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Posted Feb 14, 2007

Getting a Handle on Indexes

By Steve Callan

So much has been written about indexes that you practically need an index to keep track of things. Performance is the number one reason why indexes are needed. However, there are situations where indexes are not needed, so how do you know when and where to index? To index or not to index, that is the question. Of the many types available in Oracle, your most common index is going to be those known as NORMAL. Okay, what does normal mean, and if an index is not normal, then what is it? Abnormal?

Gavin Powell’s Oracle Performance Tuning for 10gR2 book contains a very good “been there, done that” explanation of B-tree indexes. The book complements Oracle documentation (Concepts guide) which lists six advantages related to using B-tree indexes:

1.  All leaf blocks of the tree are at the same depth, so retrieval of any record from anywhere in the index takes approximately the same amount of time.

2.  B-tree indexes automatically stay balanced.

3.  All blocks of the B-tree are three-quarters full on the average.

4.  B-trees provide excellent retrieval performance for a wide range of queries, including exact match and range searches.

5.  Inserts, updates, and deletes are efficient, maintaining key order for fast retrieval.

6.  B-tree performance is good for both small and large tables and does not degrade as the size of a table grows.

Pictorially speaking, a B-tree index appears as such:

So, for a good, all-around general purpose index, the B-tree index is a safe bet. Of course, there are many other index types at your disposal, and in general, their use is for specific cases. For now, let’s look at a simple B-tree indexed table.

Example tables

Given a table with multiple rows and that a column of interest has null and non-null entries, and if using a B-tree index, are the records with null values indexed? If the column is indexed with a unique index, and given that nulls are unique unto themselves, are the rows with null entries indexed?

Let’s create a test table and see what the index looks like.

create table index_btree (id number);
create index idx_btree_id on index_btree(id);
insert into index_btree values (1);
insert into index_btree values (null);
insert into index_btree values (2);
insert into index_btree values (null);
insert into index_btree values (3);
insert into index_btree values (null);
insert into index_btree values (4);
insert into index_btree values (null);
insert into index_btree values (5);
insert into index_btree values (null);

Below is a simple query and the output to report on a table’s indexes (or indices).

Ten rows were inserted, and the results show the five distinct keys. Now let’s create a similar table with a unique index (and use a slightly different query).

The table with the unique index still only shows five distinct keys, and the index type is normal, so two conclusions can be drawn. The first is that even with a unique index, the index type is normal, and that the second is that nulls do not earn an entry into what we were perhaps hoping to see (ten distinct keys). The index types in a typical installation are shown below, but the Reference guide only lists five of them.

1.  IOT - TOP

2.  LOB







In addition to the “normal” B-tree index and the unique index (also of type normal), what is another normal index commonly seen? A reverse key index is also normal. Coming back to the original questions, are nulls ever indexed? The answer is yes, and nulls are indexed with bitmap indexes. Let’s drop the current index, create a bitmap index, and query the data dictionary as before:

Note that the index type now reflects BITMAP and the number of distinct keys has changed to six (the original values of 1-5, plus an incremental increase of one for the five nulls). Although nulls are not equal to other nulls, a bitmap index considers them to be just the opposite, that is, the five null values are considered to be one distinct value.

Use the right type of index

There are also fairly specific situations where certain types of indexes should never be used. One of those situations concerns using a bitmap index on an OLTP database. Creating a hot block is easy to do. Perform an update on a bitmapped index table in one session and then try an update in another session. It may be quite likely the block in question will include other records. The other session will be blocked (indefinitely) until the first session commits or rolls back. In the figure below, the top left session has updated a table. The session in the top right is blocked, and a query using V$SESSION (at the bottom) reflects the blocked session’s status.

Again, one of the advantages of using a B-tree index is that exact matches can be retrieved. Using the same table, but with a normal B-tree index back in place, both sessions can update at the same time.

Rules to live by

We know why we want to index a table, so having a short list of rules or guidelines is useful in helping us figure out how and what, and what to avoid. Powell’s book list four, and they are:

  • Use as few columns as possible
  • Only index integers if possible, preferable unique integer identifier values
  • Use variations on the simple B-tree index (reverse key, compression, and function-based) when the situation permits
  • Null values are not indexed

Two other key rules are:

  • Index columns used as foreign key references
  • Don’t use bitmap indexes on OLTP-type databases (or in databases where a lot of DML occurs)

Whatever you do with indexes, be sure to name them with some consistency. A common convention is <table name>_<column>_<type of index>. Oracle uses such a scheme in the sample schemas. The EMPLOYEES table in the HR sample schema (assuming no alterations after the initial setup) has six indexes. The names are:


By examining the names, you can tell (for the most part) what the indexes are related to. In this example, we can generally assume four of the indexes are for the name, manager, job and department columns. The primary key column (EMP_ID) is easy to identify. The EMAIL column has a unique index as well. We can use the same query from the previous examples to obtain index information for a table.

Why isn’t there any information about these indexes? Here are the descriptions of each column (as found in the reference guide):


B*-Tree level: depth of the index from its root block to its leaf blocks. A depth of 0 indicates that the root block and leaf block are the same.


Number of leaf blocks in the index


Number of distinct indexed values. For indexes that enforce UNIQUE and PRIMARY KEY constraints, this value is the same as the number of rows in the table (USER_TABLES.NUM_ROWS)

Upon further inspection, note the asterisks by each column’s name. The significance of the asterisk is spelled out in a note.

Column names followed by an asterisk are populated only if you collect statistics on the index using the ANALYZE statement or the DBMS_STATS package.

For whatever reason, the EMPLOYEES table seems to have lost its statistics. We can use DBMS_STATS to gather (and delete) statistics. After collecting statistics, the results of the query are much better.

In Closing

Indexes are extremely useful and a little knowledge can go a long way towards making a database perform well, or at least better. Where to get that knowledge may seem to be the hardest part in all of this, but Gavin Powell’s book definitely facilitates acquiring knowledge essential for being an effective DBA.

» See All Articles by Columnist Steve Callan

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