Explaining the Execution Plan

David Clement

September 2004

Oracle versions 7-8

For any SQL statement, the choice of the execution plan is the most important single factor in the speed of the processing. Since the optimizer chooses among available execution plans, rather than among all logically possible execution plans, and since the optimizer considers many variables in assigning costs to different execution plans, it is not easy to guess what plan the optimizer will choose. Fortunately Oracle provides tools to display the optimizer's choice.

The easiest of these to use is autotrace. Using SQL*Plus, enter set autotrace traceonly explain and then enter the SQL statement. Because of the traceonly option, the SQL statement is not executed, only evaluated. If you want the SQL statement to be executed at the same time, then use set autotrace on explain instead. Because of the explain option, the execution plan choice is displayed. Autotrace can also display statistics, as another tip in this series explains.

Autotrace is a front-end to the underlying explain plan functionality. This is a programming support utility that invokes the optimizer on a SQL statement and saves a detailed report of the execution plan in an Oracle table for later reporting. For most platforms, Oracle supplies a SQL script called utlxplan.sql to build the table, and another one called utlxpls.sql to report execution plans from the table, for those who would rather access the utility that way. It is also possible to build the plan table by hand and to execute the explain plan command by entering it at the SQL*Plus prompt, if you have a good understanding of the SQL connect by clause.

However the functionality is accessed, the output provides a list of row-source operations, their options, the objects they work on, their costs, and their cardinality. For example:

Execution Plan
0     SELECT STATEMENT Optimizer=CHOOSE (Cost=4 Card=1 Bytes=338)
1  0  NESTED LOOPS (Cost=4 Card=1 Bytes=338)
2  1    NESTED LOOPS (Cost=3 Card=1 Byte=236)
3  2      TABLE ACCESS (FULL) OF 'CRDT_RQT_ACCTS' (Cost=2 Card=1 Bytes=31)
6  1    TABLE ACCESS (BY ROWID) OF 'CRDT_RTNGS' (Cost=5 Card=1 Bytes=102)
Each line describes a row-source operation, that is, a processing step that will return rows to the step that calls it, eventually to the user process.

The numbers to the left and their indentation provide an execution tree. For example, one line reads

3  2      TABLE ACCESS (FULL) OF 'CRDT_RQT_ACCTS' (Cost=2 Card=1 Bytes=31)
In this line, 3 is the operation identifier, and 2 is the operation that called this one and will process its output. In this line, the operation is a TABLE ACCESS and its option is (FULL); together these mean that the operation is a full table scan. The object is 'CRDT_RQT_ACCTS' and in this database its cost is low, at a rank of 2, because its cardinality (the number of rows that the optimizer predicts will be returned) is low, at 1. The low cardinality and resulting low cost for a full table scan are partly why the optimizer chose that operation.

Not all the operations reported by explain plan are fully documented, but the following can be explained.

  • Four of them, delete statement, insert statement, select statement, and update statement, give the statement type and generally appear as the first line of output.
  • and-equal is an index operation that returns row ID values common to sets of row IDs; it appears as a step in some sort operations.
  • bitmap is a conversion between row ID values and bit values.
  • connect by is a hierarchical ordering of rows.
  • concatenation is a union of all rows from two or more sets into a single set.
  • count is a count of rows.
  • filter is an operation that removes rows from a set.
  • first row returns the first row only.
  • for update is a row-locking operation.
  • index is the operation that retrieves row ID values from an index.
  • intersection returns the rows common to two sets of rows, including duplicates.
  • merge join performs a table join, after a sort.
  • minus removes rows from one set of records when they appear in another set.
  • nested loops iterates through a result set and returns matching rows from another result set.
  • remote is the operation to retrieve data from a remote database.
  • sequence returns a value from a sequence generator.
  • sort is a sort operation.
  • table access is any operation that returns rows from a table.
  • union returns two sets of rows, eliminating duplicates.
  • view is the operation to execute a query behind a view.
Under certain circumstances, each of these is the best possible row-source operation. However, some of them are worth watching out for. A sort is always CPU-intensive and sometimes disk-intensive. A table access, particularly table access (full), may be much slower than the equivalent index access. Remote implies network traffic that may be time-consuming. A great deal of work might be hidden behind view.

The cost and cardinality of each operation are two values to look at with care. Even if the row-source operation is a table access (full), if it returns 5,000 rows for a cost of 2, it is efficient. The other thing to watch out for is the execution tree; if a view feeds rows to a remote that feeds rows to a sort, plan for a long lunch.

Third-party tools often supply easy keyboard shortcuts for displaying the execution plan. For instance, in TOAD, put the cursor on the SQL statement and press Control-E.