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Oracle Essentials, 5th Edition by Robert Stackowiak, Rick Greenwald, Jonathan Stern

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Chapter 4. Oracle Data Structures

In the previous chapters, we examined some distinctions between the different components that make up an Oracle Database. For example, we pointed out that the Oracle instance differs from the files that make up the physical storage of the data in tablespaces, that you cannot access the data in a tablespace except through an Oracle instance, and that the instance itself isn’t very valuable without the data stored in those files.

The instance is the logical entity used by applications and users, separate from the physical storage of data. In a similar way, the actual tables and columns are logical entities within the physical database. The user who makes a request for data from an Oracle Database probably doesn’t know anything about instances and tablespaces, but does know about the structure of her data, as implemented with tables and columns. To fully leverage the power of Oracle, you must understand how the Oracle Database server implements and uses these logical data structures, the topic of this chapter.


The datatype is one of the attributes for a column or a variable in a stored procedure. A datatype describes and limits the type of information stored in a column, and can limit the operations that you can perform on columns.

You can divide Oracle datatype support into three basic varieties: character datatypes, numeric datatypes, and datatypes that represent other kinds of data. You can use any of these datatypes when you create columns in a table, as with this SQL statement:

    char_field CHAR(10),
    varchar_field VARCHAR2(10),
    todays_date DATE)

You also use these datatypes when you define variables as part of a PL/SQL procedure.

Character Datatypes

Character datatypes can store any string value, including the string representations of numeric values. Assigning a value larger than the length specified or allowed for a character datatype results in a runtime error. You can use string functions, such as UPPER, LOWER, SUBSTR, and SOUNDEX, on standard (not large) character value types.

There are several different character datatypes:


The CHAR datatype stores character values with a fixed length. A CHAR datatype can have between 1 and 2,000 characters. If you don’t explicitly specify a length for a CHAR, it assumes the default length of 1. If you assign a value that’s shorter than the length specified for the CHAR datatype, Oracle will automatically pad the value with blanks. Some examples of CHAR values are:

CHAR(10) = "Rick      ", "Jon       ", "Stackowiak"

The VARCHAR2 datatype stores variable-length character strings. Although you must assign a length to a VARCHAR2 datatype, this length is the maximum length for a value rather than the required length. Values assigned to a VARCHAR2 datatype aren’t padded with blanks. Because of this, a VARCHAR2 datatype can require less storage space than a CHAR datatype, because the VARCHAR2 datatype stores only the characters assigned to the column. Up until Oracle Database 12c, the maximum size of a column with a VARCHAR2 was to 4,000 characters; this limit became 32K in Oracle Database 12c.

At this time, the VARCHAR and VARCHAR2 datatypes are synonymous in Oracle8 and later versions, but Oracle recommends the use of VARCHAR2 because future changes may cause VARCHAR and VARCHAR2 to diverge. The values shown earlier for the CHAR values, if entered as VARCHAR2 values, are:

VARCHAR2(10) = "Rick", "Jon", "Stackowiak"

The NCHAR and NVARCHAR2 datatypes store fixed-length or variable-length character data, respectively, using a different character set from the one used by the rest of the database. When you create a database, you specify the character set that will be used for encoding the various characters stored in the database. You can optionally specify a secondary character set as well (which is known as the National Language Set, or NLS). The secondary character set will be used for NCHAR and NVARCHAR2 columns. For example, you may have a description field in which you want to store Japanese characters while the rest of the database uses English encoding. You would specify a secondary character set that supports Japanese characters when you create the database, and then use the NCHAR or NVARCHAR2 datatype for the columns in question. The maximum length of NVARCHAR2 columns was also increased to 32K in Oracle Database 12c.

Starting with Oracle9i, you can specify the length of NCHAR and NVARCHAR2 columns in characters, rather than in bytes. For example, you can indicate that a column with one of these datatypes is 7 characters. The Oracle9i database will automatically make the conversion to 14 bytes of storage if the character set requires double-byte storage.


Oracle Database 10g introduced the Globalization Development Kit (GDK), which is designed to aid in the creation of Internet applications that will be used with different languages. The key feature of this kit is a framework that implements best practices for globalization for Java and PL/SQL developers.

Oracle Database 10g also added support for case- and accent-insensitive queries and sorts. You can use this feature if you want to use only base letters or base letters and accents in a query or sort.


The LONG datatype can hold up to 2 GB of character data. It is regarded as a legacy datatype from earlier versions of Oracle. If you want to store large amounts of character data, Oracle now recommends that you use the CLOB and NCLOB datatypes. There are many restrictions on the use of LONG datatypes in a table and within SQL statements, such as the fact that you cannot use LONGs in WHERE, GROUP BY, ORDER BY, or CONNECT BY clauses or in SQL statements with the DISTINCT qualifier. You also cannot create an index on a LONG column.


