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Basics of Statistics in SQL Server 2005

  • July 27, 2006
  • By Mike Gunderloy
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When we talk about statistics in SQL Server, we're not discussing a database to store your baseball card collection. No, statistics in SQL Server refers specifically to information that the server collects about the distribution of data in columns and indexes. This data in turn is used by the query optimizer to determine the plan of attack for returning results when you run a query. While in the majority of cases SQL Server takes care of this statistical recordkeeping for you automatically, it's useful to have some understanding of what's going on, and to know when you might need to intervene.

Automatic Statistics

By default, SQL Server databases automatically create and update statistics. Although you can disable this (by setting a property of the database), you should almost certainly leave it on. SQL Server needs these statistics to do a good job with query processing, and it's likely to be smarter than you about what and when to update. The information that gets stored includes:

  • The number of rows and pages occupied by a table's data
  • The time that statistics were last updated
  • The average length of keys in a column
  • Histograms showing the distribution of data in a column
  • String summaries that are used when performing LIKE queries on character data

SQL Server maintains statistics on index and key columns of all of your tables - in other words, the columns that the query processor is able to use in various ways in queries depending on the data that they contain.

Viewing Statistics

You can get an idea of the statistics that SQL Server is maintaining on a table from either T-SQL or the SQL Server Management Studio user interface. Let's look at the T-SQL solution first. The place to begin is with the sp_helpstats system stored procedure, which will list all of the statistics being maintained on a table. For example, in the AdventureWorks sample database, you can find the statistics on the Sales.SalesOrderDetail table this way:

sp_helpstats 'Sales.SalesOrderDetail', 'ALL'

statistics_name                                      statistics_keys
---------------------------------------------------- ---------------------------------
_WA_Sys_00000006_245D67DE                            SpecialOfferID
_WA_Sys_0000000B_245D67DE                            ModifiedDate
AK_SalesOrderDetail_rowguid                          rowguid
IX_SalesOrderDetail_ProductID                        ProductID
PK_SalesOrderDetail_SalesOrderID_SalesOrderDetailID  SalesOrderID, SalesOrderDetailID

Given an individual statistic, you can use DBCC SHOW_STATISTICS to retrieve detailed information:

DBCC SHOW_STATISTICS('Sales.SalesOrderDetail', IX_SalesOrderDetail_ProductID)

Name                           Updated              Rows                 
------------------------------ -------------------- -------------------- 
IX_SalesOrderDetail_ProductID  Oct 14 2005  1:59AM  121317               

Rows Sampled         Steps  Density       Average key length String Index
-------------------- ------ ------------- ------------------ ------------
121317               197    0.007550886   12                 NO 

(1 row(s) affected)

All density   Average Length Columns
------------- -------------- -------------------------------------------
0.003759399   4              ProductID
8.242868E-06  8              ProductID, SalesOrderID
8.242868E-06  12             ProductID, SalesOrderID, SalesOrderDetailID

(3 row(s) affected)

------------ ------------- ------------- -------------------- --------------
707          0             3083          0                    1
708          0             3007          0                    1
709          0             188           0                    1
710          0             44            0                    1
711          0             3090          0                    1
(additional rows removed)

The first section of the DBCC SHOW_STATISTICS output gives you general information on the statistic, including how many rows went into building the statistic (SQL Server may use only a sample of the data if the statistic is on a non-indexed column). The second section shows the sets of columns that this statistic can be used for, and statistical measures of how well this statistic will help a query locate data in those columns. The final section is the histogram showing the distribution of data. The columns in this section show the key value that demarcates the range, the number of rows that are in the range but not equal to the upper bound, the number of rows in the range that are equal to the upper bound, the number of distinct values in the range (not counting the upper bound), and the average number of duplicate values in the table for this range (which helps measure the selectivity of the statistic). Even without understanding the math behind query optimization in detail, it should be obvious that this is useful information.

Of course, these days there are many developers and administrators who prefer to work with the GUI administration tools rather than raw SQL. Fortunately, all of this information on statistics is also available in SQL Server Management Studio. Connect to a database and expand the Object Explorer tree until you find the table of interest, then drill into the Statistics folder underneath the table. There you'll find a graphical representation of all of the statistics on the table, as shown in Figure 1.

Statistics on a table

If you right-click on one of these statistics and select Properties, you'll see the general information on the statistic, as shown in Figure 2.

General properties of a statistic

Selecting the Details page shows detailed information on the statistic, as shown in Figure 3. You may recognize this format - the SQL Server Management Studio developers seem to have simply piped the DBCC SHOW_STATISTICS output to the user interface.

Detailed properties of a statistic

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