Explain the Explain Plan: Join Methods

Continuing my blog series on reading and interpreting Oracle execution plans, this week’s post covers the different Join Methods and types available to the Optimizer.

What is an Oracle Join Method?

Join Methods are the techniques used by the Oracle Optimizer to join data coming from two data producing operators in an execution plan. You can find the individual Join Methods chosen by the Optimizer in the Operations column of an Execution table.

How many Join Methods does the Optimizer have to choose from?


The Oracles Optimizer supports three join methods; Nested Loops, Hash Join and Sort Merge Join.

Nested Loops Join

Nested loops joins are useful when small subsets

of data are being joined and if there is an efficient way of accessing the second table (for example an index lookup).

For every row in the first table (the outer table), Oracle accesses all the rows in the second table (the inner table) looking for a match. You can think of it as a set of embedded FOR loops.

NOTE: In Oracle Database 11g the internal implementation for nested loop joins changed to reduce overall latency for physical I/O. You may see two NESTED LOOPS operators in the plan’s operations column, where you previously only saw one on earlier versions of Oracle. You can find more details on why there are two operators in the video below.

Hash Joins

Hash joins are used for joining large data sets. The Optimizer uses the smaller of the two tables or data sources to build a hash table, based on the join key, in memory. It then scans the larger table and performs the same hashing algorithm on the join column(s). It then probes the previously built hash table for each value and if they match, it returns a row.

Sort Merge Joins

Sort Merge joins are useful when the join condition between two tables is an in-equality condition such as, <, <=, >, or >=. Sort merge joins can perform better than nested loop joins for large data sets. The join consists of two steps:

  1. Sort join operation: Both the inputs are sorted on the join key.
  2. Merge join operation: The sorted lists are merged together.

A Sort Merge join is more likely to be chosen if there is an index on one of the tables that will eliminate one of the sorts.

When will the Optimizer choose each of these methods, and what can I do to influence that decision?

To clearly explain how each of the Join Methods works and when they will be chosen, I’ve created the short video below.

What if I don’t get the Join Method I want?

The leading cause of getting the wrong Join Method is typically a cardinality misestimate on the table on the left-hand side of the join.  That’s why Oracle introduced Adaptive Plans and more specifically Adaptive Join Methods in Oracle Database 12c to help automatically correct itself if the wrong Join Method is chosen.

How Adaptive Joins work

During the initial execution of a plan, if Oracle detects that the Optimizer’s cardinality estimates were wrong, the join method can be changed “on the fly” to a better option.

It’s possible to change an adaptive plan “on the fly” because it consists of a default plan, which is the plan that the Optimizer picks based on the current statistics and an alternative method for various portions of the plan. For example, the default plan could be a Nested Loops plan, and the alternative(subplan) would be a Hash join.

A new operated called a Statistics Collector is inserted into the plan, right above the table on the left-hand side of the join, which will buffer the rows coming out of the table until we can get a sense of how many rows will be returned. Once we know the number of rows returned or the number is above a certain threshold, the Optimizer will choose the final join method. After the initial execution, the Statistics Collector and the subplan components not chosen become no-ops, and the impact on execution plan performance is nill.

Don’t forget this post is part of a series of posts on interpreting execution plans, which also covers, how to generate plans, cardinality estimates, and access methods.

The next instalment will be all about join orders.


Explain the Explain Plan: Access Methods

At the end of last year, I began a blog series on reading and interpreting Oracle execution plans. In this week’s post, I will tackle the aspect of execution plans that I get the most questions about, Access Methods.

What are Oracle Access Paths or Methods?

Access Methods or Access Paths are the techniques used by Oracle to access the data needed to answer a query. Access Methods can be divided into two categories; data accessed via a table scan or index access. You can find the individual Access Methods chosen by the Optimizer in the Operations column of an Execution table.

How Many Access Paths are available to the Optimizer?

Oracle supports nine different Access Methods today, as shown in the image below.

When will the Optimizer choose each of these methods, and what can I do to influence that decision?

To clearly explain how each of the Access Methods works and when it will be chosen, I’ve created a short video.

What if I don’t get the Access Method I want?

If the Access Method you see in an execution plan is not what you expect, check the cardinality estimates for that object are correct, and the join order allows the access method you desire. Remember, Optimizer transformations (the rewriting of your query to open up additional access methods) can also greatly impact the Access Method.

SQL Tuning Tips You Can’t Do Without

Last week I had the pleasure to present at the aioug Sangam 20 on one of my favorite topics, SQL Tuning.

Often we are lead to believe you need a degree in wizardry to be able to tune sub-optimal SQL statement but in reality, you usually just need to know where to look.

In the session, I look at four different SQL statements that have sub-optimal plans and share details on where I look for information to help me understand why. Once I know the root cause of a problem, it’s easy to apply the appropriate solution.

For those who couldn’t make the session in person, you can download the slides here.