The CLOB and NCLOB datatypes can store up to 4 GB of character data prior to Oracle Database 10g. Starting with Oracle Database 10g, the limit has been increased to 128 TBs, depending on the block size of the database. The NCLOB datatype stores the NLS data. Oracle Database 10g and later releases implicitly perform conversions between CLOBs and NCLOBs. For more information on CLOBs and NCLOBs, please refer to the discussion about large objects (LOBs) in the section Other Datatypes later in this chapter.

Numeric Datatype

Oracle uses a standard, variable-length internal format for storing numbers. This internal format can maintain a precision of up to 38 digits.

The numeric datatype for Oracle is NUMBER. Declaring a column or variable as NUMBER will automatically provide a precision of 38 digits. The NUMBER datatype can also accept two qualifiers, as in:

column NUMBER( precision, scale )

The precision of the datatype is the total number of significant digits in the number. You can designate a precision for a number as any number of digits up to 38. If no value is declared for precision, Oracle will use a precision of 38. The scale represents the number of digits to the right of the decimal point. If no scale is specified, Oracle will use a scale of 0.

If you assign a negative number to the scale, Oracle will round the number up to the designated place to the left of the decimal point. For example, the following code snippet:

column_round NUMBER(10,−2)
column_round = 1,234,567

will give column_round a value of 1,234,600.

The NUMBER datatype is the only datatype that stores numeric values in Oracle. The ANSI datatypes of DECIMAL, NUMBER, INTEGER, INT, SMALLINT, FLOAT, DOUBLE PRECISION, and REAL are all stored in the NUMBER datatype. The language or product you’re using to access Oracle data may support these datatypes, but they’re all stored in a NUMBER datatype column.

With Oracle Database 10g, Oracle added support for the precision defined in the IEEE 754-1985 standard with the number datatypes of BINARY_FLOAT and BINARY_DOUBLE. Oracle Database 11g added support for the number datatype SIMPLE_INTEGER.

Date Datatype

As with the NUMERIC datatype, Oracle stores all dates and times in a standard internal format. The standard Oracle date format for input takes the form of DD-MON-YY HH:MI:SS, where DD represents up to two digits for the day of the month, MON is a three-character abbreviation for the month, YY is a two-digit representation of the year, and HH, MI, and SS are two-digit representations of hours, minutes, and seconds, respectively. If you don’t specify any time values, their default values are all zeros in the internal storage.

You can change the format you use for inserting dates for an instance by changing the NLS_DATE_FORMAT parameter for the instance. You can do this for a session by using the ALTER SESSION SQL statement or for a specific value by using parameters with the TO_DATE expression in your SQL statement.

Oracle SQL supports date arithmetic in which integers represent days and fractions represent the fractional component represented by hours, minutes, and seconds. For example, adding .5 to a date value results in a date and time combination 12 hours later than the initial value. Some examples of date arithmetic are:

12-DEC-07 + 10 = 22-DEC-07
31-DEC-2007:23:59:59 + .25 = 1-JAN-2008:5:59:59

As of Oracle9i Release 2, Oracle also supports two INTERVAL datatypes, INTERVAL YEAR TO MONTH and INTERVAL DAY TO SECOND, which are used for storing a specific amount of time. This data can be used for date arithmetic.

Temporal validity

Oracle Database 12c introduced a new concept related to dates called temporal validity. This feature allows you to specify the time period when a particular row of data is valid. For instance, a company might want to add a temporary address for a particular person that would only be valid for a set period of time.

When you create a table, you indicate that the rows of the table will allow for temporal validity, and you can then set a time, as well as a range of time, for each record. Subsequent SQL statements can query for records with a time selection component, which will use the values in the temporal validity columns.

The temporal validity functionality uses Flashback mechanisms for implementation, which are described in Chapter 8.

Other Datatypes

Aside from the basic character, number, and date datatypes, Oracle supports a number of specialized datatypes:


Normally, your Oracle Database not only stores data but also interprets it. When data is requested or exported from the database, the Oracle Database sometimes massages the requested data. For instance, when you dump the values from a NUMBER column, the values written to the dump file are the representations of the numbers, not the internally stored numbers.

The RAW and LONG RAW datatypes circumvent any interpretation on the part of the Oracle Database. When you specify one of these datatypes, Oracle will store the data as the exact series of bits presented to it. The RAW datatypes typically store objects with their own internal format, such as bitmaps. Until Oracle Database 12c, a RAW datatypecolumn could hold 2 KB, which was increased to 32K in that release. Oracle recommends that you convert LONG RAW columns to one of the binary LOB column types.


