Chapter 4. Optimizing Schema and Data Types

Good logical and physical design is the cornerstone of high performance, and you must design your schema for the specific queries you will run. This often involves trade-offs. For example, a denormalized schema can speed up some types of queries but slow down others. Adding counter and summary tables is a great way to optimize queries, but they can be expensive to maintain. MySQL’s particular features and implementation details influence this quite a bit.

This chapter and the following one, which focuses on indexing, cover the MySQL-specific bits of schema design. We assume that you know how to design databases, so this is not an introductory chapter, or even an advanced chapter, on database design. It’s a chapter on MySQL database design—it’s about what is different when designing databases with MySQL rather than other relational database management systems. If you need to study the basics of database design, we suggest Clare Churcher’s book Beginning Database Design (Apress).

This chapter is preparation for the two that follow. In these three chapters, we will explore the interaction of logical design, physical design, and query execution. This requires a big-picture approach as well as attention to details. You need to understand the whole system to understand how each piece will affect others. You might find it useful to review this chapter after reading the chapters on indexing and query optimization. Many of the topics discussed can’t be considered in isolation.

Choosing Optimal Data Types

MySQL supports a large variety of data types, and choosing the correct type to store your data is crucial to getting good performance. The following simple guidelines can help you make better choices, no matter what type of data you are storing:

Smaller is usually better.

In general, try to use the smallest data type that can correctly store and represent your data. Smaller data types are usually faster, because they use less space on the disk, in memory, and in the CPU cache. They also generally require fewer CPU cycles to process.

Make sure you don’t underestimate the range of values you need to store, though, because increasing the data type range in multiple places in your schema can be a painful and time-consuming operation. If you’re in doubt as to which is the best data type to use, choose the smallest one that you don’t think you’ll exceed. (If the system is not very busy or doesn’t store much data, or if you’re at an early phase in the design process, you can change it easily later.)

Simple is good.

Fewer CPU cycles are typically required to process operations on simpler data types. For example, integers are cheaper to compare than characters, because character sets and collations (sorting rules) make character comparisons complicated. Here are two examples: you should store dates and times in MySQL’s built-in types instead of as strings, and you should use integers for IP addresses. We discuss these topics further later.

Avoid NULL if possible.

A lot of tables include nullable columns even when the application does not need to store NULL (the absence of a value), merely because it’s the default. It’s usually best to specify columns as NOT NULL unless you intend to store NULL in them.

It’s harder for MySQL to optimize queries that refer to nullable columns, because they make indexes, index statistics, and value comparisons more complicated. A nullable column uses more storage space and requires special processing inside MySQL. When a nullable column is indexed, it requires an extra byte per entry and can even cause a fixed-size index (such as an index on a single integer column) to be converted to a variable-sized one in MyISAM.

The performance improvement from changing NULL columns to NOT NULL is usually small, so don’t make it a priority to find and change them on an existing schema unless you know they are causing problems. However, if you’re planning to index columns, avoid making them nullable if possible.

There are exceptions, of course. For example, it’s worth mentioning that InnoDB stores NULL with a single bit, so it can be pretty space-efficient for sparsely populated data. This doesn’t apply to MyISAM, though.

The first step in deciding what data type to use for a given column is to determine what general class of types is appropriate: numeric, string, temporal, and so on. This is usually pretty straightforward, but we mention some special cases where the choice is unintuitive.

The next step is to choose the specific type. Many of MySQL’s data types can store the same kind of data but vary in the range of values they can store, the precision they permit, or the physical space (on disk and in memory) they require. Some data types also have special behaviors or properties.

For example, a DATETIME and a TIMESTAMP column can store the same kind of data: date and time, to a precision of one second. However, TIMESTAMP uses only half as much storage space, is time zone–aware, and has special autoupdating capabilities. On the other hand, it has a much smaller range of allowable values, and sometimes its special capabilities can be a handicap.

We discuss base data types here. MySQL supports many aliases for compatibility, such as INTEGER, BOOL, and NUMERIC. These are only aliases. They can be confusing, but they don’t affect performance. If you create a table with an aliased data type and then examine SHOW CREATE TABLE, you’ll see that MySQL reports the base type, not the alias you used.

Whole Numbers

There are two kinds of numbers: whole numbers and real numbers (numbers with a fractional part). If you’re storing whole numbers, use one of the integer types: TINYINT, SMALLINT, MEDIUMINT, INT, or BIGINT. These require 8, 16, 24, 32, and 64 bits of storage space, respectively. They can store values from −2(N–1) to 2(N–1)–1, where N is the number of bits of storage space they use.

Integer types can optionally have the UNSIGNED attribute, which disallows negative values and approximately doubles the upper limit of positive values you can store. For example, a TINYINT UNSIGNED can store values ranging from 0 to 255 instead of from −128 to 127.

Signed and unsigned types use the same amount of storage space and have the same performance, so use whatever’s best for your data range.

Your choice determines how MySQL stores the data, in memory and on disk. However, integer computations generally use 64-bit BIGINT integers, even on 32-bit architectures. (The exceptions are some aggregate functions, which use DECIMAL or DOUBLE to perform computations.)

MySQL lets you specify a “width” for integer types, such as INT(11). This is meaningless for most applications: it does not restrict the legal range of values, but simply specifies the number of characters MySQL’s interactive tools (such as the command-line client) will reserve for display purposes. For storage and computational purposes, INT(1) is identical to INT(20).


Third-party storage engines, such as Infobright, sometimes have their own storage formats and compression schemes, and don’t necessarily use those that are common to MySQL’s built-in storage engines.

Real Numbers

Real numbers are numbers that have a fractional part. However, they aren’t just for fractional numbers; you can also use DECIMAL to store integers that are so large they don’t fit in BIGINT. MySQL supports both exact and inexact types.

The FLOAT and DOUBLE types support approximate calculations with standard floating-point math. If you need to know exactly how floating-point results are calculated, you will need to research your platform’s floating-point implementation.

The DECIMAL type is for storing exact fractional numbers. In MySQL 5.0 and newer, the DECIMAL type supports exact math. MySQL 4.1 and earlier used floating-point math to perform computations on DECIMAL values, which could give strange results because of loss of precision. In these versions of MySQL, DECIMAL was only a “storage type.”

The server itself performs DECIMAL math in MySQL 5.0 and newer, because CPUs don’t support the computations directly. Floating-point math is significantly faster, because the CPU performs the computations natively.

Both floating-point and DECIMAL types let you specify a precision. For a DECIMAL column, you can specify the maximum allowed digits before and after the decimal point. This influences the column’s space consumption. MySQL 5.0 and newer pack the digits into a binary string (nine digits per four bytes). For example, DECIMAL(18, 9) will store nine digits from each side of the decimal point, using nine bytes in total: four for the digits before the decimal point, one for the decimal point itself, and four for the digits after the decimal point.

