How to get the query execution plan on SQL Server

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Introduction

In this article, we are going to see how we can get the query execution plan when using the SQL Server relational database system.

The execution plan allows you to understand the operations done by the database engine when executing a specific SQL query.

SQL execution plan

The steps involved in executing a given SQL query can be visualized in the following diagram.

SQL statement lifecycle

The first step is to parse the SQL query into an AST (Abstract Syntax Tree). During parsing, the database validates the SQL query syntax and the referenced database resources (e.g., tables, columns). The Parser can preoptimize the query by eliminating parts which are not redundant.

The resulting Query Tree is sent to the Optimizer, which produces a step-by-step list of operations that are needed in order to fetch the desired result set.

The resulting execution plan is sent to the Executor, which runs it and sents the fetched result set back to the database client.

The estimated SQL execution plan

The estimated execution plan is generated by the Optimizer without running the SQL query.

In order to get the estimated execution plan, you need to enable the SHOWPLAN_ALL setting prior to executing the query.

SET SHOWPLAN_ALL ON

Now, when running the following SQL query:

SELECT p.id
FROM post p
WHERE EXISTS (
  SELECT 1
  FROM post_comment pc
  WHERE
    pc.post_id = p.id AND
    pc.review = 'Bingo'
)
ORDER BY p.title
OFFSET 20 ROWS
FETCH NEXT 10 ROWS ONLY

SQL Server will generate the following estimated execution plan:

| NodeId | Parent | LogicalOp            | EstimateRows | EstimateIO  | EstimateCPU | AvgRowSize | TotalSubtreeCost | EstimateExecutions |
|--------|--------|----------------------|--------------|-------------|-------------|------------|------------------|--------------------|
| 1      | 0      | NULL                 | 10           | NULL        | NULL        | NULL       | 0.03374284       | NULL               |
| 2      | 1      | Top                  | 10           | 0           | 3.00E-06    | 15         | 0.03374284       | 1                  |
| 4      | 2      | Distinct Sort        | 30           | 0.01126126  | 0.000504114 | 146        | 0.03373984       | 1                  |
| 5      | 4      | Inner Join           | 46.698       | 0           | 0.00017974  | 146        | 0.02197446       | 1                  |
| 6      | 5      | Clustered Index Scan | 43           | 0.004606482 | 0.0007543   | 31         | 0.005360782      | 1                  |
| 7      | 5      | Clustered Index Seek | 1            | 0.003125    | 0.0001581   | 146        | 0.0161733        | 43                 |

For brevity, not all columns have been included in the estimated execution plan above. Nevertheless, you can get a picture of what the plan contains and how it can help you figure out what the database engine does behind the scenes when executing a given SQL query.

After running the query we are interested in getting the estimated execution plan, you need to disable the SHOWPLAN_ALL as, otherwise, the current database session will only generate estimated execution plan instead of executing the provided SQL queries.

SET SHOWPLAN_ALL OFF

SQL Server Management Studio estimated plan

In the SQL Server Management Studio application, you can easily get the estimated execution plan for any SQL query by hitting the CTRL+L key shortcut.

SQL Server Estimated Execution Plan

The actual SQL execution plan

The actual SQL execution plan is generated by the Optimizer when running the SQL query. If the database table statistics are accurate, the actual plan should not differ significantly from the estimated one.

SET STATISTICS IO, TIME, PROFILE ON

To get the actual execution plan on SQL Server, you need to enable the STATISTICS IO, TIME, PROFILE settings, as illustrated by the following SQL command:

SET STATISTICS IO, TIME, PROFILE ON

Now, when running the previous query, SQL Server is going to generate the following execution plan:

| Rows | Executes | NodeId | Parent | LogicalOp            | EstimateRows | EstimateIO  | EstimateCPU | AvgRowSize | TotalSubtreeCost |
|------|----------|--------|--------|----------------------|--------------|-------------|-------------|------------|------------------|
| 10   | 1        | 1      | 0      | NULL                 | 10           | NULL        | NULL        | NULL       | 0.03338978       |
| 10   | 1        | 2      | 1      | Top                  | 1.00E+01     | 0           | 3.00E-06    | 15         | 0.03338978       |
| 30   | 1        | 4      | 2      | Distinct Sort        | 30           | 0.01126126  | 0.000478783 | 146        | 0.03338679       |
| 41   | 1        | 5      | 4      | Inner Join           | 44.362       | 0           | 0.00017138  | 146        | 0.02164674       |
| 41   | 1        | 6      | 5      | Clustered Index Scan | 41           | 0.004606482 | 0.0007521   | 31         | 0.005358581      |
| 41   | 41       | 7      | 5      | Clustered Index Seek | 1            | 0.003125    | 0.0001581   | 146        | 0.0158571        |

SQL Server parse and compile time: 
   CPU time = 8 ms, elapsed time = 8 ms.

(10 row(s) affected)
Table 'Worktable'. Scan count 0, logical reads 0, physical reads 0, read-ahead reads 0, lob logical reads 0, lob physical reads 0, lob read-ahead reads 0.
Table 'post'. Scan count 0, logical reads 116, physical reads 0, read-ahead reads 0, lob logical reads 0, lob physical reads 0, lob read-ahead reads 0.
Table 'post_comment'. Scan count 1, logical reads 5, physical reads 0, read-ahead reads 0, lob logical reads 0, lob physical reads 0, lob read-ahead reads 0.

(6 row(s) affected)

SQL Server Execution Times:
   CPU time = 0 ms,  elapsed time = 1 ms.

After running the query we are interested in getting the actual execution plan, you need to disable the STATISTICS IO, TIME, PROFILE ON settings like this:

SET STATISTICS IO, TIME, PROFILE OFF

SQL Server Management Studio actual plan

In the SQL Server Management Studio application, you can easily get the estimated execution plan for any SQL query by hitting the CTRL+M key shortcut.

SQL Server Actual Execution Plan

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Conclusion

If you need to optimize the execution of a given SQL query, you have to inspect the execution plan in order to determine what makes the query run slowly. Without visualizing the query execution plan, you cannot tell what the database does under the hood when running a certain SQL statement.

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