The ROWID is a special type of column known as a pseudocolumn. The ROWID pseudocolumn can be accessed just like a column in a SQL SELECT statement. There is a ROWID pseudocolumn for every row in an Oracle Database. The ROWID represents the specific address of a particular row. The ROWID pseudocolumn is defined with a ROWID datatype.

The ROWID relates to a specific location on a disk drive. Because of this, the ROWID is the fastest way to retrieve an individual row. However, the ROWID for a row can change as the result of dumping and reloading the database. For this reason, we don’t recommend using the value for the ROWID pseudocolumn across transaction lines. For example, there is no reason to store a reference to the ROWID of a row once you’ve finished using the row in your current application.

You cannot set the value of the standard ROWID pseudocolumn with any SQL statement.

The format of the ROWID pseudocolumn changed with Oracle8. Beginning with Oracle8, the ROWID includes an identifier that points to the database object number in addition to the identifiers that point to the datafile, block, and row. You can parse the value returned from the ROWID pseudocolumn to understand the physical storage of rows in your Oracle Database.

You can define a column or variable with a ROWID datatype, but Oracle doesn’t guarantee that any value placed in this column or variable is a valid ROWID.


Oracle Database 10g and later releases support a pseudocolumn ORA_ROWSCN, which holds the System Change Number (SCN) of the last transaction that modified the row. You can use this pseudocolumn to check easily for changes in the row since a transaction started. For more information on SCNs, see the discussion of concurrency in Chapter 8.


A LOB, or large object datatype, can store up to 4 GB of information. LOBs come in three varieties:

  • CLOB, which can store only character data

  • NCLOB, which stores National Language character set data

  • BLOB, which stores data as binary information

You can designate that a LOB should store its data within the Oracle Database or that it should point to an external file that contains the data.

LOBs can participate in transactions. Selecting a LOB datatype from Oracle will return a pointer to the LOB. You must use either the DBMS_LOB PL/SQL built-in package or the OCI interface to actually manipulate the data in a LOB.

To facilitate the conversion of LONG datatypes to LOBs, Oracle9i included support for LOBs in most functions that support LONGs, as well as an option to the ALTER TABLE statement that allows the automatic migration of LONG datatypes to LOBs.


The BFILE datatype acts as a pointer to a file stored outside of the Oracle Database. Because of this fact, columns or variables with BFILE datatypes don’t participate in transactions, and the data stored in these columns is available only for reading. The file size limitations of the underlying operating system limit the amount of data in a BFILE.


As part of its support for XML, Oracle9i introduced a datatype called XMLType. A column defined as this type of data will store an XML document in a character LOB column. There are built-in functions that allow you to extract individual nodes from the document, and you can also build indexes on any particular node in the XMLType document.

Identity datatype

Oracle Database 12c introduces the identity datatype, which matches a datatype found in IBM’s DB2 database. This datatype is specifically designed to make it easier to migrate applications that have used DB2 to Oracle.

User-defined data

Oracle8 and later versions allow users to define their own complex datatypes, which are created as combinations of the basic Oracle datatypes previously discussed. These versions of Oracle also allow users to create objects composed of both basic datatypes and user-defined datatypes. For more information about objects within Oracle, see Chapter 14.

AnyType, AnyData, AnyDataSet

Oracle9i and newer releases include three datatypes that can be used to explicitly define data structures that exist outside the realm of existing datatypes. Each of these datatypes must be defined with program units that let Oracle know how to process any specific implementation of these types.

Type Conversion

Oracle automatically converts some datatypes to other datatypes, depending on the SQL syntax in which the value occurs.

When you assign a character value to a numeric datatype, Oracle performs an implicit conversion of the ASCII value represented by the character string into a number. For instance, assigning a character value such as 10 to a NUMBER column results in an automatic data conversion.

If you attempt to assign an alphabetic value to a numeric datatype, you will end up with an unexpected (and invalid) numeric value, so you should make sure that you’re assigning values appropriately.

You can also perform explicit conversions on data, using a variety of conversion functions available with Oracle. Explicit data conversions are better to use if a conversion is anticipated, because they document the conversion and avoid the possibility of going unnoticed, as implicit conversions sometimes do.

