Common SQL Server Consulting Advice: Adding Computed Columns

Active Blooper


Remember yesterday? Yeah, me either. But I do have access to yesterday’s blog post, so I can at least remember that.

What a post that was.

We talked about filtered indexes, some of the need-to-know points, when to use them, and then a sad shortcoming.

Today we’re going to talk about how to overcome that shortcoming, but… there’s stuff you need to know about these things, too.

We’re gonna start off with some Deja Vu!

First, there are some session-level settings that need to be appropriately applied for them to be considered by the optimizer. This is especially important if you’re putting any logic into a SQL Server Agent job, because it uses the wrong settings for some reason.

Here are the correct settings:

  • QUOTED_IDENTIFIER ON
  • ANSI_NULLS ON
  • ANSI_PADDING ON
  • ANSI_WARNINGS  ON
  • ARITHABORT ON
  • CONCAT_NULL_YIELDS_NULL ON
  • NUMERIC_ROUNDABORT OFF

Second, computed columns are sort of like regular columns: you can only search them efficiently if you index them.

This may come as a surprise to you, but indexes put data in order so that it’s easier to find things in them.

The second thing you should know about the second thing here is that you don’t need to persist computed columns to add an index to them, or to get statistics generated for the computed values (but there are some rules we’ll talk about later).

For example, let’s say you do this:

ALTER TABLE dbo.Users ADD TotalVotes AS (UpVotes + DownVotes);
CREATE INDEX u ON dbo.Users (TotalVotes) WITH(SORT_IN_TEMPDB = ON, DATA_COMPRESSION = PAGE);

The index gets created just fine. This is incredibly handy if you need to add a computed column to a large table, because there won’t be any blocking while adding the column. The index is another matter, depending on if you’re using Enterprise Edition.

Third, SQL Server is picky about them, kind of. The problem is a part of the query optimization process called expression matching that… matches… expressions.

For example, these two queries both have expressions in them that normally wouldn’t be SARGable — meaning you couldn’t search a normal index on (Upvotes, Downvotes) efficiently.

But because we have an indexed computed column, one of them gets a magic power, and the other one doesn’t.

Because it’s backwards.

SELECT c = COUNT_BIG(*) FROM dbo.Users AS u WHERE (u.UpVotes + u.DownVotes) > 1000;
SELECT c = COUNT_BIG(*) FROM dbo.Users AS u WHERE (u.DownVotes + u.UpVotes) > 1000;
SQL Server Query Plan
connection

See what happens when you confuse SQL Server?

If you have full control of the code, it’s probably safer to reference the computed column directly rather than rely on expression matching, but expression matching can be really useful when you can’t change the code.

Fourth,  don’t you ever ever never ever ever stick a scalar UDF in a computed column or check constraint. Let’s see what happens:

CREATE FUNCTION dbo.suck(@Upvotes int, @Downvotes int)
RETURNS int
WITH SCHEMABINDING, RETURNS NULL ON NULL INPUT
AS
BEGIN
    RETURN (SELECT @Upvotes + @Downvotes);
END;
GO 

ALTER TABLE dbo.Users ADD TotalVotes AS dbo.suck(UpVotes, DownVotes);
CREATE INDEX u ON dbo.Users (TotalVotes) WITH(SORT_IN_TEMPDB = ON, DATA_COMPRESSION = PAGE);

SELECT c = COUNT_BIG(*) FROM dbo.Users AS u WHERE (u.DownVotes + u.UpVotes) > 1000;

Remember that this is the query that has things backwards and doesn’t use the index on our computed column, but look what happened to the query plan:

SQL Server Query Plan
me without makeup

Querying a completely different index results in a plan that SQL Server can’t parallelize because of the function.

Things that won’t fix this:

  • SQL Server 2019 scalar UDF inlining
  • Persisting the computed column
  • Using a different kind of T-SQL function; you can’t use them in computed columns

Things that might fix this:

Fifth: Column store indexes are weird with them. There’s an odd bit of a matrix, too.

  • Anything before SQL Server 2017, no dice
  • Any nonclustered columnstore index through SQL Server 2019, no dice
  • For 2017 and 2019, you can create a clustered columnstore index on a table with a computed column as long as it’s not persisted
--Works
CREATE TABLE clustered_columnstore (id int, some_date datetime, next_date datetime, diff_date AS DATEDIFF(MILLISECOND, some_date, next_date));
CREATE CLUSTERED COLUMNSTORE INDEX c ON dbo.clustered_columnstore;

--Doesn't work
CREATE TABLE nonclustered_columnstore (id int, some_date datetime, next_date datetime, diff_date AS DATEDIFF(MILLISECOND, some_date, next_date));
CREATE NONCLUSTERED COLUMNSTORE INDEX n ON dbo.nonclustered_columnstore(id, some_date, next_date, diff_date);

--Clean!
DROP TABLE dbo.clustered_columnstore, dbo.nonclustered_columnstore;

