T-SQL Tuesday #111: Why, tell me why

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Time flies. It feels like the new year has just started, and yet we’re already at the second T-SQL Tuesday of the year. Our host this February is Andy Leonard (b|t), and his assigned topic is, simply: Why?

Or rather: What is your why? What motivates you, what makes you tick? And most of all: What makes you do the things you do?

The Execution Plan Reference

I do a lot of things. I have a one-person consultancy business, I have a wife and kids, I have a personal life with several hobbies, and I could talk about my motivation for all those choices, and more. But I decided to focus this post on one thing, and one thing only: why do I build the Execution Plan Reference?

Researching, verifying, and writing down all the information in the Execution Plan Reference takes time. A lot of time. And I get nothing in return. I am not paid by anyone for the time I work on this. The site doesn’t run ads, so I get nothing when people use it. In fact, I even have to pay the hosting cost out of my own pocket. It’s easy to understand why people would want to know what drives me to do this.

Inspiration

A full answer to any “why” question usually involves more than just a motivation. Yes, a motivation is the reason why you decide to do something once you have the idea. And what makes you continue to do it after the initial enthusiasm wears off. But what is it that gives you the idea in the first place? That can be something as simple as “someone asked me to”, but that is not where I got the idea for the Execution Plan Reference

Training day

The first time I gave a pre-conference session / training day / full-day workshop (or whatever other name you want to give it) on execution plans was back in 2014. I have given it several times since, and I am still submitting it to conferences. Obviously, the content has changed significantly over the past five years. But the main outline has not. I am convinced that people are smart enough that they can read and understand all execution plans, when given the proper knowledge and tools.

There is this well known saying “give a man a fish and he has food for a day; teach a man to fish and he will never be hungry”. My philosophy takes this even one step further. I don’t show people the best fishing spots. I teach people how fish behave, how weather, climate, and other factors affect them, and how that determines where they’ll go – so they will always be able to work out the best fishing spots, even when conditions change.

When I teach about execution plans, I spend only a little time on execution plans as a whole. Most of the day is then spent on individual operators. Because that is key to understanding execution plans. If you don’t understand what an operator does, how it behaves, you’ll never fully understand the execution plans it appears in. And conversely, if you understand the behavior of all operators in an execution plan, you should always be able to work out how the execution plan as whole works. And assuming you’re looking at the execution plan of a slow query (which for most people is the only reason to ever look at an execution plan), that should then also explain why it is slow.

Pluralsight

For those who never heard of Pluralsight, this is a company that sells access to online training videos. I have created a course on relational database design for them. And after the first few deliveries of my full-day training, I started talking to Pluralsight to see if they would be interested in creating a course on execution plans, based on my training day materials but even deeper and even more complete. There is only so much I can do in a single day, and I was excited by the idea of being able to go even deeper, be even more complete, in an online course.

Pluralsight and I did reach an agreement, and I started work, but due to reasons in my personal life I was unable to meet deadlines and then the contract expired. I later tried to renegotiate, but we never came to a mutually acceptable agreement anymore. I was still in a rough spot in my personal life, so I could not commit to even the most generous deadlines Pluralsight offered. And at the same time, Pluralsight noticed that the market has much more interest in short courses and short clips, then in the long and in-depth material I wanted to created, so their interest in my content waned.

Grant Fritchey

Once I realized that my proposed course would never go to Pluralsight, I did explore some alternatives for a short while, such as starting a YouTube channel – but I quickly realized that I lack the resources and skills to make good enough content to ever make that work. So I started to come to terms that perhaps I would never be able to make my training day material available outside of the limited circle of participants.

But at that time, I was already working in a tech editor role on Grant Fritchey’s excellent book “SQL Server Execution Plans, Third Edition”. And I have lost track of how often I was looking at a code sample and execution plan, reviewing Grant’s description, and then adding a comment that started with “Okay Grant, this is well beyond the scope of what we want in the book but you are going to love this. I noticed that …”

But I realized that Grant is not the only one who loves those details. There are more geeky people out there that love that kind of information. And there are even more people out there that don’t care about it, until they run into an issue and need exactly that information to help them over the bump. The book was not the right place to put that information. But if I kept it only in my head, or only between Grant and me, then the SQL Server community would never get to benefit from the effort I put into discovering all that stuff. I had to find a way to make this knowledge available to the community.