Concatenation and Comparisons

The concatenation operator for Oracle SQL on most platforms is two vertical lines (||). Concatenation is performed with two character values. Oracle’s automatic type conversion allows you to seemingly concatenate two numeric values. If NUM1 is a numeric column with a value of 1, NUM2 is a numeric column with a value of 2, and NUM3 is a numeric column with a value of 3, the following expressions are TRUE:

NUM1 || NUM2 || NUM3 = "123"
NUM1 || NUM2 + NUM3 = "15" (1 || 2 + 3)
NUM1 + NUM2 || NUM3 = "33" (1+ 2 || 3)

The result for each of these expressions is a character string, but that character string can be automatically converted back to a numeric column for further calculations.

Comparisons between values of the same datatype work as you would expect. For example, a date that occurs later in time is larger than an earlier date, and 0 or any positive number is larger than any negative number. You can use relational operators to compare numeric values or date values. For character values, comparison of single characters are based on the underlying code pages for the characters. For multicharacter strings, comparisons are made until the first character that differs between the two strings appears.

If two character strings of different lengths are compared, Oracle uses two different types of comparison semantics: blank-padded comparisons and nonpadded comparisons. For a blank-padded comparison, the shorter string is padded with blanks and the comparison operates as previously described. For a nonpadded comparison, if both strings are identical for the length of the shorter string, the shorter string is identified as smaller. For example, in a blank-padded comparison the string “A ” (a capital A followed by a blank) and the string “A” (a capital A by itself) would be seen as equal, because the second value would be padded with a blank. In a nonpadded comparison, the second string would be identified as smaller because it is shorter than the first string. Nonpadded comparisons are used for comparisons in which one or both of the values are VARCHAR2 or NVARCHAR2 datatypes, while blank-padded comparisons are used when neither of the values is one of these datatypes.

Oracle Database 10g and later releases include a feature called the Expression Filter, which allows you to store a complex comparison expression as part of a row. You can use the EVALUATE function to limit queries based on the evaluation of the expression, similar to a normal comparison. The Expression Filter uses regular expressions, which are described later in this chapter.


The NULL value is one of the key features of the relational database. The NULL, in fact, doesn’t represent any value at all—it represents the lack of a value. When you create a column for a table that must have a value, you specify it as NOT NULL, meaning that it cannot contain a NULL value. If you try to write a row to a database table that doesn’t assign a value to a NOT NULL column, Oracle will return an error.

You can assign NULL as a value for any datatype. The NULL value introduces what is called three-state logic to your SQL operators. A normal comparison has only two states: TRUE or FALSE. If you’re making a comparison that involves a NULL value, there are three logical states: TRUE, FALSE, and neither.

None of the following conditions are true for Column A if the column contains a NULL value:

A > 0
A < 0
A = 0
A != 0

The existence of three-state logic can be confusing for end users, but your data may frequently require you to allow for NULL values for columns or variables.

You have to test for the presence of a NULL value with the relational operator IS NULL, since a NULL value is not equal to 0 or any other value. Even the expression:


will always evaluate to FALSE, since a NULL value doesn’t equal any other value.

Basic Data Structures

This section describes the three basic Oracle data structures: tables, views, and indexes. This section discusses partitioning, which affects the way that data in tables and indexes is stored.This section also covers editions, a new type of table introduced in Oracle Database 11g Release 2.


The table is the basic data structure used in a relational database. A table is a collection of rows. Each row in a table contains one or more columns. If you’re unfamiliar with relational databases, you can map a table to the concept of a file or database in a nonrelational database, just as you can map a row to the concept of a record in a nonrelational database.

As of Oracle9i, you can define external tables. As the name implies, the data for an external table is stored outside the database, typically in a flat file. The external table is read-only; you cannot update the data it contains. The external table is good for loading and unloading data to files from a database, among other purposes.

Oracle Database 11g introduced the ability to create virtual columns for a table. These columns are defined by an expression and, although the results of the expression are not stored, the columns can be accessed by applications at runtime. Oracle Database 12c introduces the invisible column, which is stored and maintained like a regular column but is not accessible by user request or considered by the query optimizer.


Oracle Database 11g Release 2 introduced a new concept called an edition. An edition is simply a version of a table, and a table can have more than one edition simultaneously. Editions are used to implement edition-based redefinition (EBR), useful as table structures evolve over time.

This evolution previously presented a problem when table structures were changed as applications changed. Typically, a new release of an application would be run in test mode, and this testing is most valid if it can run on production data. Prior to EBR, this requirement would force testers to run on a duplicate copy of a potentially large database, and perform their testing outside of a real world production scenario.

With EBR, you can create a new version of a table with a different data structure that resides in the Oracle Database at the same time as a previous version. An application can access a specific edition of a table, so a new version of an application can run simultaneously with a previous one that uses a table with a different structure.

Not only can organizations run two versions of an application at the same time, but developers can roll back the changes in a new version by simply dropping the edition for that new version. In the same way, a new version can be made permanent by dropping a previous version and pointing applications to the newer version, which means an upgrade can take place without any downtime.

