Top Ten Steps to Building the Right Indexes

One of the more vexing problems with relational database development is designing appropriate indexes. Perhaps the most important thing you can do to assure optimal application performance when accessing data in a relational/SQL database is to create correct indexes for your tables based on the queries your applications use. Of course, this is easier said than done.

But we can start with some basics. For example, consider this SQL statement:

    FROM     EMP 
    WHERE    EMPNO = '000010' 
    AND      DEPTNO =  'D01';

What index or indexes would make sense for this simple query? First, think about all the possible indexes that you could create. Your first short list probably looks something like this:

  • Index1 on EMPNO
  • Index2 on DEPTNO
  • Index3 on EMPNO and DEPTNO

This is a good start, and Index3 is probably the best of the lot. It enables the DBMS to use the index to immediately look up the row or rows that satisfy the two simple predicates in the WHERE clause. Of course, if you already have a lot of indexes on the EMP table, you might want to examine the impact of creating yet another index on the table.

With the caveat that appropriate index creation can be complicated, let’s look at the Top Ten things you can do to build the right indexes on your tables:

1. Index by workload, not by object

Many people make the mistake of just guessing at some indexes to create when they are creating other database objects (like tables and table spaces). Without an idea of how the tables are going to be accessed, though, these guesses are usually wrong – at least some of them.

Indexes should be built to optimize the access of your SQL queries. To properly create an optimal set of indexes requires a list of the SQL to be used, an estimate of the frequency that each SQL statement will be executed, and the importance of each query. Only then can the delicate balancing act of creating the right indexes to optimize the right queries most of the time be made.

If you are doing it any other way, you are doing it wrong.

2. Build indexes based on predicates

3. Index most-heavily used queries

Numbers 2 and 3 can be thought of as corollaries to Number 1… that is, these are the aspects of application workload that need to be examined to produce appropriate and effective indexes.

4. Index important queries

The more important the query, the more you might want to tune by index creation. If you are coding a query that the CIO will run every day, you want to make sure it delivers optimal performance. So building indexes for that particular query is important. On the other hand, a query for a clerk might not necessarily be weighted as high, so that query might have to make do with the indexes that already exist. Of course, the decision depends on the application’s importance to the business-not just on the user’s importance.

5. Index to avoid sorting (GROUP BY, ORDER BY)

In addition to building indexes to optimize data access, indexes can be used to avoid sorting. The GROUP BY and ORDER BY clauses tend to invoke sorts, which can cause performance slowdowns. By indexing on the columns specified in these clauses the relational optimizer can use an index to avoid a sort, and thereby potentially improve performance.

6. Create indexes for uniqueness (PK, U)

Some indexes are required in order to make the database schema valid. Most Database systems require that unique indexes be created when unique and primary key constraints exist.

7. Create indexes for foreign keys

Even if not required, creating indexes for each foreign key can optimize the performance when accessing and enforcing referential constraints (RI – referential integrity).

8. Consider adding columns for index only access


Sometimes it can be advantageous to include additional columns in an index to increase the chances of index-only access. With index-only access all of the data needed to satisfy the query can be found in the index alone — without having to read data from the table space.

For example, suppose that there is an index on the DEPTNO column of the DEPT table. The following query may use this index:

    FROM     DEPT 
    WHERE    DEPTNO =  'D01';

The index could be used to access only those columns with a DEPTNO greater than D00, but then the DBMS would need to access the data in the table space to return the DEPTNAME. If you added DEPTNAME to the index, that is, create the index on (DEPTNO, DEPTNAME) then all of the data needed for this query exists in the index and additional I/O to the table space would not need be needed. This technique is sometimes referred to as index overloading.

Of course, this is not always a good idea. You have to take into account whether other queries use the index and how it might negatively impact their performance.

9. Don’t arbitrarily limit number of indexes

An example of a bad standard would be to place an artificial limit on indexing. There should be no arbitrary limit on the number of indexes that you can create for any database table. Indexes are undoubtedly one of the most important factors in creating efficient queries. Relational optimizers rely on indexes to build fast access paths to data. Without indexes data must be scanned – and that can be a long, inefficient means by which to retrieve your data. When a rule such as this exists, it usually is stated in the standards manual using verbiage something like “Each table can have at most five indexes created for it” — or — “Do not create more than three indexes for any single table in the database.” These are bad standards. If you already have three indexes, or five indexes, or even 32 indexes, and another index will improve performance why would you arbitrarily want to avoid creating that index?

Anyway, a good indexing standard, if you choose to have one, should read something like this: “Create indexes as necessary to support your database queries. Limitations on creating new indexes should only be entertained when they begin significantly to impede the efficiency of data modification.” 

Which brings us to…

10. Be aware of I/U/D implications

The DBMS must automatically maintain every index you create. This means every INSERT and every DELETE to an indexed table will insert and delete not just from the table, but also from its indexes.

Additionally, when you UPDATE the value of a column that has been defined in an index, the DBMS must also update the index. So, indexes speed the process of retrieval but slow down modification.


Following these Top Ten index design techniques can go a long way toward improving not just your index usage, but also the performance of your database applications.



I'm a strategist, researcher, and consultant with nearly three decades of experience in all facets of database systems development.
This entry was posted in data, database design, indexing, SQL and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Top Ten Steps to Building the Right Indexes

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