Explain the Explain Plan: Cardinality Estimates

In last week’s post, I began a series on how to read and interpret Oracle execution plans by explaining what an execution plan is and how to generate one. This week I’m going to tackle the most important piece of information the Optimizer shares with you via the execution plan, it’s cardinality estimates.

What is a Cardinality Estimate?

A cardinality estimate is the estimated number of rows, the optimizer believes will be returned by a specific operation in the execution plan. The Optimizer determines the cardinality for each operation based on a complex set of formulas that use table and column level statistics as input (or the statistics derived by dynamic sampling). It’s considered the most important aspect of an execution plan because it strongly influences all of the other decisions the optimizer makes.

In part 4 of our series, I share some of the formulas used by the optimizer to estimate cardinalities, as well as showing you how to identify cardinalities in a plan. I also demonstrate multiple ways to determine if the cardinality estimates are accurate.

What can cause a Cardinality Misestimate and how do I fix it?

Several factors can lead to incorrect cardinality estimates even when the basic table and column statistics are up to date. In part 5 of our series, I explain the leading causes of cardinality misestimates and how you can address them.

Next weeks, instalment will be all about the different access methods available to the Optimizer and what you can do to encourage the optimizer to select the access method you want!

Don’t forget this series also covers, how to read an explain plan as well as the different join methods and join orders.

Don’t forget more information on the Oracle Optimizer can always be found on the Optimizer blog.

Explaining the Explain Plan – How to Read and Interpret Execution Plans


Examining the different aspects of an execution plan, from cardinality estimates to parallel execution, and understanding what information you should glean from it can be overwhelming even for the most experienced DBA.

That’s why I’ve put together a series of short videos that will walk you through each aspect of the plan and explain what information you can find there and what to do if the plan isn’t what you were expecting.

What is an Execution Plan?

The series starts at the very beginning with a comprehensive overview of what an execution plan is and what information is displayed in each section. After all, you can’t learn to interpret what is happening in a plan, until you know what a plan actually is.

How to Generate an Execution Plan?

Although multiple different tools will display an Oracle Execution Plan for you, there really are only two ways to generate the plan. You can use the Explain Plan command, or you can view the execution plan of a SQL statement currently in the Cursor Cache using the dictionary view V$SQL_Plan. This session covers both techniques for you and provides insights into what additional information you can get the Optimizer to share with you when you generate a plan. It also explains why you don’t always get the same plan with each approach, as I discussed in an earlier post.

How to use DBMS_XPLAN to FORMAT an Execution Plan

The FORMAT parameter within the DBMS_XPLAN.DISPLAY_CURSOR function is the best tool to show you detailed information about a what’s happened in an execution plan including the bind variable values used, the actual number of rows returned by each step, and how much time was spent on each step.  I’ve also covered a lot of the content in this video in a previous post.

Part 2 of the series covers Cardinality Estimates and what you can do to improve them!

Part 3 of the series covers access Methods and what you can do if you don’t get the access method you were expecting.

Part 4 of the series covers Join Methods and when you can expect each one and what to do if you don’t get the join method you were expecting.

Remember you can always get more information on the Oracle Optimizer on the Optimizer team’s blog.

How to read a Parallel Execution Plan in Oracle

The volume of data being stored in databases has grown exponentially in recent years. So too has the need to rapidly generate value or business insights from that data.

Parallel execution is the key to processing large volumes of diverse data quickly, as it subdivides complex tasks into a number of small tasks allowing multiple processes to accomplish a single complex task.

However, the use of parallelism can complicate the execution plan displayed. Oracle not only displays the operations needed to complete the SQL statement in the plan but all of the communication steps between the parallel server processes.

So, how should you go about interpreting a parallel execution plan?

In the video below, I give you a step by step guide on how to read parallel plans and what additional information you can glean from them!

What are Query Block Names and how to find them

I got a lot of follow-up questions on what Query Block names are and how to find them, after my recent post about using SQL Patches to influence execution plans. Rather than burying my responses in the comment section under that post, I thought it would be more useful to do a quick post on it.

What are query blocks?

query block is a basic unit of SQL. For example, any inline view or subquery of a SQL statement are considered separate query blocks to the outer query.

The simple query below has just one sub-query, but it has two Query Blocks—one for the outer SELECT and one for the subquery SELECT.

Oracle automatically names each query block in a SQL statement based on the keyword using the following sort of name; sel$1, ins$2, upd$3, del$4, cri$5, mrg$6, set$7, misc$8, etc.

Given there are two SELECT statements in our query, the query block names will begin with SEL. The outer query will be SEL$1 and the inner query SEL$2.

How do I find the name of a query block?

To find the Query Block name, you can set the FORMAT parameter to ‘+alias’ in the DBMS_XPLAN.DISPLAY_CURSOR command. This will display the contents of the OBJECT_ALIAS column in the PLAN_TABLE, as a new section under the execution plan.

The new section will list the Query Block name for each of the lines in the plan.