A DECIMAL number in MySQL 5.0 and newer can have up to 65 digits. Earlier MySQL versions had a limit of 254 digits and stored the values as unpacked strings (one byte per digit). However, these versions of MySQL couldn’t actually use such large numbers in computations, because DECIMAL was just a storage format; DECIMAL numbers were converted to DOUBLEs for computational purposes,

You can specify a floating-point column’s desired precision in a couple of ways, which can cause MySQL to silently choose a different data type or to round values when you store them. These precision specifiers are nonstandard, so we suggest that you specify the type you want but not the precision.

Floating-point types typically use less space than DECIMAL to store the same range of values. A FLOAT column uses four bytes of storage. DOUBLE consumes eight bytes and has greater precision and a larger range of values than FLOAT. As with integers, you’re choosing only the storage type; MySQL uses DOUBLE for its internal calculations on floating-point types.

Because of the additional space requirements and computational cost, you should use DECIMAL only when you need exact results for fractional numbers—for example, when storing financial data. But in some high-volume cases it actually makes sense to use a BIGINT instead, and store the data as some multiple of the smallest fraction of currency you need to handle. Suppose you are required to store financial data to the ten-thousandth of a cent. You can multiply all dollar amounts by a million and store the result in a BIGINT, avoiding both the imprecision of floating-point storage and the cost of the precise DECIMAL math.

String Types

MySQL supports quite a few string data types, with many variations on each. These data types changed greatly in versions 4.1 and 5.0, which makes them even more complicated. Since MySQL 4.1, each string column can have its own character set and set of sorting rules for that character set, or collation (see Chapter 7 for more on these topics). This can impact performance greatly.

VARCHAR and CHAR types

The two major string types are VARCHAR and CHAR, which store character values. Unfortunately, it’s hard to explain exactly how these values are stored on disk and in memory, because the implementations are storage engine–dependent. We assume you are using InnoDB and/or MyISAM. If not, you should read the documentation for your storage engine.

Let’s take a look at how VARCHAR and CHAR values are typically stored on disk. Be aware that a storage engine may store a CHAR or VARCHAR value differently in memory from how it stores that value on disk, and that the server may translate the value into yet another storage format when it retrieves it from the storage engine. Here’s a general comparison of the two types:


VARCHAR stores variable-length character strings and is the most common string data type. It can require less storage space than fixed-length types, because it uses only as much space as it needs (i.e., less space is used to store shorter values). The exception is a MyISAM table created with ROW_FORMAT=FIXED, which uses a fixed amount of space on disk for each row and can thus waste space.

VARCHAR uses 1 or 2 extra bytes to record the value’s length: 1 byte if the column’s maximum length is 255 bytes or less, and 2 bytes if it’s more. Assuming the latin1 character set, a VARCHAR(10) will use up to 11 bytes of storage space. A VARCHAR(1000) can use up to 1002 bytes, because it needs 2 bytes to store length information.

VARCHAR helps performance because it saves space. However, because the rows are variable-length, they can grow when you update them, which can cause extra work. If a row grows and no longer fits in its original location, the behavior is storage engine–dependent. For example, MyISAM may fragment the row, and InnoDB may need to split the page to fit the row into it. Other storage engines may never update data in-place at all.

It’s usually worth using VARCHAR when the maximum column length is much larger than the average length; when updates to the field are rare, so fragmentation is not a problem; and when you’re using a complex character set such as UTF-8, where each character uses a variable number of bytes of storage.

In version 5.0 and newer, MySQL preserves trailing spaces when you store and retrieve values. In versions 4.1 and older, MySQL strips trailing spaces.

It’s trickier with InnoDB, which can store long VARCHAR values as BLOBs. We discuss this later.


CHAR is fixed-length: MySQL always allocates enough space for the specified number of characters. When storing a CHAR value, MySQL removes any trailing spaces. (This was also true of VARCHAR in MySQL 4.1 and older versions—CHAR and VARCHAR were logically identical and differed only in storage format.) Values are padded with spaces as needed for comparisons.

CHAR is useful if you want to store very short strings, or if all the values are nearly the same length. For example, CHAR is a good choice for MD5 values for user passwords, which are always the same length. CHAR is also better than VARCHAR for data that’s changed frequently, because a fixed-length row is not prone to fragmentation. For very short columns, CHAR is also more efficient than VARCHAR; a CHAR(1) designed to hold only Y and N values will use only one byte in a single-byte character set,[42] but a VARCHAR(1) would use two bytes because of the length byte.

This behavior can be a little confusing, so we’ll illustrate with an example. First, we create a table with a single CHAR(10) column and store some values in it:

mysql> CREATE TABLE char_test( char_col CHAR(10));
mysql> INSERT INTO char_test(char_col) VALUES
    -> ('string1'), ('  string2'), ('string3 ');

When we retrieve the values, the trailing spaces have been stripped away:

mysql> SELECT CONCAT("'", char_col, "'") FROM char_test;
| CONCAT("'", char_col, "'") |
| 'string1'                  |
| '  string2'                |
| 'string3'                  |

If we store the same values into a VARCHAR(10) column, we get the following result upon retrieval:

mysql> SELECT CONCAT("'", varchar_col, "'") FROM varchar_test;
| CONCAT("'", varchar_col, "'") |
| 'string1'                     |
| '  string2'                   |
| 'string3 '                    |

How data is stored is up to the storage engines, and not all storage engines handle fixed-length and variable-length data the same way. The Memory storage engine uses fixed-size rows, so it has to allocate the maximum possible space for each value even when it’s a variable-length field.[43] However, the padding and trimming behavior is consistent across storage engines, because the MySQL server itself handles that.

The sibling types for CHAR and VARCHAR are BINARY and VARBINARY, which store binary strings. Binary strings are very similar to conventional strings, but they store bytes instead of characters. Padding is also different: MySQL pads BINARY values with \0 (the zero byte) instead of spaces and doesn’t strip the pad value on retrieval.[44]

These types are useful when you need to store binary data and want MySQL to compare the values as bytes instead of characters. The advantage of byte-wise comparisons is more than just a matter of case insensitivity. MySQL literally compares BINARY strings one byte at a time, according to the numeric value of each byte. As a result, binary comparisons can be much simpler than character comparisons, so they are faster.

BLOB and TEXT types

BLOB and TEXT are string data types designed to store large amounts of data as either binary or character strings, respectively.

In fact, they are each families of data types: the character types are TINYTEXT, SMALLTEXT, TEXT, MEDIUMTEXT, and LONGTEXT, and the binary types are TINYBLOB, SMALLBLOB, BLOB, MEDIUMBLOB, and LONGBLOB. BLOB is a synonym for SMALLBLOB, and TEXT is a synonym for SMALLTEXT.

Unlike with all other data types, MySQL handles each BLOB and TEXT value as an object with its own identity. Storage engines often store them specially; InnoDB may use a separate “external” storage area for them when they’re large. Each value requires from one to four bytes of storage space in the row and enough space in external storage to actually hold the value.

The only difference between the BLOB and TEXT families is that BLOB types store binary data with no collation or character set, but TEXT types have a character set and collation.

MySQL sorts BLOB and TEXT columns differently from other types: instead of sorting the full length of the string, it sorts only the first max_sort_length bytes of such columns. If you need to sort by only the first few characters, you can either decrease the max_sort_length server variable or use ORDER BY SUBSTRING(column, length).

