can combine tables using operations like “selection,” “projection,” “union,” “difference,” and “join.” However, Codd was of the opinion that “Requesting data by its properties is far more natural than devising a particular algorithm or sequence of operations for its retrieval. Thus, a calculus-oriented language provides a good target language for a more user-oriented source language.” With the exception of the union operation, the original version of SQL was based on relational calculus though, over time, other elements of relational algebra like difference (minus), intersection, and outer join crept in.

Equivalence of Relational Algebra and Relational Calculus: Dr. Codd showed how to systematically convert a relational calculus expression into an equivalent relational algebra expression. A given collection of relational algebra operations is “complete” if the operations in the collection can be used to translate all relational calculus expressions into equivalent algebra expressions.

Part 5—SQL Sucks: In practice, we don’t use relational algebra or relational calculus but an English-like query language called SQL. As with relational calculus expressions, a SQL statement must be converted into an equivalent sequence of relational algebra operations (a query execution plan) by the DBMS. SQL is a heavily redundant language offering multiple ways of posing the same query. Unfortunately, and for no fault of the application developer, semantically equivalent but syntactically different SQL statements typically end up with different execution plans that are not equally efficient.

Part 6—Trees Rule: The DBMS converts your SQL statement into an equivalent sequence of relational algebra operations (the query execution plan). EXPLAIN PLAN output is simply a listing of that query execution plan. The Oracle documentation incorrectly states that “The execution order in EXPLAIN PLAN output begins with the line that is the furthest indented to the right.” In reality, the EXPLAIN PLAN is a “tree” structure.

Part 7—Don’t pre-order your EXPLAIN PLAN: An EXPLAIN PLAN is a “tree” structure corresponding to a relational algebra expression. It is printed in “pre-order” sequence (visit the root of the tree, then traverse each subtree—if any—in pre-order sequence) but should be read in “post-order” sequence (first traverse each subtree—if any—in post-order sequence, then only visit the root of the tree).

Part 8—Tree Menagerie: There are four varieties of EXPLAIN PLAN trees: deep-left trees, deep-right trees, zigzag trees, and bushy trees. Deep left trees are very common because the optimizer typically picks a “driving” table and then joins tables to it one by one. Deep-right trees are useful in data warehouses for joining large fact tables to small dimension tables using hash joins. Hash tables are best constructed from the smaller of the inputs so Oracle will switch the order of the inputs when necessary; this results in zigzag trees. The optimizer does not generally consider bushy trees because they increase the search space beyond its capabilities. However, it is forced to use a bushy tree when faced with an unmergeable view.

Part 9—A Forest Hymn: It is popularly believed that the number of join orderings of N tables is FACTORIAL(N) = N * (N – 1) * (N – 2) * … * 3 * 2 * 1 because FACTORIAL(N) is the number of possible permutations of N objects. FACTORIAL(N) is actually the number of deep-left trees; it omits all the other possibilities. The actual number of join orderings is much larger.

Part 10—Mystery Tree: EXPLAIN PLAN output can sometimes be very confusing. In the EXPLAIN PLAN output that we obtained for the relational calculus solution of our first teaching example “employees who have worked in all accounting job classifications,” some operations seem to be located in the wrong nodes of the tree. The mystery can be solved by referring to the “predicate information” section of the EXPLAIN PLAN output and inserting additional nodes into the tree.

Categories: DBA, EXPLAIN PLAN, Oracle, SQL
  1. Shadab
    September 22, 2014 at 10:44 pm

    Hello Iggy,

    I have seen DBA’s who work as a developer at the beginning of their career & then move to core DBA 7 they do exceptional as a DBA.

    Is it mandatory to work as a developer initially & then transition to DBA to do exceptionally well bcos most DBAs who come from non-developement background they face difficulties while tuning the database.

    Could you site some examples of DBA’s who are from non-developement background & have done exceptionally well as a Oracle DBA & are recognised as a good DBA.


    • Iggy Fernandez
      September 27, 2014 at 4:08 pm

      Hi, Shadab,

      There are “Production DBAs” (sometimes called “Core DBAs”) and “Development DBAs” and everything in between. “Performance DBA” is another specialty. The typical tasks of production DBAs and Development DBAs are installation, patching, backups, restores, high availability, replication, security, etc. so they really don’t need a development background in order to be successful. However, development DBAs and performance DBAs require a strong development background.


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