--Doesn't work, but throws a misleading error
CREATE TABLE clustered_columnstore (id int, some_date datetime, next_date datetime, diff_date AS DATEDIFF(MILLISECOND, some_date, next_date) PERSISTED);
CREATE CLUSTERED COLUMNSTORE INDEX c ON dbo.clustered_columnstore;

--Still doesn't work
CREATE TABLE nonclustered_columnstore (id int, some_date datetime, next_date datetime, diff_date AS DATEDIFF(MILLISECOND, some_date, next_date) PERSISTED);
CREATE NONCLUSTERED COLUMNSTORE INDEX n ON dbo.nonclustered_columnstore(id, some_date, next_date, diff_date);

--Clean!
DROP TABLE dbo.clustered_columnstore, dbo.nonclustered_columnstore;

General Uses


The most general use for computed columns is to materialize an expression that a query has to filter on, but that wouldn’t otherwise be able to take advantage of an index to locate rows efficiently, like the UpVotes and DownVotes example above.

Even with an index on UpVotes, DownVotes, nothing in your index keeps track of what row values added together would be.

SQL Server has to do that math every time the query runs and then filter on the result. Sometimes those expressions can be pushed to an index scan, and other times they need a Filter operator later in the plan.

Consider a query that inadvisably does one of these things:

  • function(column) = something
  • column + column = something
  • column + value = something
  • value + column = something
  • column = case when …
  • value = case when column…
  • convert_implicit(column) = something

As long as all values are known ahead of time — meaning they’re not a parameter, variable, or runtime constant like GETDATE() — you can create computed columns that you can index and make searches really fast.

Take this query and index as an example:

SELECT c = COUNT_BIG(*) FROM dbo.Posts AS p WHERE DATEDIFF(YEAR, p.CreationDate, p.LastActivityDate) > 9;
CREATE INDEX p ON dbo.Posts(CreationDate, LastActivityDate) WITH(SORT_IN_TEMPDB = ON, DATA_COMPRESSION = PAGE);

The best we can do is still to read every row via a scan:

SQL Server Query Plan
still not good

But we can fix that by computing and indexing:

ALTER TABLE dbo.Posts ADD ComputedDiff AS DATEDIFF(YEAR, CreationDate, LastActivityDate);
CREATE INDEX p ON dbo.Posts(ComputedDiff) WITH(SORT_IN_TEMPDB = ON, DATA_COMPRESSION = PAGE, DROP_EXISTING = ON);

And now our query plan is much faster, without needing to go parallel, or more parallel, to get faster:

SQL Server Query Plan
improvement!

SQL Server barely needs to flinch to finish that query, and we get an actually good estimate to boot.

Crappy Limitations


While many computed columns can be created, not all can be indexed. For example, something like this would be lovely to have and to have indexed:

ALTER TABLE dbo.Users ADD RecentUsers AS DATEDIFF(DAY, LastAccessDate, SYSDATETIME());
CREATE INDEX u ON dbo.Users (RecentUsers);

While the column creation does succeed, the index creation failed:

Msg 2729, Level 16, State 1, Line 177

Column ‘RecentUsers’ in table ‘dbo.Users’ cannot be used in an index or statistics or as a partition key because it is non-deterministic.

You also can’t reach out to other tables:

ALTER TABLE dbo.Users ADD HasABadge AS CASE WHEN EXISTS (SELECT 1/0 FROM dbo.Badges AS b WHERE b.UserId = Id) THEN 1 ELSE 0 END;

SQL Server doesn’t like that:

Msg 1046, Level 15, State 1, Line 183

Subqueries are not allowed in this context. Only scalar expressions are allowed.

There are other, however these are the most common disappointments I come across.

Some of the things that computed columns fall flat with are things we can remedy with indexed views, but boy howdy are there a lot of gotchas.

We’ll talk about those tomorrow!

Going Further


If this is the kind of SQL Server stuff you love learning about, you’ll love my training. I’m offering a 75% discount on to my blog readers if you click from here. I’m also available for consulting if you just don’t have time for that and need to solve performance problems quickly.

A Not So Silent Bug With Filtered Indexes On Computed Columns In SQL Server

Bugbash


At some point in the past, I blogged about a silent bug with computed columns and clustered column store indexes.

In this post, I’m going to take a quick look at a very loud bug.

Normally, you can’t add a filtered index to a computed column. I’ve always hated that limitation. How nice would that be for so many currently difficult tasks?

I wonder if Oracle…

You Can’t Do That On Television


If you run this code to completion — and boy are you missing out if you don’t — you get an error.

CREATE TABLE dbo.ohno
(
    id int NOT NULL, 
    crap AS id * 2
);
GO 

CREATE NONCLUSTERED INDEX c 
ON dbo.ohno
    (crap) 
WHERE crap > 0;
GO

Here’s the error:

Msg 10609, Level 16, State 1, Line 13
Filtered index 'c' cannot be created on table 'dbo.ohno' because the column 'crap' in the filter expression is a computed column. 
Rewrite the filter expression so that it does not include this column.