You need to do some initialization work to use editions, as well as creating edition-related triggers that will duplicate data manipulation actions in multiple versions.


A view is an Oracle data structure defined through a SQL statement. The SQL statement is stored in the database. When you use a view in a query, the stored query is executed and the base table data is returned to the user. Views do not contain data, but represent ways to look at the base table data in the way the query specifies.

You can use a view for several purposes:

  • To simplify access to data stored in multiple tables.

  • To implement specific security for the data in a table (e.g., by creating a view that includes a WHERE clause that limits the data you can access through the view). Starting with Oracle9i, you can use fine-grained access control to accomplish the same purpose. Fine-grained access control gives you the ability to automatically limit data access based on the value of data in a row.

  • To isolate an application from the specific structure of the underlying tables.

A view is built on a collection of base tables, which can be either actual tables in an Oracle Database or other views. If you modify any of the base tables for a view so that they no longer can be used for a view, that view itself can no longer be used.

In general, you can write to the columns of only one underlying base table of a view in a single SQL statement. There are additional restrictions for INSERT, UPDATE, and DELETE operations, and there are certain SQL clauses that prevent you from updating any of the data in a view.

You can write to a nonupdateable view by using an INSTEAD OF trigger, which is described later in this chapter.

Oracle8i introduced materialized views. These are not really views as defined in this section, but are physical tables that hold pre-summarized data providing significant performance improvements in a data warehouse. Materialized views are described in more detail in Chapter 10.


An index is a data structure that speeds up access to particular rows in a database. An index is associated with a particular table and contains the data from one or more columns in the table.

The basic SQL syntax for creating an index is shown in this example:

CREATE INDEX emp_idx1 ON emp (ename, job);

in which emp_idx1 is the name of the index, emp is the table on which the index is created, and ename and job are the column values that make up the index.

The Oracle Database server automatically modifies the values in the index when the values in the corresponding columns are modified. Because the index contains less data than the complete row in the table and because indexes are stored in a special structure that makes them faster to read, it takes fewer I/O operations to retrieve the data in them. Selecting rows based on an index value can be faster than selecting rows based on values in the table rows. In addition, most indexes are stored in sorted order (either ascending or descending, depending on the declaration made when you created the index). Because of this storage scheme, selecting rows based on a range of values or returning rows in sorted order is much faster when the range or sort order is contained in the presorted indexes.

In addition to the data for an index, an index entry stores the ROWID for its associated row. The ROWID is the fastest way to retrieve any row in a database, so the subsequent retrieval of a database row is performed in the most optimal way.

An index can be either unique (which means that no two rows in the table or view can have the same index value) or nonunique. If the column or columns on which an index is based contain NULL values, the row isn’t included in the index.

An index in Oracle refers to the physical structure used within the database. A key is a term for a logical entity, typically the value stored within the index. In most places in the Oracle documentation, the two terms are used interchangeably, with the notable exception of the foreign key constraint, which is discussed later in this chapter.

Four different types of index structures, which are described in the following sections, are used in Oracle: standard B*-tree indexes; reverse key indexes; bitmap indexes; and function-based indexes, which were introduced in Oracle8i. Oracle Database 11g delivers the ability to use invisible indexes, which are described below. Oracle also gives you the ability to cluster the data in the tables, which can improve performance. This is described later, in the section Clusters. Finally, something called a storage index is available with the Exadata Database Machine, which is not really an index at all, but is described at the end of this section.

B*-tree indexes

The B*-tree index is the default index used in Oracle. It gets its name from its resemblance to an inverted tree, as shown in Figure 4-1.

A B*-tree index
Figure 4-1. A B*-tree index

The B*-tree index is composed of one or more levels of branch blocks and a single level of leaf blocks. The branch blocks contain information about the range of values contained in the next level of branch blocks. The number of branch levels between the root and leaf blocks is called the depth of the index. The leaf blocks contain the actual index values and the ROWID for the associated row.

The B*-tree index structure doesn’t contain many blocks at the higher levels of branch blocks, so it takes relatively few I/O operations to read quite far down the B*-tree index structure. All leaf blocks are at the same depth in the index, so all retrievals require essentially the same amount of I/O to get to the index entry, which evens out the performance of the index.

Oracle allows you to create index-organized tables (IOTs), in which the leaf blocks store the entire row of data rather than only the ROWID that points to the associated row. Index-organized tables reduce the total amount of space needed to store an index and a table by eliminating the need to store the ROWID in the leaf page. But index-organized tables cannot use a UNIQUE constraint or be stored in a cluster. In addition, index organized tables don’t support distribution, replication, and partitioning (covered in greater detail in other chapters), although IOTs can be used with Oracle Streams for capturing and applying changes with Oracle Database 10g and later releases.