MySQL can’t index the full length of these data types and can’t use the indexes for sorting. (You’ll find more on these topics in the next chapter.)

Using ENUM instead of a string type

Sometimes you can use an ENUM column instead of conventional string types. An ENUM column can store a predefined set of distinct string values. MySQL stores them very compactly, packed into one or two bytes depending on the number of values in the list. It stores each value internally as an integer representing its position in the field definition list, and it keeps the “lookup table” that defines the number-to-string correspondence in the table’s .frm file. Here’s an example:

mysql> CREATE TABLE enum_test(
    ->    e ENUM('fish', 'apple', 'dog') NOT NULL
    -> );
mysql> INSERT INTO enum_test(e) VALUES('fish'), ('dog'), ('apple');

The three rows actually store integers, not strings. You can see the dual nature of the values by retrieving them in a numeric context:

mysql> SELECT e + 0 FROM enum_test;
| e + 0 |
|     1 |
|     3 |
|     2 |

This duality can be terribly confusing if you specify numbers for your ENUM constants, as in ENUM('1', '2', '3'). We suggest you don’t do this.

Another surprise is that an ENUM field sorts by the internal integer values, not by the strings themselves:

mysql> SELECT e FROM enum_test ORDER BY e;
| e     |
| fish  |
| apple |
| dog   |

You can work around this by specifying ENUM members in the order in which you want them to sort. You can also use FIELD() to specify a sort order explicitly in your queries, but this prevents MySQL from using the index for sorting:

mysql> SELECT e FROM enum_test ORDER BY FIELD(e, 'apple', 'dog', 'fish');
| e     |
| apple |
| dog   |
| fish  |

If we’d defined the values in alphabetical order, we wouldn’t have needed to do that.

The biggest downside of ENUM is that the list of strings is fixed, and adding or removing strings requires the use of ALTER TABLE. Thus, it might not be a good idea to use ENUM as a string data type when the list of allowed string values is likely to change arbitrarily in the future, unless it’s acceptable to add them at the end of the list, which can be done without a full rebuild of the table in MySQL 5.1.

Because MySQL stores each value as an integer and has to do a lookup to convert it to its string representation, ENUM columns have some overhead. This is usually offset by their smaller size, but not always. In particular, it can be slower to join a CHAR or VARCHAR column to an ENUM column than to another CHAR or VARCHAR column.

To illustrate, we benchmarked how quickly MySQL performs such a join on a table in one of our applications. The table has a fairly wide primary key:

CREATE TABLE webservicecalls (
   day date NOT NULL,
   account smallint NOT NULL,
   service varchar(10) NOT NULL,
   method varchar(50) NOT NULL,
   calls int NOT NULL,
   items int NOT NULL,
   time float NOT NULL,
   cost decimal(9,5) NOT NULL,
   updated datetime,
   PRIMARY KEY  (day, account, service, method)

The table contains about 110,000 rows and is only about 10 MB, so it fits entirely in memory. The service column contains 5 distinct values with an average length of 4 characters, and the method column contains 71 values with an average length of 20 characters.

We made a copy of this table and converted the service and method columns to ENUM, as follows:

CREATE TABLE webservicecalls_enum (
   ... omitted ...
   service ENUM(...values omitted...) NOT NULL,
   method ENUM(...values omitted...) NOT NULL,
   ... omitted ...

We then measured the performance of joining the tables by the primary key columns. Here is the query we used:

    -> FROM webservicecalls
    ->    JOIN webservicecalls USING(day, account, service, method);

We varied this query to join the VARCHAR and ENUM columns in different combinations. Table 4-1 shows the results.

Table 4-1. Speed of joining VARCHAR and ENUM columns


Queries per second



VARCHAR joined to ENUM


ENUM joined to VARCHAR


ENUM joined to ENUM


The join is faster after converting the columns to ENUM, but joining the ENUM columns to VARCHAR columns is slower. In this case, it looks like a good idea to convert these columns, as long as they don’t have to be joined to VARCHAR columns. It’s a common design practice to use “lookup tables” with integer primary keys to avoid using character-based values in joins.

However, there’s another benefit to converting the columns: according to the Data_length column from SHOW TABLE STATUS, converting these two columns to ENUM made the table about 1/3 smaller. In some cases, this might be beneficial even if the ENUM columns have to be joined to VARCHAR columns. Also, the primary key itself is only about half the size after the conversion. Because this is an InnoDB table, if there are any other indexes on this table, reducing the primary key size will make them much smaller, too. We explain this in the next chapter.

Date and Time Types

MySQL has many types for various kinds of date and time values, such as YEAR and DATE. The finest granularity of time MySQL can store is one second. (MariaDB has microsecond-granularity temporal types.) However, it can do temporal computations with microsecond granularity, and we’ll show you how to work around the storage limitations.

Most of the temporal types have no alternatives, so there is no question of which one is the best choice. The only question is what to do when you need to store both the date and the time. MySQL offers two very similar data types for this purpose: DATETIME and TIMESTAMP. For many applications, either will work, but in some cases, one works better than the other. Let’s take a look:


This type can hold a large range of values, from the year 1001 to the year 9999, with a precision of one second. It stores the date and time packed into an integer in YYYYMMDDHHMMSS format, independent of time zone. This uses eight bytes of storage space.

By default, MySQL displays DATETIME values in a sortable, unambiguous format, such as 2008-01-16 22:37:08. This is the ANSI standard way to represent dates and times.


As its name implies, the TIMESTAMP type stores the number of seconds elapsed since midnight, January 1, 1970, Greenwich Mean Time (GMT)—the same as a Unix timestamp. TIMESTAMP uses only four bytes of storage, so it has a much smaller range than DATETIME: from the year 1970 to partway through the year 2038. MySQL provides the FROM_UNIXTIME() and UNIX_TIMESTAMP() functions to convert a Unix timestamp to a date, and vice versa.

MySQL 4.1 and newer versions format TIMESTAMP values just like DATETIME values, but MySQL 4.0 and older versions display them without any punctuation between the parts. This is only a display formatting difference; the TIMESTAMP storage format is the same in all MySQL versions.

The value a TIMESTAMP displays also depends on the time zone. The MySQL server, operating system, and client connections all have time zone settings.

Thus, a TIMESTAMP that stores the value 0 actually displays it as 1969-12-31 19:00:00 in Eastern Standard Time (EST), which has a five-hour offset from GMT. It’s worth emphasizing this difference: if you store or access data from multiple time zones, the behavior of TIMESTAMP and DATETIME will be very different. The former preserves values relative to the time zone in use, while the latter preserves the textual representation of the date and time.

TIMESTAMP also has special properties that DATETIME doesn’t have. By default, MySQL will set the first TIMESTAMP column to the current time when you insert a row without specifying a value for the column.[45] MySQL also updates the first TIMESTAMP column’s value by default when you update the row, unless you assign a value explicitly in the UPDATE statement. You can configure the insertion and update behaviors for any TIMESTAMP column. Finally, TIMESTAMP columns are NOT NULL by default, which is different from every other data type.

