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Differences between Unique and Non-Unique Indexes (Part II) December 21, 2007

Posted by Richard Foote in Index Access Path, Index Internals, Indexing Tricks, Oracle Cost Based Optimizer, Oracle Indexes, Primary Key, Unique Indexes.

The most significant difference between a Unique and a Non-Unique index is of course the simple fact that in one index, all index entries MUST be unique and in the other index there can be duplicates of an index entry.

Although an obvious distinction between the two, it’s also a crucial difference as well.

When Oracle uses a Unique Index to scan for a specific value (via an equality predicate on all indexed columns or when policing a constraint ), there can only be one of two possible results. The value can exist returning at the very most one value or the value doesn’t exist returning 0 values. That’s it, 1 row or none. The value either exists or it doesn’t.

This fact means Oracle doesn’t have to worry about a whole bunch of things when dealing with Unique indexes during equality or unique checking processes. It doesn’t have to check the next index entry just in case there’s a second or more entries with the same value. It doesn’t have to worry about the potential of having to skip across to the next leaf page if the specific value it reads happens to be the maximum value in the current leaf page. It doesn’t have to worry about pointers to these “adjacent” leaf blocks changing on it due to block splits. It doesn’t have to concern itself with potentially visiting more than the one table data block during the index access operation.

Life is simple, it’s either 1 row or none.

Not so for Non-Unique indexes. With a Non-Unique index, there are no such guarantees. With a Non-Unique index, there are 3 categories of possibilities. An index scan could return 0 rows, it could return 1 row or it could return more than one row. It could potentially need to go and visit more than the current leaf block to return all the matching rows. It could potentially need to go and visit more than one table block.

Life’s not quite so “simple” for a Non-Unique index.

Note also and most importantly that life gets no easier for a Non-Unique index that polices a PK or Unique key constraint.

Even though there’s a PK or Unique constraint on a column, to Oracle, it’s just another Non-Unique index with the same “vague” possibilities. Remember that PK and Unique constraints can be enabled with NOVALIDATE meaning that even with a PK or Unique constraint, there’s still the possibility of duplicate index entries in the Non-Unique index. Remember constraints can be DEFERRABLE, meaning that even with a PK or Unique constraint, there’s still the possibility of duplicate index entries in the Non-Unique index.

This means that Oracle has to concern itself with a number of additional overheads, including having to “check” the next index entry, “just in case” it matches the required index value. It has to concern itself even with the possibility of having to visit the next index leaf block, “just in case”.

You will note when Oracle performs an equality search using a Unique Index, Oracle will perform an “INDEX UNIQUE SCAN” because the index entries MUST be unique.

You will note however when Oracle performs an equality search using a Non-Unique index, even if there’s a PK or Unique constraint of the column(s), Oracle will perform an INDEX RANGE SCAN, because it needs to scan multiple index entries “just in case”.

So are there any actual implications as a result of any of this ?


When Oracle actually reads an index and processes the associated blocks in the buffer cache(s), Oracle uses a number of latches. These latches are used primarily to “protect” memory structures from concurrent activity. Very simplistically, by grabbing a latch, Oracle effectively performs a “lock” on the associated memory structure, perform whatever activity needs to be performed and releases the latch. These latches get grabbed and released (hopefully) extremely quickly (order of 1/10s of ms), but it’s a non zero value.

The issue with latches is that they’re a point of serialisation. If two (or more) processes want a specific latch, one (or more) has to wait. Latches also burn CPU. Only a teensy weeny bit at a time but some CPU nonetheless. They burn CPU while acquiring the latch and if fail due to latch contention, while attempting again and again to acquire the latch. They also burn CPU while performing the specific operation necessary of the latch.

Basically, the more latches, the greater the potential for contention, the greater the potential for latch related wait activity and perhaps most important of all, more CPU is required. In busy systems, there can be massive numbers of latch events and the best way to tune these events is to reduce where possible the number of latches required by the database environment. It’s one of the key reasons we try and reduce LIOs in a database as much as possible, to reduce the latch and CPU load on the system.

Because of the differences highlighted between Unique and Non-Unique indexes, the number and manner of latches required between the two indexes differs. And it differs significantly …

In this little demo, Latch Differences Between Unique and Non-Unique Indexes Demo, we compare the latches required to read an identical table, using a 2 level index. The  differences between the latch overheads of a Unique and a Non-Unique index are most interesting.

When using a Unique Index, Oracle required 3 consistent gets (one for the index root block, one for the leaf block and one for the table block). BUT, each consistent get was a consistent gets – examination, a special type of consistent get which only requires 1 latch (rather than the standard 2 latches).

So that’s a sum of 3 latches.