There were a number of enhancements to index-organized tables as of Oracle9i, including a lifting of the restriction against the use of bitmap indexes as secondary indexes for an IOT and the ability to create, rebuild, or coalesce secondary indexes on an IOT. Oracle Database 10g continued this trend by allowing replication and all types of partitioning for index-organized tables, as well as providing other enhancements.

Reverse key indexes

Reverse key indexes, as their name implies, automatically reverse the order of the bytes in the key value stored in the index. If the value in a row is “ABCD,” the value for the reverse key index for that row is “DCBA.”

To understand the need for a reverse key index, you have to review some basic facts about the standard B*-tree index. First and foremost, the depth of the B*-tree is determined by the number of entries in the leaf nodes. The greater the depth of the B*-tree, the more levels of branch nodes there are and the more I/O is required to locate and access the appropriate leaf node.

The index illustrated in Figure 4-1 is a nice, well-behaved, alphabetic-based index. It’s balanced, with an even distribution of entries across the width of the leaf pages. But some values commonly used for an index are not so well behaved. Incremental values, such as ascending sequence numbers or increasingly later date values, are always added to the right side of the index, which is the home of higher and higher values. In addition, any deletions from the index have a tendency to be skewed toward the left side as older rows are deleted. The net effect of these practices is that over time the index turns into an unbalanced B*-tree, where the left side of the index is more sparsely populated than the leaf nodes on the right side. This unbalanced growth has the overall effect of having an unnecessarily deep B*-tree structure, with the left side of the tree more sparsely populated than the right side, where the new, larger values are stored. The effects described here also apply to the values that are automatically decremented, except that the left side of the B*-tree will end up holding more entries.

You can solve this problem by periodically dropping and re-creating the index. However, you can also solve it by using the reverse value index, which reverses the order of the value of the index. This reversal causes the index entries to be more evenly distributed over the width of the leaf nodes. For example, rather than having the values 234, 235, and 236 be added to the maximum side of the index, they are translated to the values 432, 532, and 632 for storage and then translated back when the values are retrieved. These values are more evenly spread throughout the leaf nodes.

The overall result of the reverse index is to correct the imbalance caused by continually adding increasing values to a standard B*-tree index. For more information about reverse key indexes and where to use them, refer to your Oracle documentation.

Bitmap indexes

In a standard B*-tree index, the ROWIDs are stored in the leaf blocks of the index. In a bitmap index, each bit in the index represents a ROWID. If a particular row contains a particular value, the bit for that row is “turned on” in the bitmap for that value. A mapping function converts the bit into its corresponding ROWID. Unlike other index types, bitmap indexes include entries for NULL values.

You can store a bitmap index in much less space than a standard B*-tree index if there aren’t many values in the index. Figure 4-2 shows an illustration of how a bitmap index is stored. Figure 10-3 in Chapter 10 shows how a bitmap index is used in a selection condition.

Bitmap index
Figure 4-2. Bitmap index

The functionality provided by bitmap indexes is especially important in data warehousing applications in which each dimension of the warehouse contains many repeating values, and queries typically require the interaction of several different dimensions. For more about data warehousing, see Chapter 10.

Function-based indexes

Function-based indexes were introduced in Oracle8i. A function-based index is just like a standard B*-tree index, except that you can base the index on the result of a SQL function, rather than just on the value of a column or columns.

Prior to Oracle8i, if you wanted to select on the result of a function, Oracle retrieved every row in the database, executed the function, and then accepted or rejected each row. With function-based indexes you can simply use the index for selection, without having to execute the function on every row, every time.

For example, without a function-based index, if you wanted to perform a case-insensitive selection of data you would have to use the UPPER function in the WHERE clause, which would retrieve every candidate row and execute the function. With a function-based index based on the UPPER function, you can select directly from the index.


As of Oracle Database 10g, you can perform case- or accent-insensitive queries; these queries provide another way to solve this problem.

This capability becomes even more valuable when you consider that you can create your own functions in an Oracle Database. You can create a very sophisticated function and then create an index based on the function, which can dramatically affect the performance of queries that require the function.

Invisible indexes

Oracle Database 11g introduces a new option for all of the index types we’ve discussed in previous sections—the invisible index. Normally, all indexes are used by the optimizer, which is described later in this chapter. You can eliminate an index from optimizer consideration by taking the index offline or by deleting the index. But with both of these methods you will have to take some actions to bring the index up to date when you bring it back into the database environment.

