Many organisations like to count things. Counting the number of distinct elements (i.e. the cardinality) of a set is a challenge when the cardinality of the set is large. I see many use cases where an approximate result for a given query would be sufficient, rather than a completely accurate result. For example, you may have a query: “How many distinct individuals visited our website last week?”. Do you need an exact number? I would like to bring your attention to a new SQL function introduced in 12c – APPROX_COUNT_DISTINCT()
The APPROX_COUNT_DISTINCT function was added, but not documented, in Oracle 11g to improve the speed of calculating the number of distinct values (NDV) when gathering statistics using the DBMS_STATS package. Oracle Database 12c (188.8.131.52) now includes the function in the documentation so we are free to use it in our applications as a supported SQL function.
APPROX_COUNT_DISTINCT returns the approximate number of rows that contain distinct values of
This function provides an alternative to the
) function, which returns the exact number of rows that contain distinct values of
APPROX_COUNT_DISTINCT processes large amounts of data significantly faster than
COUNT, with negligible deviation from the exact result.
expr, you can specify a column of any scalar data type other than
APPROX_COUNT_DISTINCT ignores rows that contain a null value for
expr. This function returns a
In previous database versions, if we wanted to perform a count of distinct values, we would probably have done something like the following.
SELECT COUNT(DISTINCT object_name) AS obj_count FROM all_objects; OBJ_COUNT ---------- 47171 1 row selected.
This query gives us the exact count of the distinct values based on Oracle’s read-consistency model. As such, we see all the committed data, along with any uncommitted changes made by the current session.
In contrast, the new
APPROX_COUNT_DISTINCT function does not provide exact results, but should give “negligible deviation from the exact result” according to the documentation.
SELECT APPROX_COUNT_DISTINCT(object_name) AS obj_count FROM all_objects; OBJ_COUNT ---------- 46788 1 row selected.
DROP TABLE t1 PURGE; CREATE TABLE t1 AS SELECT level AS data FROM dual CONNECT BY level <= 10000; INSERT /*+ APPEND */ INTO t1 SELECT a.data FROM t1 a CROSS JOIN t1 b; COMMIT; EXEC DBMS_STATS.gather_table_stats(USER,'T1');
Now we have a table with a little over 100 million rows and 10,000 distinct values. We can see the difference in performance of the two methods is more significant.
SET TIMING ON SELECT COUNT(DISTINCT data) AS data_count FROM t1; DATA_COUNT ---------- 10000 1 row selected. Elapsed: 00:00:19.66 SQL> SELECT APPROX_COUNT_DISTINCT(data) AS data_count FROM t1; DATA_COUNT ---------- 10050 1 row selected. Elapsed: 00:00:10.46
Conceptually, for some reason this technique reminds me of a similar problem in the web development arena. Sometimes, close enough is just enough.
The “Blur Up” Technique for Loading Background Images