Special behavior aside, in general if you can use TIMESTAMP you should, because it is more space-efficient than DATETIME. Sometimes people store Unix timestamps as integer values, but this usually doesn’t gain you anything. The integer format is often less convenient to deal with, so we do not recommend doing this.

What if you need to store a date and time value with subsecond resolution? MySQL currently does not have an appropriate data type for this, but you can use your own storage format: you can use the BIGINT data type and store the value as a timestamp in microseconds, or you can use a DOUBLE and store the fractional part of the second after the decimal point. Both approaches will work well. Or you can use MariaDB instead of MySQL.

Bit-Packed Data Types

MySQL has a few storage types that use individual bits within a value to store data compactly. All of these types are technically string types, regardless of the underlying storage format and manipulations:


Before MySQL 5.0, BIT is just a synonym for TINYINT. But in MySQL 5.0 and newer, it’s a completely different data type with special characteristics. We discuss the new behavior here.

You can use a BIT column to store one or many true/false values in a single column. BIT(1) defines a field that contains a single bit, BIT(2) stores 2 bits, and so on; the maximum length of a BIT column is 64 bits.

BIT behavior varies between storage engines. MyISAM packs the columns together for storage purposes, so 17 individual BIT columns require only 17 bits to store (assuming none of the columns permits NULL). MyISAM rounds that to three bytes for storage. Other storage engines, such as Memory and InnoDB, store each column as the smallest integer type large enough to contain the bits, so you don’t save any storage space.

MySQL treats BIT as a string type, not a numeric type. When you retrieve a BIT(1) value, the result is a string but the contents are the binary value 0 or 1, not the ASCII value “0” or “1”. However, if you retrieve the value in a numeric context, the result is the number to which the bit string converts. Keep this in mind if you need to compare the result to another value. For example, if you store the value b'00111001' (which is the binary equivalent of 57) into a BIT(8) column and retrieve it, you will get the string containing the character code 57. This happens to be the ASCII character code for “9”. But in a numeric context, you’ll get the value 57:

mysql> CREATE TABLE bittest(a bit(8));
mysql> INSERT INTO bittest VALUES(b'00111001');
mysql> SELECT a, a + 0 FROM bittest;
| a    | a + 0 |
| 9    |    57 |

This can be very confusing, so we recommend that you use BIT with caution. For most applications, we think it is a better idea to avoid this type.

If you want to store a true/false value in a single bit of storage space, another option is to create a nullable CHAR(0) column. This column is capable of storing either the absence of a value (NULL) or a zero-length value (the empty string).


If you need to store many true/false values, consider combining many columns into one with MySQL’s native SET data type, which MySQL represents internally as a packed set of bits. It uses storage efficiently, and MySQL has functions such as FIND_IN_SET() and FIELD() that make it easy to use in queries. The major drawback is the cost of changing the column’s definition: this requires an ALTER TABLE, which is very expensive on large tables (but see the workaround later in this chapter). In general, you also can’t use indexes for lookups on SET columns.

Bitwise operations on integer columns

An alternative to SET is to use an integer as a packed set of bits. For example, you can pack eight bits in a TINYINT and manipulate them with bitwise operators. You can make this easier by defining named constants for each bit in your application code.

The major advantage of this approach over SET is that you can change the “enumeration” the field represents without an ALTER TABLE. The drawback is that your queries are harder to write and understand (what does it mean when bit 5 is set?). Some people are comfortable with bitwise manipulations and some aren’t, so whether you’ll want to try this technique is largely a matter of taste.

An example application for packed bits is an access control list (ACL) that stores permissions. Each bit or SET element represents a value such as CAN_READ, CAN_WRITE, or CAN_DELETE. If you use a SET column, you’ll let MySQL store the bit-to-value mapping in the column definition; if you use an integer column, you’ll store the mapping in your application code. Here’s what the queries would look like with a SET column:

mysql> CREATE TABLE acl (
    -> );
mysql> SELECT perms FROM acl WHERE FIND_IN_SET('AN_READ', perms);
| perms               |

If you used an integer, you could write that example as follows:

mysql> SET @CAN_READ   := 1 << 0,
    ->     @CAN_WRITE  := 1 << 1,
    ->     @CAN_DELETE := 1 << 2;
mysql> CREATE TABLE acl (
    -> );
mysql> SELECT perms FROM acl WHERE perms & @CAN_READ;
| perms |
|     5 |

We’ve used variables to define the values, but you can use constants in your code instead.

Choosing Identifiers

Choosing a good data type for an identifier column is very important. You’re more likely to compare these columns to other values (for example, in joins) and to use them for lookups than other columns. You’re also likely to use them in other tables as foreign keys, so when you choose a data type for an identifier column, you’re probably choosing the type in related tables as well. (As we demonstrated earlier in this chapter, it’s a good idea to use the same data types in related tables, because you’re likely to use them for joins.)

When choosing a type for an identifier column, you need to consider not only the storage type, but also how MySQL performs computations and comparisons on that type. For example, MySQL stores ENUM and SET types internally as integers but converts them to strings when doing comparisons in a string context.

Once you choose a type, make sure you use the same type in all related tables. The types should match exactly, including properties such as UNSIGNED.[46] Mixing different data types can cause performance problems, and even if it doesn’t, implicit type conversions during comparisons can create hard-to-find errors. These may even crop up much later, after you’ve forgotten that you’re comparing different data types.

Choose the smallest size that can hold your required range of values, and leave room for future growth if necessary. For example, if you have a state_id column that stores US state names, you don’t need thousands or millions of values, so don’t use an INT. A TINYINT should be sufficient and is three bytes smaller. If you use this value as a foreign key in other tables, three bytes can make a big difference. Here are a few tips:

Integer types

Integers are usually the best choice for identifiers, because they’re fast and they work with AUTO_INCREMENT.


The ENUM and SET types are generally a poor choice for identifiers, though they can be okay for static “definition tables” that contain status or “type” values. ENUM and SET columns are appropriate for holding information such as an order’s status, a product’s type, or a person’s gender.

As an example, if you use an ENUM field to define a product’s type, you might want a lookup table primary keyed on an identical ENUM field. (You could add columns to the lookup table for descriptive text, to generate a glossary, or to provide meaningful labels in a pull-down menu on a website.) In this case, you’ll want to use the ENUM as an identifier, but for most purposes you should avoid doing so.

String types

Avoid string types for identifiers if possible, because they take up a lot of space and are generally slower than integer types. Be especially cautious when using string identifiers with MyISAM tables. MyISAM uses packed indexes for strings by default, which can make lookups much slower. In our tests, we’ve noted up to six times slower performance with packed indexes on MyISAM.

You should also be very careful with completely “random” strings, such as those produced by MD5(), SHA1(), or UUID(). Each new value you generate with them will be distributed in arbitrary ways over a large space, which can slow INSERT and some types of SELECT queries:[47]

  • They slow INSERT queries because the inserted value has to go in a random location in indexes. This causes page splits, random disk accesses, and clustered index fragmentation for clustered storage engines. More about this in the next chapter.