But what if you want to just remove the index from optimizer consideration for a limited time, such as when you are testing performance? With the invisible option, an index is not considered as a possible step in an access path, but updates and deletes to the underlying data are still applied to the index.

Storage indexes

A storage index is a structure in Exadata Storage automatically created by the Exadata Storage Server software. A storage index is used to track the highest and lowest values for the most frequently accessed columns in a 1 MB section of storage. These high and low values are stored in memory and used to determine if that 1 MB block should be accessed as part of a SQL operation.A storage index is created when the 1 MB section is initially accessed.

Storage indexes will have the optimal effect when used on data that is sorted and then loaded. This process would limit the range of values for the sorted columns, which would make the access elimination more efficient. Storage indexes do not negatively impact any SQL, but could have different impacts on a statement based on the storage characteristics of data.

In one sense, a storage index provides the same benefits as a standard index, in that the storage index improves query response time by reducing I/O operations. However, an index is used to navigate to a particular row, while a storage index is used to filter the retrieval of rows needed to satisfy a query.


With the Enterprise Editions of Oracle8 and beyond, you can purchase the Partitioning Option. As the name implies, this option allows you to partition tables and indexes. Partitioning a data structure means that you can divide the information in the structure among multiple physical storage areas. A partitioned data structure is divided based on column values in the table. You can partition tables based on the range of column values in the table (often date ranges), or as the result of a hash function (which returns a value based on a calculation performed on the values in one or more columns). As of Oracle9i you can also use a list of values to define a partition, which can be particularly useful in a data warehouse environment.

Oracle Database 11g added several partitioning types over its releases. Interval partitioning provides the ability to automatically generate a new partition of a fixed interval or range when data to be inserted does not fit into existing partition ranges. Reference partitioning is used where a parent-child relationship can be defined between tables and the child table inherits the same partitioning characteristics as the parent. Virtual column-based partitioning enables partition keys to be defined by virtual columns.

You can have two levels of partitions, called composite partitions, using a combination of partition methods. Prior to Oracle Database 11g, you could partition using a composite of range and hash partitioning. Oracle Database 11g added the ability to combine list partitioning with list, range, or hash partitioning, or range partitioning with a different range partitioning scheme. Oracle Database 12c adds interval reference partitioning.

Oracle is smart enough to take advantage of partitions to improve performance in two ways:

  • Oracle won’t bother to access partitions that don’t contain any data to satisfy the query.

  • If all the data in a partition satisfies a part of the WHERE clause for the query, Oracle simply selects all the rows for the partition without bothering to evaluate the clause for each row.

Partitioned tables are especially useful in a data warehouse, in which data can be partitioned based on the time period it spans.

Equally important is the fact that partitioning substantially reduces the scope of maintenance operations and increases the availability of your data. You can perform all maintenance operations, such as backup, recovery, and loading, on a single partition. This flexibility makes it possible to handle extremely large data structures while still performing those maintenance operations in a reasonable amount of time. In addition, if you must recover one partition in a table for some reason, the other partitions in the table can remain online during the recovery operation.

If you have been working with other databases that don’t offer the same type of partitioning, you may have tried to implement a similar functionality by dividing a table into several separate tables and then using a UNION SQL command to view the data in several tables at once. Partitioned tables give you all the advantages of having several identical tables joined by a UNION command without the complexity that implementation requires.

To maximize the benefits of partitioning, it sometimes makes sense to partition a table and an index identically so that both the table partition and the index partition map to the same set of rows. You can automatically implement this type of partitioning, which is called equipartitioning, by specifying an index for a partitioned table as a LOCAL index. Local indexes simplify maintenance, since standard operations, such as dropping a partition, will work transparently with both the index partition and the table partition.

Oracle has continued to increase the functionality of partitioning features. Since Oracle Database 10g Release 2, you can reorganize individual partitions online, the maximum number of partitions increased from 64 KB – 1 to 128 KB – 1, and query optimization using partition pruning improved.

Oracle Database 11g further improved partition pruning, enabled applications to control partitioning, and added a Partition Advisor that can help you to understand when partitioning might improve the performance of your Oracle Database.

Oracle Database 12c has added the ability to use partial indexes for a partitioned table. This capability means that you do not have to index all partitions in a table. You can indicate that a particular partition should not have an index, which means that there will not be a local index, or that partition will be excluded from the global index. You can turn indexing on or off for any individual partition.

For more details about the structure and limitations associated with partitioned tables, refer to your Oracle documentation.

Additional Data Structures

There are several other data structures available in your Oracle Database that can be useful in some circumstances.


