Oracle Indexing – What, Where, When?

Introduction

If you
are new to databases, or perhaps new to Oracle, you may find the discussion on
indexes and indexing strategy complicated.  Don’t fret.  To get
started it’s fairly straightforward, and as long as you pay attention to the
options relevant to day-to-day dba needs, it should remain fairly simple.

Common Usage Indexes

b-tree index

The most
common index type is the b-tree index.  It is named b-tree after a
computer science construct of the same name.  Whenever you issue the basic
CREATE INDEX statement without further modifications, you’re creating a b-tree
index.  Without going into a lot of depth about b-trees which you can
investigate on your own, basically these store the values of the column you
have created the index on, and pointers to the actual table data to find the
row itself.  Keep in mind that also means multiple lookups, one for
various nodes and the leaf node of the index, and then the table row
itself.  That’s why Oracle’s optimizer will choose in certain
circumstances to do full table scans rather than index lookup, because it may
actually be faster.  Also note that if your index is on more than one
column, the leading column is very important.  For example if you have a multi-column (called concatenated) index on
columns c and d in that order, you can also do a query on column c
alone and use that index. In some other cases using Oracle’s skip- scan technology, one can do a query on non-leading columns as well.
Do a google search on “skip scan index access” for details.

function-based
index

We
mentioned that Oracle would choose not to use an index sometimes, if you’re
reading a lot of rows, or your index is not selective, or you’re using a column
other than the leading one in a concatenated index.  What about if you
want to do a case-insensitive search?  Something like:

WHERE UPPER(first_name) = 'JOHN'

This won’t
use an index on first_name.  Why?  Because Oracle would have to go
and apply the UPPER function on ALL values in the index, so it might as well do
the full table scan.  This was such a common need that Oracle created the
function-based index for this purpose.

reverse
key indexes

You also
may see these indexes, or want to use them from time to time.  Consider a column,
which includes names like "restaurant A", "restaurant B",
"restaurant C" and so on.  Perhaps a not very glamorous example,
but the point is a column with many unique values but not much variation at the
front.  Using a reverse-key index would be ideal here, because Oracle will
simple REVERSE the string before throwing it into the b-tree.  So, the
result will be a more balanced, useful, and ultimately fast index.

More Exotic Index Types on Offer

Oracle
offers quite a few more sophisticated types of indexes as well.  Please
note, these should be used after you’ve fully read the docs as they fill very
specific niches.  

bitmap
indexes

Have a column,
which is not very selective, such as gender?  You might consider using a
bitmap index on it.  That’s what they were created for.  But also
consider what’s happening behind the scenes.  Generally bitmap indexes
become useful when you have a whole bunch of them on different columns so that
they can all be used together to be more selective on rows that otherwise you’d
need a full table scan for.  So one, use them when you can have quite a
few on different columns.  Secondly, these indexes were designed for data
warehouses, so the presumption is data that does not change much.  They
are not meant for transactional or high update databases.  Updates on
tables with bitmap indexes are, shall we say, less than efficient.  

bitmap
join indexes

These
indexes take bitmap indexes one step further.  They completely take the
bitmapped columns out of the table data, and store it in the index.  The
presumption is that those sets of columns will always be queried
together.  Again, these are meant for data warehousing databases. 
The create statement looks like a CREATE BITMAP INDEX except it has a WHERE
clause at the end!

compressed
indexes

This is
really an option to a normal b-tree index.  It results in fewer leaf
nodes, so less overall I/O and less to cache.  All of this means Oracle’s
optimizer will be just a little more likely to use these than a normal
uncompressed index.  There is a cost to all of this, in CPU to uncompress
when you access these.  Also, in reading about how the optimizer uses
these, and choosing the proper compression level, it begins to look
daunting.  Your mileage may vary.

descending

These
are a special type of function-based index.  They are obviously optimized
for ORDER BY x, y, z DESC clauses.

partitioned
indexes

If you
have a partitioned table, a whole world of new index types opens up to you,
from ones that index across all the partitions (global) to ones that are
focused on each partition individually (local).  Check the documentation
for details.

index
organized tables

Imagine
you take your concatenated index, and extend it to all the columns in the
table.  Then you can remove the table itself.  That’s what an index
organized table is. 

cluster
indexes

I
personally have never seen these in the wild.  All I’ve read is they have
performance issues left and right.  Basically, you take two tables with
one column in common, and that column has a cluster index on it.

domain
indexes

These
indexes are used when creating custom indextypes for user defined datatypes. 

invisible
indexes

These
are new in 11g.  They are created as a normal index, but invisible to the
cost based optimizer.  This can allow you to test out performance of large
queries, without impacting the live running application.

virtual
(no segment) indexes

Another
tool for the testers and developers.  They allow you to test new indexes
and their effect on query plans, without actually building them.  On
gigabyte tables, the index build can be very resource intensive, and take a lot
of time.   See also the Virtual Index Wizard of OEM.

miscellaneous

There
are other types of indexes as well, such as Oracle TEXT for indexing CLOB or
other large text data, and Oracle Spatial.  Investigation of those is left
as an exercise to the reader.

It’s All About the Optimizer

Having
worked extensively with MySQL, and some other databases, I can tell you it is
not Oracle’s user-friendliness that makes it the world leader.  I could go
digress on this point, but primarily Oracle’s bread and butter is it’s
optimizer.  This is the special sauce.  And it keeps getting better
and better.  There are whole books written on the topic of the Oracle’s
CBO (Cost Based Optimizer) discussing hints (comments embedded in SQL to push
the optimizer one way or another), strategies for analyzing your tables and
indexes, and histograms for those finicky columns where data distribution is
not balanced.  

Besides
keeping your statistics up to date, you’ll want to always test your new
queries.  Use the explain plan mechanism, and optimize to reduce overall
I/O and computational sorting and merging of data, and you will be on the path
to better performance.

Conclusion

Although
the Oracle landscape of index types can be intimidating, there are really only
a few that you’ll use most often day-to-day.  Furthermore, the optimizer
has gotten so good that despite what the naysayers may go on about; on the
whole Oracle is good at getting your data efficiently.  That doesn’t mean
you don’t need to tune your SQL, but it does mean if you keep your statistics
up to date, and ask Oracle for the minimal dataset you need, it’ll probably get
it for you lickety-split!

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Sean Hull

Sean Hull
Sean Hull
Sean Hull is a business and technology consultant, author and speaker. He is the founder and senior consultant at Heavyweight Internet Group in New York and has worked as a database consultant and expert for ten years. He is the author of "Oracle and Open Source" on O'Reilly & Associates and his articles have appeared in Oracle's own OTN website, DBA Zine, ChangeThis.com, and many others. Using techniques, technologies, and perspectives discussed in the book, articles, and seminars, he has taken his career into exciting areas. He has served as Technology Consultant, Project Manager, CEO, and mentor with a background in programming, systems integration & administration, project development and management. He can be reached at [email protected] or visit http://www.iheavy.com for more info about consulting services.

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