  • They slow SELECT queries because logically adjacent rows will be widely dispersed on disk and in memory.

  • Random values cause caches to perform poorly for all types of queries because they defeat locality of reference, which is how caching works. If the entire dataset is equally “hot,” there is no advantage to having any particular part of the data cached in memory, and if the working set does not fit in memory, the cache will have a lot of flushes and misses.

If you do store UUID values, you should remove the dashes or, even better, convert the UUID values to 16-byte numbers with UNHEX() and store them in a BINARY(16) column. You can retrieve the values in hexadecimal format with the HEX() function.

Values generated by UUID() have different characteristics from those generated by a cryptographic hash function such as SHA1(): the UUID values are unevenly distributed and are somewhat sequential. They’re still not as good as a monotonically increasing integer, though.

Special Types of Data

Some kinds of data don’t correspond directly to the available built-in types. A timestamp with subsecond resolution is one example; we showed you some options for storing such data earlier in the chapter.

Another example is an IPv4 address. People often use VARCHAR(15) columns to store IP addresses. However, they are really unsigned 32-bit integers, not strings. The dotted-quad notation is just a way of writing it out so that humans can read it more easily. You should store IP addresses as unsigned integers. MySQL provides the INET_ATON() and INET_NTOA() functions to convert between the two representations.

Schema Design Gotchas in MySQL

Although there are universally bad and good design principles, there are also issues that arise from how MySQL is implemented, and that means you can make MySQL-specific mistakes, too. This section discusses problems that we’ve observed in schema designs with MySQL. It might help you avoid those mistakes and choose alternatives that work better with MySQL’s specific implementation.

Too many columns

MySQL’s storage engine API works by copying rows between the server and the storage engine in a row buffer format; the server then decodes the buffer into columns. But it can be costly to turn the row buffer into the row data structure with the decoded columns. MyISAM’s fixed row format actually matches the server’s row format exactly, so no conversion is needed. However, MyISAM’s variable row format and InnoDB’s row format always require conversion. The cost of this conversion depends on the number of columns. We discovered that this can become expensive when we investigated an issue with high CPU consumption for a customer with extremely wide tables (hundreds of columns), even though only a few columns were actually used. If you’re planning for hundreds of columns, be aware that the server’s performance characteristics will be a bit different.

Too many joins

The so-called entity-attribute-value (EAV) design pattern is a classic case of a universally bad design pattern that especially doesn’t work well in MySQL. MySQL has a limitation of 61 tables per join, and EAV databases require many self-joins. We’ve seen more than a few EAV databases eventually exceed this limit. Even at many fewer joins than 61, however, the cost of planning and optimizing the query can become problematic for MySQL. As a rough rule of thumb, it’s better to have a dozen or fewer tables per query if you need queries to execute very fast with high concurrency.

The all-powerful ENUM

Beware of overusing ENUM. Here’s an example we saw:

  country enum('','0','1','2',...,'31')

The schema was sprinkled liberally with this pattern. This would probably be a questionable design decision in any database with an enumerated value type, because it really should be an integer that is foreign-keyed to a “dictionary” or “lookup” table anyway. But in MySQL, you can’t add a new country to the list without an ALTER TABLE, which is a blocking operation in MySQL 5.0 and earlier, and even in 5.1 and newer if you add the value anywhere but at the end of the list. (We’ll show some hacks to address this later, but they’re just hacks.)

The ENUM in disguise

An ENUM permits the column to hold one value from a set of defined values. A SET permits the column to hold one or more values from a set of defined values. Sometimes these can be easy to confuse. Here’s an example:

  is_default set('Y','N') NOT NULL default 'N'

That almost surely ought to be an ENUM instead of a SET, assuming that it can’t be both true and false at the same time.

NULL not invented here

We wrote earlier about the benefits of avoiding NULL, and indeed we suggest considering alternatives when possible. Even when you do need to store a “no value” fact in a table, you might not need to use NULL. Perhaps you can use zero, a special value, or an empty string instead.

However, you can take this to extremes. Don’t be too afraid of using NULL when you need to represent an unknown value. In some cases, it’s better to use NULL than a magical constant. Selecting one value from the domain of a constrained type, such as using −1 to represent an unknown integer, can complicate your code a lot, introduce bugs, and just generally make a total mess out of things. Handling NULL isn’t always easy, but it’s often better than the alternative.

Here’s one example we’ve seen pretty frequently:

  dt DATETIME NOT NULL DEFAULT '0000-00-00 00:00:00'

That bogus all-zeros value can cause lots of problems. (You can configure MySQL’s SQL_MODE to disallow nonsense dates, which is an especially good practice for a new application that hasn’t yet created a database full of bad data.)

On a related topic, MySQL does index NULLs, unlike Oracle, which doesn’t include non-values in indexes.

Normalization and Denormalization

There are usually many ways to represent any given data, ranging from fully normalized to fully denormalized and anything in between. In a normalized database, each fact is represented once and only once. Conversely, in a denormalized database, information is duplicated, or stored in multiple places.

If you’re not familiar with normalization, you should study it. There are many good books on the topic and resources online; here, we just give a brief introduction to the aspects you need to know for this chapter. Let’s start with the classic example of employees, departments, and department heads:
















The problem with this schema is that inconsistencies can occur while the data is being modified. Say Brown takes over as the head of the Accounting department. We need to update multiple rows to reflect this change, and that’s a pain and introduces opportunities for error. If the “Jones” row says the head of the department is something different from the “Brown” row, there’s no way to know which is right. It’s like the old saying, “A person with two watches never knows what time it is.” Furthermore, we can’t represent a department without employees—if we delete all employees in the Accounting department, we lose all records about the department itself. To avoid these problems, we need to normalize the table by separating the employee and department entities. This process results in the following two tables for employees:











and departments:







These tables are now in second normal form, which is good enough for many purposes. However, second normal form is only one of many possible normal forms.


We’re using the last name as the primary key here for purposes of illustration, because it’s the “natural identifier” of the data. In practice, however, we wouldn’t do that. It’s not guaranteed to be unique, and it’s usually a bad idea to use a long string for a primary key.

Pros and Cons of a Normalized Schema

People who ask for help with performance issues are frequently advised to normalize their schemas, especially if the workload is write-heavy. This is often good advice. It works well for the following reasons:

  • Normalized updates are usually faster than denormalized updates.

  • When the data is well normalized, there’s little or no duplicated data, so there’s less data to change.

  • Normalized tables are usually smaller, so they fit better in memory and perform better.

  • The lack of redundant data means there’s less need for DISTINCT or GROUP BY queries when retrieving lists of values. Consider the preceding example: it’s impossible to get a distinct list of departments from the denormalized schema without DISTINCT or GROUP BY, but if DEPARTMENT is a separate table, it’s a trivial query.

The drawbacks of a normalized schema usually have to do with retrieval. Any nontrivial query on a well-normalized schema will probably require at least one join, and perhaps several. This is not only expensive, but it can make some indexing strategies impossible. For example, normalizing may place columns in different tables that would benefit from belonging to the same index.