Okay, great! Works on my machine.

Kapow, Kapow


However, you can totally create this table using the inline index creation syntax.

CREATE TABLE dbo.ohyeah
(
    id int NOT NULL, 
    crap AS id * 2,
    INDEX c 
        (crap) 
    WHERE crap > 0
);
GO

However,  if you try to query the table, you’re met with a buncha errors.

SELECT
    id
FROM dbo.ohyeah AS o;

SELECT
c = COUNT_BIG(*)
FROM dbo.ohyeah AS o;

Even without explicitly referencing the computed column, you get this error message.

Msg 207, Level 16, State 1, Procedure ohyeah, Line 1 [Batch Start Line 29]
Invalid column name 'crap'.
Msg 207, Level 16, State 1, Procedure ohyeah, Line 1 [Batch Start Line 29]
Invalid column name 'crap'.
Msg 207, Level 16, State 1, Procedure ohyeah, Line 1 [Batch Start Line 29]
Invalid column name 'crap'.
Msg 207, Level 16, State 1, Procedure ohyeah, Line 1 [Batch Start Line 29]
Invalid column name 'crap'.
Msg 207, Level 16, State 1, Procedure ohyeah, Line 1 [Batch Start Line 29]
Invalid column name 'crap'.
Msg 4184, Level 16, State 2, Line 30
Cannot retrieve table data for the query operation because the table "dbo.ohyeah" schema is being altered too frequently. 
Because the table "dbo.ohyeah" contains a filtered index or filtered statistics, changes to the table schema require a refresh of all table data. 
Retry the query operation, and if the problem persists, use SQL Server Profiler to identify what schema-altering operations are occurring.

You see what? See you what that error message says? “[I[f the problem persists, use SQL Server Profiler to identify what schema-altering operations are occurring”

Use SQL Server Profiler.

Take that, Extended Events.

Thanks for reading!

Going Further


If this is the kind of SQL Server stuff you love learning about, you’ll love my training. I’m offering a 75% discount on to my blog readers if you click from here. I’m also available for consulting if you just don’t have time for that and need to solve performance problems quickly.

Computed Column Follies In SQL Server

Darnit


While helping a client out with a performance problem recently, I ran into something kind of funny when creating a computed column.

They were experiencing performance problems because of a join involving a substring.

Weird, right? Like, if I tried to show you this in a presentation, you’d chase me out of the room.

But since they were nice enough to hire me, I went about fixing the problem.

Computer Magic


The “obvious” — and I apologize if this isn’t obvious to you, dear reader — was to add a computed column to work around the issue.

Adding a computed column gives you the expression that you’re generating on the fly and trying to join on. Because manipulating column data while you’re joining or filtering on it is generally a bad idea. Sometimes you can get away with it.

But here’s something that messed me up, a uh… seasoned database professional.

The query was doing something like this (not exactly, but it’s good enough to get us moving):

SELECT COUNT(*) AS records
FROM dbo.Users AS u
WHERE SUBSTRING(u.DisplayName, 1, LEN(u.DisplayName) - 4)
 = SUBSTRING(u.DisplayName, 1, LEN(u.DisplayName) - 4);

Matching strings from the beginning to the end minus four characters.

I wanted to look smart, so I did this:

ALTER TABLE dbo.Users 
    ADD DisplayNameComputed
	    AS SUBSTRING(DisplayName, 1, LEN(DisplayName) - 4);

I didn’t want to persist it right away — that can lock the table and take longer — and because I knew I was going to index it.

The problem is that when I tried to index it:

CREATE INDEX dummy 
    ON dbo.Users(DisplayNameComputed);

I got this error:

Msg 537, Level 16, State 3, Line 21
Invalid length parameter passed to the LEFT or SUBSTRING function.

And when I tried to select data from the table, the same error.

In the real query, there was a predicate that avoided columns with too few characters, but it was impossible to apply that filter to the index.

There’s also other restrictions on filtered index where clauses, like you can’t like LIKE ‘____%’, or LEN(col) > 4, etc.

Case Of Mace


Having done a lot of string splitting in my life, I should have been more defensive in my initial computed column definition.

What I ended up using was this:

ALTER TABLE dbo.Users 
    ADD DisplayNameComputed
	    AS SUBSTRING(DisplayName, 1, LEN(DisplayName) 
		- CASE WHEN LEN(DisplayName) < 4 THEN LEN(DisplayName) ELSE 4 END);

A bit more verbose, but it allowed me to create my computed column, select from the table, and create my index.

AND THEY ALL LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER

Just kidding, there was still a lot of work to do.

Thanks for reading!

Going Further


If this is the kind of SQL Server stuff you love learning about, you’ll love my training. I’m offering a 75% discount on to my blog readers if you click from here. I’m also available for consulting if you just don’t have time for that and need to solve performance problems quickly.