T-SQL ranking functions to the rescue once again!

This week I happened to assist with an internal application where there was a performance issue with a specific query. One of my observations with that query was that it was doing self-joins in order to determine the latest iteration of a specific record. That's a common anti-pattern which can be fixed by using T-SQL's windowing functions, such as ROW_NUMBER() or RANK().

The Inefficient Way

To give more context, here is an example from the Contoso Retail DW database. The requirement (very similar to the actual customer case) here is to obtain a list of all the customers who have placed an order with us, and for each of those customers, obtain the date of the latest order. The implementation that I first noticed was using a self-join as given below; notice the special case handling where the customer has 2 orders on the same day and then the order number (the OnlineSalesKey column here) becomes the tie-breaker:

SELECT l.CustomerKey
	,l.DateKey AS LatestOrder
FROM dbo.FactOnlineSales l
LEFT JOIN dbo.FactOnlineSales r ON l.CustomerKey = r.CustomerKey
	AND (
		l.DateKey < r.DateKey
		OR (
			l.DateKey = r.DateKey
			AND l.OnlineSalesKey > r.OnlineSalesKey

This query is *extremely* inefficient, burning 100% CPU on my i7 laptop with 8 logical CPUs! On my laptop it will run for well over 10 minutes before I get impatient and cancel. For reference, here is the estimated execution plan for the above query (scroll to the right and note the query cost of 167692).


Just for kicks, I ran the above query with MAXDOP 144 (NOT a good idea, but this was for fun) on our lab machine which has 144 logical CPUs and here is the picture I see there 🙂 Obviously NOT something you want in production!


Rewriting the query

Now, the efficient way to re-write this is to use Ranking Functions in T-SQL. These have been around a while (SQL 2005 actually!) but I feel they are under-utilized. Here is the query re-written using the ROW_NUMBER() function. This solution also elegantly takes care of the above tie-breaking logic which required the disjunction (OR predicate) in the previous query.

WITH NumberedOrders
AS (
	SELECT CustomerKey
				,OnlineSalesKey DESC
			) AS RowNumber
	FROM FactOnlineSales
SELECT CustomerKey
FROM NumberedOrders
WHERE RowNumber = 1

Here is the new execution plan. Note that the cost is also much lesser: 447.


Here are the execution statistics of this query, it completes in 43 seconds compared the self-join approach taking forever!

  • Table 'FactOnlineSales'. Scan count 9, logical reads 92516, physical reads 0, read-ahead reads 72663, lob logical reads 0, lob physical reads 0, lob read-ahead reads 0.
  • Table 'Worktable'. Scan count 0, logical reads 0, physical reads 0, read-ahead reads 31263, lob logical reads 0, lob physical reads 0, lob read-ahead reads 0.
  • SQL Server Execution Times:
  • CPU time = 19231 ms, elapsed time = 43834 ms.

Moral of the story: next time you see query patterns involving self joins to achieve this kind of 'latest record of a particular type' take a pause and see if T-SQL Ranking Functions can help!

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