Pros and Cons of a Denormalized Schema

A denormalized schema works well because everything is in the same table, which avoids joins.

If you don’t need to join tables, the worst case for most queries—even the ones that don’t use indexes—is a full table scan. This can be much faster than a join when the data doesn’t fit in memory, because it avoids random I/O.

A single table can also allow more efficient indexing strategies. Suppose you have a website where users post their messages, and some users are premium users. Now say you want to view the last 10 messages from premium users. If you’ve normalized the schema and indexed the publishing dates of the messages, the query might look like this:

mysql> SELECT message_text, user_name
    -> FROM message
    ->    INNER JOIN user ON
    -> WHERE user.account_type='premium
    -> ORDER BY message.published DESC LIMIT 10;

To execute this query efficiently, MySQL will need to scan the published index on the message table. For each row it finds, it will need to probe into the user table and check whether the user is a premium user. This is inefficient if only a small fraction of users have premium accounts.

The other possible query plan is to start with the user table, select all premium users, get all messages for them, and do a filesort. This will probably be even worse.

The problem is the join, which is keeping you from sorting and filtering simultaneously with a single index. If you denormalize the data by combining the tables and add an index on (account_type, published), you can write the query without a join. This will be very efficient:

mysql> SELECT message_text,user_name
    -> FROM user_messages
    -> WHERE account_type='premium'
    -> ORDER BY published DESC
    -> LIMIT 10;

A Mixture of Normalized and Denormalized

Given that both normalized and denormalized schemas have benefits and drawbacks, how can you choose the best design?

The truth is, fully normalized and fully denormalized schemas are like laboratory rats: they usually have little to do with the real world. In the real world, you often need to mix the approaches, possibly using a partially normalized schema, cache tables, and other techniques.

The most common way to denormalize data is to duplicate, or cache, selected columns from one table in another table. In MySQL 5.0 and newer, you can use triggers to update the cached values, which makes the implementation easier.

In our website example, for instance, instead of denormalizing fully you can store account_type in both the user and message tables. This avoids the insert and delete problems that come with full denormalization, because you never lose information about the user, even when there are no messages. It won’t make the user_message table much larger, but it will let you select the data efficiently.

However, it’s now more expensive to update a user’s account type, because you have to change it in both tables. To see whether that’s a problem, you must consider how frequently you’ll have to make such changes and how long they will take, compared to how often you’ll run the SELECT query.

Another good reason to move some data from the parent table to the child table is for sorting. For example, it would be extremely expensive to sort messages by the author’s name on a normalized schema, but you can perform such a sort very efficiently if you cache the author_name in the message table and index it.

It can also be useful to cache derived values. If you need to display how many messages each user has posted (as many forums do), either you can run an expensive subquery to count the data every time you display it, or you can have a num_messages column in the user table that you update whenever a user posts a new message.

Cache and Summary Tables

Sometimes the best way to improve performance is to keep redundant data in the same table as the data from which it was derived. However, sometimes you’ll need to build completely separate summary or cache tables, specially tuned for your retrieval needs. This approach works best if you can tolerate slightly stale data, but sometimes you really don’t have a choice (for instance, when you need to avoid complex and expensive real-time updates).

The terms “cache table” and “summary table” don’t have standardized meanings. We use the term “cache tables” to refer to tables that contain data that can be easily, if more slowly, retrieved from the schema (i.e., data that is logically redundant). When we say “summary tables,” we mean tables that hold aggregated data from GROUP BY queries (i.e., data that is not logically redundant). Some people also use the term “roll-up tables” for these tables, because the data has been “rolled up.”

Staying with the website example, suppose you need to count the number of messages posted during the previous 24 hours. It would be impossible to maintain an accurate real-time counter on a busy site. Instead, you could generate a summary table every hour. You can often do this with a single query, and it’s more efficient than maintaining counters in real time. The drawback is that the counts are not 100% accurate.

If you need to get an accurate count of messages posted during the previous 24-hour period (with no staleness), there is another option. Begin with a per-hour summary table. You can then count the exact number of messages posted in a given 24-hour period by adding the number of messages in the 23 whole hours contained in that period, the partial hour at the beginning of the period, and the partial hour at the end of the period. Suppose your summary table is called msg_per_hr and is defined as follows:

CREATE TABLE msg_per_hr (

You can find the number of messages posted in the previous 24 hours by adding the results of the following three queries. We’re using LEFT(NOW(), 14) to round the current date and time to the nearest hour:

mysql> SELECT SUM(cnt) FROM msg_per_hr
    ->    CONCAT(LEFT(NOW(), 14), '00:00') - INTERVAL 23 HOUR
    ->    AND CONCAT(LEFT(NOW(), 14), '00:00') - INTERVAL 1 HOUR;
mysql> SELECT COUNT(*) FROM message
    -> WHERE posted >= NOW() - INTERVAL 24 HOUR
    ->    AND posted < CONCAT(LEFT(NOW(), 14), '00:00') - INTERVAL 23 HOUR;
mysql> SELECT COUNT(*) FROM message
    -> WHERE posted >= CONCAT(LEFT(NOW(), 14), '00:00');

Either approach—an inexact count or an exact count with small range queries to fill in the gaps—is more efficient than counting all the rows in the message table. This is the key reason for creating summary tables. These statistics are expensive to compute in real time, because they require scanning a lot of data, or queries that will only run efficiently with special indexes that you don’t want to add because of the impact they will have on updates. Computing the most active users or the most frequent “tags” are typical examples of such operations.

Cache tables, in turn, are useful for optimizing search and retrieval queries. These queries often require a particular table and index structure that is different from the one you would use for general online transaction processing (OLTP) operations.

For example, you might need many different index combinations to speed up various types of queries. These conflicting requirements sometimes demand that you create a cache table that contains only some of the columns from the main table. A useful technique is to use a different storage engine for the cache table. If the main table uses InnoDB, for example, by using MyISAM for the cache table you’ll gain a smaller index footprint and the ability to do full-text search queries. Sometimes you might even want to take the table completely out of MySQL and into a specialized system that can search more efficiently, such as the Lucene or Sphinx search engines.

When using cache and summary tables, you have to decide whether to maintain their data in real time or with periodic rebuilds. Which is better will depend on your application, but a periodic rebuild not only can save resources but also can result in a more efficient table that’s not fragmented and has fully sorted indexes.

When you rebuild summary and cache tables, you’ll often need their data to remain available during the operation. You can achieve this by using a “shadow table,” which is a table you build “behind” the real table. When you’re done building it, you can swap the tables with an atomic rename. For example, if you need to rebuild my_summary, you can create my_summary_new, fill it with data, and swap it with the real table:

mysql> DROP TABLE IF EXISTS my_summary_new, my_summary_old;
mysql> CREATE TABLE my_summary_new LIKE my_summary;
-- populate my_summary_new as desired
mysql> RENAME TABLE my_summary TO my_summary_old, my_summary_new TO my_summary;

If you rename the original my_summary table my_summary_old before assigning the name my_summary to the newly rebuilt table, as we’ve done here, you can keep the old version until you’re ready to overwrite it at the next rebuild. It’s handy to have it for a quick rollback if the new table has a problem.