Exactly that moment, one of the many times I was editing Grant’s book and finding stuff that was too deep for the book but still very relevant, is when I got the idea of the Execution Plan Reference. It was not called that initially. I didn’t know yet what form it would take. But I did realize: I have knowledge in my head that not many people have. That information needs to be made available to the SQL Server community. And if I don’t do it, then who will?

That’s where I got the inspiration. Now let’s review the motivation.

Relevance

We all love good performance. We all hate slow queries. So when we see slow queries, we want to fix them. And it’s not just us. End users hate it if they have to wait for their screen to refresh. Managers hate applying for faster hardware. And if you think you can just migrate to the cloud and then adjust the performance slider when stuff is slow, you’ll soon learn that the CFO starts to hate you after receiving the next Azure bill.

There are lots of reasons why people want to tune slow workloads. And there are lots of ways in which people do this tuning. But not all are equally good.

We have all been in the possession of devices that sometimes mysteriously stop working, but magically start working again after a good slam with a hammer. Well, usually. Not always. And if they still refuse after multiple slams, there is no other alternative but to bring them in for repairs. A technician then opens the device, does some measurements and other smart research stuff, and then sees a place where two wires are touching to cause a short-circuit. A good slam would often separate them again, for a time. But this technician would then reattach those wires in their proper place and now they can’t even short-circuit anymore.

Many of the tuning tools and methods I find when I search the web, when I go to conferences, when I read blogs, or even when I look at official Microsoft material, is like slamming the device with a hammer. It works, often, but you have no clue why, and because you don’t really fix the root issue, it might resurface when you least expect it. Execution plans are for us what an ohmmeter is for the technician. Execution plans are the tool we can use to find out exactly what is going wrong. And once we know that, we can fix the root cause in a way that is more future proof then just trying some indexes or doing some random rewrites of our query.

Books Online

Given the relevance of execution plans for understanding and fixing performance issues, one would expect that Microsoft gives this tool a lot of live. And to a part, that is true – recent released of SQL Server have added more and more information to the execution plans, making them even better (lots better!) as a tuning instrument than they were before.

But this love does not extend to documentation. The SQL Server Documentation (previously known as Books Online) is a great resource. It really is. But not when it comes to execution plans.

Books Online has just one single page on execution plan operators. Just one. And it’s not even good. It still uses the pre-2018 versions of the icons. Some of the information there is severely outdated. Some operators are missing. And the worst part, this page even includes a few completely false and misleading statements!

None of that by itself is sufficient motivation to build a “competing” site. There are feedback mechanism that I could have used to try to get this information corrected. But the worst thing, the thing that really bugs me about the execution plan information in Books Online, is that this is the only information they have! There is so much information not included in Books Online at all, that it is simply impossible to understand many execution plans based on this information only.

Other sources

There are of course other sources. There is lots of information available on blogs. Much of it even on official Microsoft blogs from former and current employees. And even more on blogs from other people.

But if something is worth describing, it is worth describing in a simple, easily accessible location. If you are working on a slow query, and you see an operator in the execution plan that you don’t really understand, do you want to have to search the internet, read a dozen or so different blogs and whitepapers, try to filter out the good stuff from the mistakes, and then try to piece everything together? Or do you want all the relevant information at your fingertips?

I believe that Microsoft should have done a much better job of documenting execution plans. But they didn’t. And I can’t change that they don’t. I can, however, change that nobody does. So now I’m doing it.

Conclusion

When I read Andy’s question, two associations popped in my head. The first is a song that (unfortunately) was very popular in the Netherlands when it was released. I heard it way more often than I wanted to on the radio. I have deliberately not included a link because I don’t want anyone to blame me after clicking it. But I’ve had it stuck in my head for almost a week now, so thanks Andy!

But the question also made me think about a story I once heard, about George Mallory, an English mountaineer. In the years 1921 to 1924, he participated in three expeditions to Mount Everest, eventually dying on his third and last attempt. In 1922, when asked why he put all that effort into attempting to climb Mount Everest, his famous answer was: “Because it’s there”.

I am not a mountaineer. I have never liked the cold, I do like some hiking, but in very moderate amounts. And I am by now starting to reach the age where I have to pause for a breather halfway each flight of stairs. So I guess George Mallory and I are as far apart as two people can be. And that extents to motivation. My main reason for building the Execution Plan Reference is the opposite of George’s answer. I am building it, because it’s NOT there.

Tuning queries is important. The only really dependable tool for tuning queries is looking at, and understanding, execution plans. For that understanding, documentation is required. And that documentation is unfortunately not made available by Microsoft.

So why am I building the Execution Plan Reference? Because it’s not there. And because I believe it should.

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