SQL_ID 4c8bfsduxhyht, child NUMBER 0
SELECT e.ename, e.deptno FROM emp e WHERE e.deptno IN (SELECT d.deptno 
FROM dept d WHERE d.loc='DALLAS')
Plan hash VALUE: 2484013818
| Id  | Operation	   | Name | ROWS  | Bytes | Cost (%CPU)| TIME	  |
|   0 | SELECT STATEMENT   |	  |	  |	  |	5 (100)|	  |
|*  1 |  HASH JOIN SEMI    |	  |	5 |   205 |	5  (20)| 00:00:01 |
|   2 |   TABLE ACCESS FULL| EMP  |    14 |   280 |	2   (0)| 00:00:01 |
|*  3 |   TABLE ACCESS FULL| DEPT |	1 |    21 |	2   (0)| 00:00:01 |
Query Block Name / Object Alias (IDENTIFIED BY operation id):
1 - SEL$5DA710D3
2 - SEL$5DA710D3 / E@SEL$1
3 - SEL$5DA710D3 / D@SEL$2
Predicate Information (IDENTIFIED BY operation id):
1 - access("E"."DEPTNO"="D"."DEPTNO")

As you can see, @SEL1 is the Query Block name for the outer query, where the EMP table is used, and @SEL2 is the Query Block name for the sub-query, where the DEPT tables is used.

Continue reading “What are Query Block Names and how to find them”

How to use a SQL Plan Baseline or a SQL Patch to add Optimizer hints

In a recent chat with Connor McDonald, we discussed if it is realistic to have applications that don’t contain Optimizer hints. Ideally, the answer to this question is “yes”, you don’t need hints if you have a well-written application and you have supplied a representative set of statistics and all the possible constraint information (NOT NULL, Primary keys, Foreign Keys, etc.) to the Optimizer.

But in reality even with all of this in place, there can be cases where something goes wrong with the execution plan for a critical SQL statement and you get called in to fix.

During our chat, Connor used a very apt analogy to describe this situation. He said it was like having a patient arrive in the emergency room, who is bleeding profusely. Your first priority is to stop the patient from bleeding by slapping a band-aid on the wound.

The same is true for our poorly performing SQL statement. Our initial response is to add an optimizer hint to get the SQL statement’s execution plan back to a reasonable response time or acceptable performance.

But once a patient has been stabilized in the emergency room, medical professionals normally take that patient into surgery to make a permanent fix or at the very least stitch up the wound properly.

We need to make sure we do the same thing for our SQL statements.

Rather than leaving a band-aid in the application code in the form of an optimizer hint, we should either fix the root cause or at the very least, make a permanent fix that can be easily traced and ideally can evolve over time.

That’s why you often hear me say, “if you can hint it, you can baseline or patch it”.

What do I mean by that?

I mean we should capture the hinted plan as a SQL plan baseline or at the very least insert the hints via a SQL Patch so that we know that this statement is patched (the use of a SQL patch is visible in the note section of the plan).

Continue reading “How to use a SQL Plan Baseline or a SQL Patch to add Optimizer hints”

SQL Tuning Workshop

Last week I had the pleasure of delivering a five-part SQL Tuning Workshop for my local Oracle User Group –  Northern California Oracle User Group. The workshop explains the fundamentals of the cost-based optimizer, the statistics that feed it, the hints that influence it and key tools you need to exam executions plans.

The workshop also provides a methodology for diagnosing and resolving the most common SQL execution performance problems. Given the volume of interest in this content, I want to share all of the material from the workshop here and give you links to additional material on each of the 5 topics.

Part 1 Understanding the Oracle Optimizer

The first part of the workshop covers the history of the Oracle Optimizer and explains the first thing the Optimizer does when it begins to optimize a query – query transformation.

Query transformations or the rewriting of the SQL statement into a semantically equivalent statement allows the Optimizer to consider alternative methods of processing or executing that query, which are often more efficient than the original SQL statement would allow. the majority of Oracle’s query transactions are now cost-based, which means the Optimizer will cost the plan with and with the query transformation and pick the plan with the lowest cost. With the help of the Optimizer development team, I’ve already blogged about a number of these transformations including:

You can also download the slides here.

Part 2 Best Practices for Managing Optimizer Statistics

Part 2 of the workshop focuses on Optimizer Statistics and the best practices for managing them, including when and how to gather statistics, including fixed object statistics.
Continue reading “SQL Tuning Workshop”

Automatic Collection of Fixed Objects Statistics in 12c

In my previous life as the Optimizer Lady, I wrote a blog on the importance of gathering fixed object statistics, since they were not originally gathered as part of the automatic statistics gather task.

Starting with Oracle Database 12c Release 1, Oracle will automatically gather fixed object statistics as part of automated statistics gathering task, if they have not been previously collected.Does that mean we are off the hook then?

The answer (as always) is it depends!

Let me begin by explaining what we mean by I the term “fixed objects”.

Continue reading “Automatic Collection of Fixed Objects Statistics in 12c”