However, when using a Non-Unique index, Oracle required 4 consistent gets (one for the index root block, one for the leaf block, one for the table block and an additional one to recheck the leaf block for any duplicate index entries). BUT, only the 1 consistent read (for the index root block) was actually the “cheaper” consistent gets – examination, the other 3 were the more costly 2 latch variety.

So that’s a sum of 7 latches.

3 latches for the Unique index and 7 latches for the Non-Unique index.

That’s an increase of 133.3% in latches between the two types of indexes.

Now, the height of the index will change the ratio of latch difference between the two indexes. Also, in a busy system, there could potentially be differences in the types of latches used due to the current state or additional activity in a block.

However, the potential difference in latch requirements between a Unique or Non-Unique index can be very significant. But does a few additional latches here and there really make much of a difference ?

Well, of course it depends. On small scale systems with smaller loads, fewer indexes, fewer users and excess resources, the noticeable differences may be negligible.

However, in larger scale (especially OLTP) environments, a particular index may be accessed 100s or maybe 1000s of times a second. There may be 1000s of tables with 1000s of corresponding PK and Unique constraints policed by 1000s of Unique (or Non-Unique) indexes. It’s therefore not really of question of a few latches here or there. It’s a question of potentially a very significant proportion of overall latch related overheads.

Potentially when accessed, Non-Unique indexes could be generating double the latch related overheads for equality unique scan or unique checking index activity. Remember, the best way to tune latches and reduce latch contention is to simply reduce the requirement and load for latches.

The overall reduction in CPU and latch related wait activity could be significant between Unique and Non-Unique indexes because by using Non-Unique indexes you in the order of double the latches required for such activities.

Note also this doesn’t require any special parameters to be set or special tuning or monitoring by the DBA. It simply requires using Unique indexes to police PK or Unique constraints when there are no requirements of Non-Unique indexes. You then potentially gain a benefit each and every time the index is used for unique scan accesses.

Guess what type of access is extremely common in large scale OLTP environments …

The next time you complain about high CPU consumption or high latch contention and you’re tuned the application to death, just ask yourself how many Non-unique indexes are policing your PK or Unique Key constraints …


Do ROWID Index Row Entry Columns Impact Index Block Splits ? December 20, 2007

Posted by Richard Foote in Concatenated Indexes, Index Block Splits, Index Internals, Oracle Indexes, Richard's Musings, ROWID.

Based on a great question by Alberto Dell’Era  in my “Differences Between Unique/Non-Unique” blog entry (comment 9), I thought it might be a useful exercise to show how I go about confirming my understanding of a specific concept by trying to develop a little test case or demo that can illustrate the concept. My “magic incarnation” if you like 😉

The basic question was does the ROWID that constitutes an additional column in a Non-Unique index determine whether a particular row entry is the maximum or equivalent entry or not. Because by implication, this can determine and influence whether Oracle performs the generally preferred 90-10 splits rather than 50-50 block splits for indexed column values that at least equal the maximum value.

The answer is yes because the ROWID column is just another column in the index row entry and is simply treated the same. But how to actually “illustrate” and show this ?

I needed a way therefore to insert a ROWID that was always going to be the maximum ROWID value for a Non-Unique index. Then insert a whole bunch of subsequent ROWIDs of a lesser value than the maximum and inspect via index statistics whether the type of block splits changed from 90-10 to 50-50 block splits. Remember with the Object Number being equal (if it’s there at all), the next significant portion of the ROWID is the Relative File Number.

The plan was (reasonably) simple. Create a tablespace with one data file and fill it with something. Then add a second data file and use this to store the start of my table of interest (and of course create the index). This will create a whole bunch of rows with ROWIDs of a higher Relative File Number than those in the first data file. Then drop the first table and ensure the second table uses the free space created in the first data file. That way, a whole bunch of ROWIDs can be created that are less than existing ROWIDs because it would be using ROWIDs from the first data file, which has a lesser Relative File Number.

It’s the usual process I go through with these things. Find something that’s of interest, have some idea on how I think things work, come up with plans or strategies that will illustrate whether or not what I think is true (ensuring that somewhere in the process I include at least one reference to David Bowie ;). I can then later take the initial strategies and expand them for all applicable database options and features. Then see if anything changes between database versions and platforms.

Hopefully this demo shows you how I went about proving this: Do ROWID Index Row Entry Columns Impact Index Block Splits Demo.

The benefit of then showing these demos is that others can see exactly how I came to a conclusion, potentially try them out for oneself and perhaps see holes or flaws or shortfalls in the strategy or expand or tailor them for individual requirements or environments.

Differences between Unique and Non-Unique Indexes (Part I) December 18, 2007

Posted by Richard Foote in Constraints, Deferrable Constraints, Index Internals, Indexing Tricks, Novalidate Constraints, Oracle Indexes, Primary Key, Unique Indexes.

