When Data Isn’t There

I Got No Rows

Over in the Votes table in the Stack Overflow database, a couple of the more popular vote types are 1 and 2.

A vote type of 1 means that an answer was accepted as being the solution by a user, and a vote type of 2 means someone upvoted a question or answer.

I Voted!

What this means is that it’s impossible for a question to ever have an accepted answer vote cast for it. A question can’t be an answer, here.

Unfortunately, SQL Server doesn’t have a way of inferring that.


Anything with a post type id of 1 is a question.

The way the tables are structured, VoteTypeId and PostTypeId don’t exist together, so we can’t use a constraint to validate any conditions that exist between them.


Lost And Found

When we run a query that looks for posts with a type of 2 (that’s an answer) that have a vote type of 1, we can find 2500 of them relatively quickly.

Here’s the stats:

And here’s the plan:


Colossus of Woes

Now let’s ask SQL Server for some data that doesn’t exist.

Here’s the stats:

You could say things got “worse”.

Not only that, but they got worse for the exact same plan.


So What Happened?

In the original plan, the TOP asked for rows, and quickly got them.

In the second plan, the TOP kept asking for rows, getting them from the Votes table, and then losing them on the join to Posts.

There was no parameter sniffing, there were no out of date stats, no blocking, or any other oddities. It’s just plain bad luck because of the data’s relationship.

If we apply hints to this query to:

  • Scan the clustered index on Votes
  • Choose Merge or Hash joins instead of Nested Loops
  • Force the join order as written

We get much better performing queries. The plan we have is chosen because the TOP sets a row goal that makes a Nested Loops plan using narrow (though not covering) indexes attractive to the optimizer. When it’s right, like in the original query, you probably don’t even think about it.

When it’s wrong, like in the second query, it can be quite mystifying why such a tiny query can run forever to return nothing.

If you want to try it out for yourself, use these indexes:

Thanks for reading!

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