Materialized Views

Many database management systems, such as Oracle or Microsoft SQL Server, offer a feature called materialized views. These are views that are actually precomputed and stored as tables on disk, and can be refreshed and updated through various strategies. MySQL doesn’t support this natively (we’ll go into details about its support for views in Chapter 7). However, you can implement materialized views yourself, using Justin Swanhart’s open source Flexviews tools ( Flexviews is more sophisticated than roll-your-own solutions and offers a lot of nice features that make materialized views simpler to create and maintain. It consists of a few parts:

  • A Change Data Capture (CDC) utility that reads the server’s binary logs and extracts relevant changes to rows

  • A set of stored procedures that help define and manage the view definitions

  • Tools to apply the changes to the materialized data in the database

In contrast to typical methods of maintaining summary and cache tables, Flexviews can recalculate the contents of the materialized view incrementally by extracting delta changes to the source tables. This means it can update the view without needing to query the source data. For example, if you create a summary table that counts groups of rows, and you add a row to the source table, Flexviews simply increments the corresponding group by one. The same technique works for other aggregate functions, such as SUM() and AVG(). It takes advantage of the fact that row-based binary logging includes images of the rows before and after they are updated, so Flexviews can see not only the new value of each row, but the delta from the previous version, without even looking at the source table. Computing with deltas is much more efficient than reading the data from the source table.

We don’t have space for a full exploration of how to use Flexviews, but we can give an overview. You start by writing a SELECT statement that expresses the data you want to derive from your existing database. This can include joins and aggregations (GROUP BY). There’s a helper tool in Flexviews that transforms your SQL query into Flexviews API calls. Then Flexviews does all the dirty work of watching changes to the database and transforming them into updates to the tables that store your materialized view over the original tables. Now your application can simply query the materialized view instead of the tables from which it was derived.

Flexviews has good coverage of SQL, including tricky expressions that you might not expect a tool to handle outside the server. That makes it useful for building views over complex SQL expressions, so you can replace complex queries with simple, fast queries against the materialized view.

Counter Tables

An application that keeps counts in a table can run into concurrency problems when updating the counters. Such tables are very common in web applications. You can use them to cache the number of friends a user has, the number of downloads of a file, and so on. It’s often a good idea to build a separate table for the counters, to keep it small and fast. Using a separate table can help you avoid query cache invalidations and lets you use some of the more advanced techniques we show in this section.

To keep things as simple as possible, suppose you have a counter table with a single row that just counts hits on your website:

mysql> CREATE TABLE hit_counter (
    ->    cnt int unsigned not null
    -> ) ENGINE=InnoDB;

Each hit on the website updates the counter:

mysql> UPDATE hit_counter SET cnt = cnt + 1;

The problem is that this single row is effectively a global “mutex” for any transaction that updates the counter. It will serialize those transactions. You can get higher concurrency by keeping more than one row and updating a random row. This requires the following change to the table:

mysql> CREATE TABLE hit_counter (
    ->    slot tinyint unsigned not null primary key,
    ->    cnt int unsigned not null
    -> ) ENGINE=InnoDB;

Prepopulate the table by adding 100 rows to it. Now the query can just choose a random slot and update it:

mysql> UPDATE hit_counter SET cnt = cnt + 1 WHERE slot = RAND() * 100;

To retrieve statistics, just use aggregate queries:

mysql> SELECT SUM(cnt) FROM hit_counter;

A common requirement is to start new counters every so often (for example, once a day). If you need to do this, you can change the schema slightly:

mysql> CREATE TABLE daily_hit_counter (
    ->    day date not null,
    ->    slot tinyint unsigned not null,
    ->    cnt int unsigned not null,
    ->    primary key(day, slot)
    -> ) ENGINE=InnoDB;

You don’t want to pregenerate rows for this scenario. Instead, you can use ON DUPLICATE KEY UPDATE:

mysql> INSERT INTO daily_hit_counter(day, slot, cnt)
    ->    VALUES(CURRENT_DATE, RAND() * 100, 1)
    ->    ON DUPLICATE KEY UPDATE cnt = cnt + 1;

If you want to reduce the number of rows to keep the table smaller, you can write a periodic job that merges all the results into slot 0 and deletes every other slot:

mysql> UPDATE daily_hit_counter as c
    ->    INNER JOIN (
    ->       SELECT day, SUM(cnt) AS cnt, MIN(slot) AS mslot
    ->       FROM daily_hit_counter
    ->       GROUP BY day
    ->    ) AS x USING(day)
    -> SET c.cnt  = IF(c.slot = x.mslot, x.cnt, 0),
    ->     c.slot = IF(c.slot = x.mslot, 0, c.slot);
mysql> DELETE FROM daily_hit_counter WHERE slot <> 0 AND cnt = 0;


MySQL’s ALTER TABLE performance can become a problem with very large tables. MySQL performs most alterations by making an empty table with the desired new structure, inserting all the data from the old table into the new one, and deleting the old table. This can take a very long time, especially if you’re short on memory and the table is large and has lots of indexes. Many people have experience with ALTER TABLE operations that have taken hours or days to complete.

MySQL 5.1 and newer include support for some types of “online” operations that won’t lock the table for the whole operation. Recent versions of InnoDB[48] also support building indexes by sorting, which makes building indexes much faster and results in a compact index layout.

In general, most ALTER TABLE operations will cause interruption of service in MySQL. We’ll show some techniques to work around this in a bit, but those are for special cases. For the general case, you need to use either operational tricks such as swapping servers around and performing the ALTER on servers that are not in production service, or a “shadow copy” approach. The technique for a shadow copy is to build a new table with the desired structure beside the existing one, and then perform a rename and drop to swap the two. Tools can help with this: for example, the “online schema change” tools from Facebook’s database operations team (, Shlomi Noach’s openark toolkit (, and Percona Toolkit ( If you are using Flexviews (discussed in Materialized Views), you can perform nonblocking schema changes with its CDC utility too.

Not all ALTER TABLE operations cause table rebuilds. For example, you can change or drop a column’s default value in two ways (one fast, and one slow). Say you want to change a film’s default rental duration from three to five days. Here’s the expensive way:

    -> MODIFY COLUMN rental_duration TINYINT(3) NOT NULL DEFAULT 5;

SHOW STATUS shows that this statement does 1,000 handler reads and 1,000 inserts. In other words, it copies the table to a new table, even though the column’s type, size, and nullability haven’t changed.

In theory, MySQL could have skipped building a new table. The default value for the column is actually stored in the table’s .frm file, so you should be able to change it without touching the table itself. MySQL doesn’t yet use this optimization, however; any MODIFY COLUMN will cause a table rebuild.

You can change a column’s default with ALTER COLUMN,[49] though:

    -> ALTER COLUMN rental_duration SET DEFAULT 5;

This statement modifies the .frm file and leaves the table alone. As a result, it is very fast.