I’ve had a number of comments regarding my earlier blog entry where I recommended avoiding Deferrable and Novalidate constraints unless you need them and consider using Unique Indexes rather than Non-Unique Indexes where possible.

Why such a recommendation, aren’t Unique and Non-Unique indexes practically the same thing when it comes to policing constraints ?

Sure one index explicitly prevents the insertion of duplicates while the other doesn’t. Yes, dropping/disabling  a constraint policed by an automatically created Unique index causes the index to be dropped if you forget the KEEP INDEX clause.

But that’s about it, right ?

Well, if you need a constraint to be deferrable, then you must create (either implicitly or explicitly) a Non-Unique index. If you want to enable a constraint with novalidate, then again you can only do so with a Non-Unique index in place policing the constraint.

It does all rather sound like Non-Unique indexes have all the advantages and allows for all the flexibility one could want. Non-Unique indexes allows for both deferrable and novalidate constraints, they don’t get dropped when the associated constraint is dropped / disabled and they can actually police both PK and Unique constraints.

What possible benefits are there in Unique Indexes ?

Well, providing you don’t need your constraints to be deferrable, you validate your constraints when they get created/enabled and you don’t go around dropping PK and/or Unique constraints on too regular a basis (or remember the KEEP INDEX clause if you don’t want your index dropped when you do), then there are a number of reasons why you may just want to consider using Unique indexes over Non-Unique indexes.

There are actually a number of key differences between Unique and Non-Unique indexes, both in the manner in which they’re stored by Oracle and in the manner in which they get processed.

In Part I, I’m just going to focus on the differences in how Oracle physically stores index entries.

In actual fact, there’s really no such thing as a Non-Unique index in Oracle. In order for Oracle to be able to determine the location of any specific index row entry and for Oracle to be able to determine an appropriate “order” for each index row entry, internally, Oracle coverts all Non-Unique indexes into a Unique index. It does this by using the associated ROWID of the index row entry as an additional “column”. As each ROWID is unique, this effectively makes all index entries in a Non-Unique index unique as well. Oracle uses the unique combination of the Non-Unique index value and the associated ROWID to then determine the appropriate order and hence appropriate location within the index structure in which to store the index row entry.

By Oracle making the ROWID an additional column, it also has to allocate an additional byte per index row entry in order to store the length of this column. That’s one teeny weeny little byte extra for each and every index row entry.

So what ?

Well, for indexes that don’t have a particularly large index key length, that one byte can be a significant proportion of the overall key length. Now Oracle needs to allocate 2 byes per row entry for various flags and locking information, it requires 6 bytes for the rowid and 1 byte for each column entry. That’s 9 bytes minimum plus the length of the indexed value itself.

Well how large is a typical unique index entry? Well that of course all depends and some PK  / (and especially) Unique values can be quite large. But many many PK values are simply sequenced based numerical values, created nice and small so as to reduce overheads when stored in dependent child tables.

But can it really make any noticeable difference ?

Well, this little demo shows two tables with 1 million numeric PK values: Compare internal index storage between Unique and Non-Unique Indexes

Table test1 is created with a Non-Unique Index, table test2 is created with a Unique Index. The demo shows a partial block dump of a leaf block from each index, highlighting how the Non-Unique index requires an additional byte per index row entry.

The Unique index manages to hold 533 leaf entries in the block while the Non-Unique index could only hold 500. Comparing the total sizes of the two indexes, the Unique index required 1875 leaf blocks while the Non-Unique index required 1999 leaf blocks.

That’s an increase of approximately 6.6% in leaf blocks required for the Non-Unique index to store exactly the same number of index entries as the Unique Index (in this particular example).

That’s 6.6% less storage, that’s a reduction of 6.6% in block splitting and block allocations, that’s a reduction of 6.6% in the cost of full index scans, that’s 6.6% less memory required to cache the index, etc. etc.

The point here is that these savings don’t require any expensive, periodic rebuilding of indexes. They doesn’t require any additional fancy scripts or additional monitoring and processing. The DBA doesn’t have to calculate irrelevant statistics or demand scheduled outages to claim these savings.

This a getting more “dollars for your buck”  freebie from Oracle purely and simply by using a Unique index instead of an Non-Unique index.

Note also that not one or two but ALL of your numeric based PKs have the potential to get these types of savings. Obviously the larger the actual PK or Unique key values, the lesser a byte is in proportion to the overall key length and the less percentage savings.

But it’s not a bad payback for many many of your indexes, purely and simply by using Unique indexes instead of Non-unique indexes where possible …

This is but one of the benefits of using Unique Indexes. More (potentially significant) advantages to follow …

Constraints – Don’t make them DEFERRABLE or NOVALIDATE unless you need to. December 14, 2007

Posted by Richard Foote in Constraints, Deferrable Constraints, Index Internals, Oracle Cost Based Optimizer, Oracle General, Oracle Indexes, Oracle Myths, Performance Tuning.

