Perspective on SQL Tuning

Fire up your favorite search engine, enter “SQL tuning” as the search term, and you are likely to detect a common theme in the results. They typically relate to modification of the database structure, such as adding or removing indexes; modification of the execution environment, such as gathering or modifying optimizer statistics; or more-substantial modifications such as rewriting the SQL or changing the physical design of the database. What is often missing in those same search engine results is a warning that any such modifications carry an inherent risk to the entire database environment in which the SQL statement is running. The larger the modification, the higher the risk.

As Oracle Database has evolved, the number of tuning tools has grown and the level of sophistication of each of these tools has also increased, giving developers and DBAs a plethora of options to explore. One consequence is that it is easy to dive straight into utilizing these tuning tools without stepping back and asking a few key questions about the SQL statement first:

  • What is the business functional requirement being served by the SQL?
  • Is the SQL correct?
  • Can this SQL ever run fast enough to meet the requirements?

Even without diving into low-level tools, it is easy to forget these questions. I’m frequently in meetings to assist with performance tuning issues, and upon my arrival, often the first thing presented to me is a single SQL statement, with no context or explanation surrounding it, and this plea: “This is the problem! Please solve it.” It may seem counterintuitive, but the first step of SQL tuning is to forget about the SQL.

The Business Requirement

No organization I’m aware of has ever had a business model of “Let’s make sure SQL runs fast,” unless that business was a SQL tuning consultancy! SQL statements, the applications that run them, and the IT departments that build and support those applications exist to meet a suite of business functional requirements. Those requirements may be created by the business as part of its desire to thrive commercially, or they may be imposed on the business by regulatory bodies. In either case, satisfying business requirements must be kept uppermost in a developer’s mindset when it comes to tuning SQL, because it drives the very decisions made by developers in creating the database design and the SQL that runs on it. Ignoring the underlying business requirements is a catalyst for poorly performing SQL.

SQL Correctness

Once the business functional requirement has been confirmed, you can turn your attention to the SQL statement. Just because a SQL statement returns without error, or even if the statement returns the correct results, that does not constitute a guarantee that the SQL statement is actually correct. Often the cause of poorly performing SQL is malformed construction, which can easily slip through testing cycles if the query results are still plausible (especially with small test datasets). Hence, when I’m asked to tune a SQL statement, I will spend a few minutes before tackling any performance-related avenues making sure that the SQL statement does not have any obvious syntax errors. Here are some of the common errors I see that typically cause SQL statements to be misdiagnosed as performance problems.


For IT professionals, there is always the temptation of “Let’s just jump into the code,” no matter what language the code is written in, and SQL code is no exception. And when it comes to the tuning of SQL, that temptation is even greater, considering that Oracle Database offers such a plethora of SQL tuning facilities. Throughout the various versions of Oracle Database, technologies such as SQL profiles, stored outlines, SQL plan baselines, tuning advisors, and optimizer hints all provide enormous opportunities for developers to improve SQL code performance.

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