Modifying Only the .frm File

We’ve seen that modifying a table’s .frm file is fast and that MySQL sometimes rebuilds a table when it doesn’t have to. If you’re willing to take some risks, you can convince MySQL to do several other types of modifications without rebuilding the table.


The technique we’re about to demonstrate is unsupported, undocumented, and may not work. Use it at your own risk. We advise you to back up your data first!

You can potentially do the following types of operations without a table rebuild:

  • Remove (but not add) a column’s AUTO_INCREMENT attribute.

  • Add, remove, or change ENUM and SET constants. If you remove a constant and some rows contain that value, queries will return the value as the empty string.

The basic technique is to create a .frm file for the desired table structure and copy it into the place of the existing table’s .frm file, as follows:

  1. Create an empty table with exactly the same layout, except for the desired modification (such as added ENUM constants).

  2. Execute FLUSH TABLES WITH READ LOCK. This will close all tables in use and prevent any tables from being opened.

  3. Swap the .frm files.

  4. Execute UNLOCK TABLES to release the read lock.

As an example, let’s add a constant to the rating column in The current column looks like this:

mysql> SHOW COLUMNS FROM LIKE 'rating';
| Field  | Type                               | Null | Key | Default | Extra |
| rating | enum('G','PG','PG-13','R','NC-17') | YES  |     | G       |       |

We’ll add a PG-14 rating for parents who are just a little bit more cautious about films:

mysql> CREATE TABLE sakila.film_new LIKE;
mysql> ALTER TABLE sakila.film_new
    -> MODIFY COLUMN rating ENUM('G','PG','PG-13','R','NC-17', 'PG-14')
    -> DEFAULT 'G';

Notice that we’re adding the new value at the end of the list of constants. If we placed it in the middle, after PG-13, we’d change the meaning of the existing data: existing R values would become PG-14, NC-17 would become R, and so on.

Now we swap the .frm files from the operating system’s command prompt:

/var/lib/mysql/sakila# mv film.frm film_tmp.frm
/var/lib/mysql/sakila# mv film_new.frm film.frm
/var/lib/mysql/sakila# mv film_tmp.frm film_new.frm

Back in the MySQL prompt, we can now unlock the table and see that the changes took effect:

mysql> SHOW COLUMNS FROM LIKE 'rating'\G
*************************** 1. row ***************************
Field: rating
 Type: enum('G','PG','PG-13','R','NC-17','PG-14')

The only thing left to do is drop the table we created to help with the operation:

mysql> DROP TABLE sakila.film_new;

Building MyISAM Indexes Quickly

The usual trick for loading MyISAM tables efficiently is to disable keys, load the data, and reenable the keys:

mysql> ALTER TABLE test.load_data DISABLE KEYS;
-- load the data
mysql> ALTER TABLE test.load_data ENABLE KEYS;

This works because it lets MyISAM delay building the keys until all the data is loaded, at which point it can build the indexes by sorting. This is much faster and results in a defragmented, compact index tree.[50]

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for unique indexes, because DISABLE KEYS applies only to nonunique indexes. MyISAM builds unique indexes in memory and checks the uniqueness as it loads each row. Loading becomes extremely slow as soon as the index’s size exceeds the available memory.

In modern versions of InnoDB, you can use an analogous technique that relies on InnoDB’s fast online index creation capabilities. This calls for dropping all of the nonunique indexes, adding the new column, and then adding back the indexes you dropped. Percona Server supports doing this automatically.

As with the ALTER TABLE hacks in the previous section, you can speed up this process if you’re willing to do a little more work and assume some risk. This can be useful for loading data from backups, for example, when you already know all the data is valid and there’s no need for uniqueness checks.


Again, this is an undocumented, unsupported technique. Use it at your own risk, and back up your data first.

Here are the steps you’ll need to take:

  1. Create a table of the desired structure, but without any indexes.

  2. Load the data into the table to build the .MYD file.

  3. Create another empty table with the desired structure, this time including the indexes. This will create the .frm and .MYI files you need.

  4. Flush the tables with a read lock.

  5. Rename the second table’s .frm and .MYI files, so MySQL uses them for the first table.

  6. Release the read lock.

  7. Use REPAIR TABLE to build the table’s indexes. This will build all indexes by sorting, including the unique indexes.

This procedure can be much faster for very large tables.


Good schema design is pretty universal, but of course MySQL has special implementation details to consider. In a nutshell, it’s a good idea to keep things as small and simple as you can. MySQL likes simplicity, and so will the people who have to work with your database:

  • Try to avoid extremes in your design, such as a schema that will force enormously complex queries, or tables with oodles and oodles of columns. (An oodle is somewhere between a scad and a gazillion.)

  • Use small, simple, appropriate data types, and avoid NULL unless it’s actually the right way to model your data’s reality.

  • Try to use the same data types to store similar or related values, especially if they’ll be used in a join condition.

  • Watch out for variable-length strings, which might cause pessimistic full-length memory allocation for temporary tables and sorting.

  • Try to use integers for identifiers if you can.

  • Avoid the legacy MySQL-isms such as specifying precisions for floating-point numbers or display widths for integers.

  • Be careful with ENUM and SET. They’re handy, but they can be abused, and they’re tricky sometimes. BIT is best avoided.

Normalization is good, but denormalization (duplication of data, in most cases) is sometimes actually necessary and beneficial. We’ll see more examples of that in the next chapter. And precomputing, caching, or generating summary tables can also be a big win. Justin Swanhart’s Flexviews tool can help maintain summary tables.

Finally, ALTER TABLE can be painful because in most cases, it locks and rebuilds the whole table. We showed a number of workarounds for specific cases; for the general case, you’ll have to use other techniques, such as performing the ALTER on a replica and then promoting it to master. There’s more about this later in the book.

[42] Remember that the length is specified in characters, not bytes. A multibyte character set can require more than one byte to store each character.

[43] The Memory engine in Percona Server supports variable-length rows.

[44] Be careful with the BINARY type if the value must remain unchanged after retrieval. MySQL will pad it to the required length with \0s.

[45] The rules for TIMESTAMP behavior are complex and have changed in various MySQL versions, so you should verify that you are getting the behavior you want. It’s usually a good idea to examine the output of SHOW CREATE TABLE after making changes to TIMESTAMP columns.

[46] If you’re using the InnoDB storage engine, you may not be able to create foreign keys unless the data types match exactly. The resulting error message, “ERROR 1005 (HY000): Can’t create table,” can be confusing depending on the context, and questions about it come up often on MySQL mailing lists. (Oddly, you can create foreign keys between VARCHAR columns of different lengths.)

[47] On the other hand, for some very large tables with many writers, such pseudorandom values can actually help eliminate “hot spots.”

[48] This applies to the so-called “InnoDB plugin,” which is the only version of InnoDB that exists anymore in MySQL 5.5 and newer versions. See Chapter 1 for the details on InnoDB’s release history.

[49] ALTER TABLE lets you modify columns with ALTER COLUMN, MODIFY COLUMN, and CHANGE COLUMN. All three do different things.

[50] MyISAM will also build indexes by sorting when you use LOAD DATA INFILE and the table is empty.

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