Back when Oracle8 was released, Oracle introduced a number of new features with regard to constraints.

The first was the option of making a constraint DEFERRABLE, meaning the policing of a constraint can be deferred until the issuing of the COMMIT, rather than during the execution of an individual statement. This gave application developers more freedom in how they designed code, particularly with regard to the order in which parent – child data is inserted and manipulated.

The second new option was the ability to enable a constraint with NOVALIDATE, meaning Oracle would enable the constraint but not bother to check existing data to ensure nothing violated the constraint.

This could be useful in a number of scenarios. For example, you have data that currently violates the constraint but have urgent business requirements to enable the constraint ASAP preventing further violations, with the intention of cleaning up the existing violations at some future time.

Or you know the data is OK, so to reduce the overheads associated with enabling the constraint (eg. reading all the data to check for violations), you enable the constraint “immediately” with NOVALIDATE, bypassing the “redundant” checking.

Both deferrable and novalidate constraints therefore imply there “could” be data at any given point in time that violates the constraint. Therefore Oracle also introduced the ability to have non-unique indexes (rather than unique indexes) policing either PK or Unique constraints. For deferrable or novalidate constraints, the index must in fact be non-unique, as a unique index would prevent any such (temporary) violations of PK or Unique constraints.

Now, there are a number of interesting and subtle differences in the manner in which Oracle manages and processes a Unique vs. a Non-Unique index (eg. the amount of storage they use, the amount of redo they generate, the number of latches they acquire). This will be discussed in another Blog entry some other day.

Today, I just want to focus on a couple of interesting little side-effects with regard to how the CBO deals (or doesn’t deal)with NOT NULL and CHECK constraints that have been created as Deferrable or Novalidate.

In 9i, the CBO was clever enough to know that if someone searched for a NULL value but the column had a NOT NULL constraint, there couldn’t possibly be any data matching the criteria. Providing you had an index on the column, the CBO would generate an execution plan that used the index, found no NULL values and returned an empty row set accordingly. If you had no index, the CBO would be forced to use a Full Table Scan. So the CBO actually used an index in an efficient manner to search for non-existent nulls.

BUT, if the NOT NULL constraint was either deferrable or novalidated, then Oracle couldn’t know there were no nulls, there just might be. Therefore, Oracle was forced into the FTS regardless of the existence of the constraint or index, as null values are not indexed (unless part of a concatenated index).

See this demo for details: NOT NULLs demo with 9i

Since 10g, the CBO has become smarter. The NOT NULL example works in a very similar manner, except that the index is no longer required. If one searches for a NULL value on a column that has a NOT NULL constraint, the CBO automatically determines there can be no matching rows and returns the empty row set immediately with no LIOs. None, as accessing the data is simply not necessary.

BUT again, it can only do so if and only if the NOT NULL constraint is validated and nondeferrable, otherwise the CBO can’t guarantee no nulls.

See this little demo for details: NOT NULLs demo with 10g

Although we actually have applications that intentionally search for nulls on NOT NULL columns to return empty row sets, it’s not common that an application would perform such a search.

What is much more common is searching for a column value that simply doesn’t exist. If a column value doesn’t meet a business rule, it’s a good idea to police such business rules with Check constraints. 10g has extended the NOT NULL scenario to include Check constraints. If a search attempts to search for a column value that violates a check constraint, Oracle will immediately return an empty row set without performing any LIOs.

But once again, it can only do so if the check constraint has been validated and set as nondeferrable.

See this demo for a 10g check constraint example: Check Constraints with 10g

Making constraints deferrable or enabling them with novalidate can be useful. However, if possible, ensure constraints are not deferrable and validated as this provides the CBO with additional information regarding the columns that it might just put to good use.

Additionally, unless there’s a requirement to the contrary, use unique indexes rather than non-unique indexes to police uniqueness. But that’s a discussion for another day …

Index Internals – Rebuilding The Truth December 11, 2007

Posted by Richard Foote in Index Coalesce, Index Height, Index Internals, Index Rebuild, Index Shrink, Index statistics, Oracle Indexes, Oracle Myths, Oracle Opinion, Richard's Musings.

The issue of when to rebuild indexes crops up again and again and again. Unfortunately, so do the same incorrect, myth-filled uninspired responses which considering how important and “key” (no pun intended) indexes are to database design and performance generally, is very puzzling indeed.

In the coming days I’ll post why I believe these index related myths simply refuse to go away …

This presentation was originally written several years ago but is still as relevant today as it’s always been.

Recently updated version: Index Internals – Rebuilding The Truth