Slow Reports for Query Store

My first “Holy crap!” moment with Query Store was when I enabled it in production and the dang thing promptly cleared the plan cache (as designed, apparently). My second was seeing the next day’s CPU utilization nearly doubled due to spinlock contention (since fixed in a CU). Talk about side effects. In light of this, do you think I have Query Store enabled in production? Yes, yes I do, because it’s just so useful.

The Problem

My other big complaint is that often the built-in reports don’t work. You know, the ones double-clickable in SSMS like “Top Resource Consuming Queries.” All I get is Waiting… that runs forever.

I once let it run for a couple hours with no luck. And killing the query somehow cleared the plan cache too! Holy crap #3. Thankfully I have an AG, and my good-enough workaround was to run the reports on a secondary while I pursued other problems.

Then, one day I had to check Query Store in a lower environment, and behold, I had the same slowness issue, but the report actually finished! Pent up annoyance boiled into action, and I pulled the query, ran it, snagged the actual plan, and caught the surprise culprit.

In all the slow variations I found, the pattern was the same. Repeated access to a TVF packaged with sys.query_store dmvs would consume huge amounts of CPU, most commonly occurring alongside a Row Count Spool. It didn’t even matter if the TVF returned zero rows – it was just the number of access times, averaging around 60ms each on my production system. Multiply that across hundreds of thousands of plans/queries being checked, and you have a recipe for slow.

The solution will be to set up plan guides for the SSMS queries that avoid repeated reads of the TVFs. But why stop here? [Actually, feel free to stop here. There’s nothing but gratuitous nerdery until the fix-it scripts] I have PerfView, and I know how to use it!

Fruitless Investigation

Well that’s interesting – pretty much all CPU went into CopyOutAllPlans. But why stop here? I have windbg, and I pretend to know how to use it!

I learned a new trick in windbg, and discovered that AdvanceToNextPlan was getting called hundreds of thousands of times per TVF execution – again, regardless of whether any rows were returned. My current hypothesis is that this TVF has to scan the entire memory allocation of its object, each and every time. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to figure out which memory object it falls under, as FREESYSTEMCACHE(‘ALL’) did nothing to the in-memory QS data. I’m trying to improve my windbg skills enough to figure out memory information from debugging, but that may be a ways off.


It was a little tough getting a plan guide to work, due to a requirement that the query match character for character, but my solution is to pull the exact text from the plan as it’s running. So the fix is to:
1) Open up Top Resource Consuming Queries
2) Run the below script while the report is still spinning
3) Cancel the report and run again.
The process can be repeated for the reports you actually look at, just remember to use a new plan guide name!

I’m certain there’s a more efficient combination of hints than (HASH JOIN, LOOP JOIN) to prevent the problem, but these have worked well enough for me so far. Please let me know if you find something better.

There aren’t many folks using Query Store, or even 2016 yet, so I guess I’m paying the early-adopter tax (you’re welcome). But for all the frustrating issues I’ve encountered, I still see a genuinely useful product mixed in. And the “Holy crap!” moments keep pushing me to deepen my skills and write mildly entertaining blog posts wherein I pretend to use windbg.

The Three Physical Joins, Visualized

Less than a month into my first SQL job, I was handed a report that “suddenly stopped working.” I followed the Excel sheet to a data connection to a stored procedure to a SELECT to a view on a view on a view.
The difference between the query that worked and the one that never finished (at least, over the 10 hours I let it run), was a Hash versus a Loop join. It was my first introduction to query plans and to the importance of physical joins.

But what are they? Distinct from logical joins (INNER, OUTER, CROSS, etc.), physical joins are the different algorithms available to actually compare data from different tables. You don’t have to specify which one SQL Server will use, and usually SQL Server gets it right. But there’s a large gap between usually and always, and the fine art of query tuning lives in that gap. Having a good understanding of the joins is essential for mastering tuning (if mastery is even possible), so let’s take a look.

Nested Loops

Overview: The simplest algorithm is Nested Loops. Imagine you have two piles [tables] of values, and you want to find the matches. Take the first value from the first pile, and compare it to each value in the second pile. Then grab the next value from the first pile, and compare to everything in the second. Grab the third value…wash, rinse, repeat. If you write the pseudo-code for the algorithm, it looks something like below.

Hey, it’s one For-Each loop inside of another loop…you might even say, Nested inside of another. Ahem. Anyways, here’s a visualization.

Drawbacks: An important detail of Nested Loops to notice is that values in the bottom (inner) input get read multiple times, which can quickly grow out of control for large tables. This isn’t an issue if an index on that inner table allows seeking to the exact match, but otherwise the amount of work to compare rows increases drastically with size.

Merge Join

Overview: Merge Join allows comparison while reading each input value only once. The catch is that each input has to be sorted (and on the compared values). Roughly, start at the beginning of each input and progress through the values, grabbing the next input value from whichever is lower. I have pseudo-code for Merge, but it didn’t seem helpful, so I’m skipping straight to the picture.

Drawbacks: Remember how I said that Merge reads each input value only once? I lied. There’s a special (and not uncommon) case where that’s not true. If both inputs have repeated values, called Many-to-Many, the algorithm gets really complicated. As in, holy-crap-why-is-it-taking-so-long complicated. But if you can guarantee unique values in at least one input (like my gif above shows), you’re golden. So, Merge has two big gotchas: the many-to-many case, and the requirement for both inputs to be sorted.

Hash Match

Overview: The final algorithm is Hash Match, also known as Hash Join. Like Merge, it only needs a single pass through each input. It’s also the most complicated. Here’s how it works (with minor lies simplifications): there are two phases, called the build phase and probe phase. In the build phase, each value from the top input is hashed. The hash and the value are stored in a bucket. There are multiple buckets, and the hash value determines which bucket the hash and original value will be stored in. Then comes the probe phase. For each value in the second input, that value will be hashed, and the hash compared to hashes in the buckets. If the hash matches, then the values stored are checked to confirm the match. With an inner join, values that match are outputted, and otherwise discarded.

Below is my animated Hash Match, but first a note on my fake-for-learning-purposes-only hash function. I take each input number, spell it out, and take the first letter. For example, 1 becomes “one” becomes “o.” 5 becomes “five” becomes “f.”

Drawbacks: So why isn’t everything a Hash Join? Well, surprise surprise, it has its own weaknesses. The biggest one to consider is that “storing hashes and values in buckets” piece. Storing occurs in memory (hopefully), and memory is a limited resource. And, if the Hash Match needs more memory than it was given, it doesn’t get more, but writes (spills) to disk instead, killing performance.

I would probably summarize an introduction to the joins as below

JoinStrengthsCommonly SeenBlows Up When
Nested LoopsSimple, fast with the right indexes.Small joins with proper indexes.Inner table has lots of rows repeatedly read.
MergeVery fast with sorted inputs.Key to key joins. Query includes ORDER BY.Necessary sorts take too long. Many-to-Many.
HashGenerally fast.Heaps. Large joins.Can’t get enough memory.

The three algorithms each have different strengths, weaknesses, hidden gotchas, and bizarre variants. I’ve fallen in love with the subtleties and complexities that arise from deceptively simple starting points, and it pained me to have to skip over important details (such as Merge and Hash joins requiring an equality comparison). There’s really a lot more to write about, which I intend to do…eventually. In the meantime, if you want to read more, I suggest looking at Craig Freedman’s articles and Hugo Kornelis’ site.