One of the big problems that occurs in a multiuser database is the difficulty of supplying unique numbers for use as keys or identifiers. For this situation, Oracle allows you to create an object called a sequence. The sequence object is fairly simple. Whenever anyone requests a value from it, it returns a value and increments its internal value, avoiding contention and time-consuming interaction with the requesting application. Oracle can cache a range of numbers for the sequence so that access to the next number doesn’t have to involve disk I/O—the requests can be satisfied from the range in the SGA.

Sequence numbers are defined with a name, an incremental value, and some additional information about the sequence. Sequences exist independently of any particular table, so more than one table can use the same sequence number.

Consider what might happen if you didn’t use Oracle sequences. You might store the last sequence number used in a column in a table. A user who wanted to get the next sequence number would read the last number, increment it by a fixed value, and write the new value back to the column. But if many users tried to get a sequence number at the same time, they might all read the “last” sequence number before the new “last” sequence number had been written back. You could lock the row in the table with the column containing the sequence number, but this would cause delays as other users waited on locks. What’s the solution? Create a sequence.

Oracle Database 11g allowed the use of sequences within PL/SQL expressions. Oracle Database 12c added the identity column datatype, which matches the functionality of identity columns in other brands of databases, which used to require conversion to a sequence.


All data structures within an Oracle Database are stored within a specific schema. A schema is associated with a particular username, and all objects are referenced with the name of the schema followed by the name of the object.


Schemas are also used as the basis for a form of multitenancy used in Oracle cloud computing, described in Chapter 15.

For instance, if there were a table named EMP in a schema named DEMO, the table would be referenced with the complete name of DEMO.EMP. If you don’t supply a specific schema name, Oracle assumes that the structure is in the schema for your current username.

Schemas are a nice feature because object names have to be unique only within their own schemas, but the qualified names for objects can get confusing, especially for end users. To make names simpler and more readable, you can create a synonym for any table, view, snapshot, or sequence, or for any PL/SQL procedure, function, or package.

Synonyms can be either public, which means that all users of a database can use them, or private, which means that only the user whose schema contains the synonym can use it.

For example, if the user DEMO creates a public synonym called EMP for the table EMP in his schema, all other users can simply use EMP to refer to the EMP table in DEMO’s schema. Suppose that DEMO didn’t create a public synonym and a user called SCOTT wanted to use the name EMP to refer to the EMP table in DEMO’s schema. The user SCOTT would create a private synonym in his schema. Of course, SCOTT must have access to DEMO’s EMP table for this to work.

Synonyms simplify user access to a data structure. You can also use synonyms to hide the location of a particular data structure, making the data more transportable and increasing the security of the associated table by hiding the name of the schema owner.

Prior to Oracle Database 10g, if you changed the location referenced by a synonym, you would have to recompile any PL/SQL procedures that accessed the synonym.


A cluster is a data structure that improves retrieval performance. A cluster, like an index, does not affect the logical view of the table.

A cluster is a way of storing related data values together on disk. Oracle reads data a block at a time, so storing related values together reduces the number of I/O operations needed to retrieve related values, since a single data block will contain only related rows.

A cluster is composed of one or more tables. The cluster includes a cluster index, which stores all the values for the corresponding cluster key. Each value in the cluster index points to a data block that contains only rows with the same value for the cluster key.

If a cluster contains multiple tables, the tables should be joined together and the cluster index should contain the values that form the basis of the join. Because the value of the cluster key controls the placement of the rows that relate to the key, changing a value in that key can cause Oracle to change the location of rows associated with that key value.

Clusters may not be appropriate for tables that regularly require full table scans, in which a query requires the Oracle Database to iterate through all the rows of the table. Because you access a cluster table through the cluster index, which then points to a data block, full table scans on clustered tables can actually require more I/O operations, lowering overall performance.

Hash Clusters

A hash cluster is like a cluster with one significant difference that makes it even faster. Each request for data in a clustered table involves at least two I/O operations, one for the cluster index and one for the data. A hash cluster stores related data rows together, but groups the rows according to a hash value for the cluster key. The hash value is calculated with a hash function, which means that each retrieval operation starts with a calculation of the hash value and then goes directly to the data block that contains the relevant rows.

By eliminating the need to go to a cluster index, a hash-clustered table can be even faster for retrieving data than a clustered table. You can control the number of possible hash values for a hash cluster with the HASHKEYS parameter when you create the cluster.

Because the hash cluster directly points to the location of a row in the table, you must allocate all the space required for all the possible values in a hash cluster when you create the cluster.

Hash clusters work best when there is an even distribution of rows among the various values for the hash key. You may have a situation in which there is already a unique value for the hash key column, such as a unique ID. In such situations, you can assign the value for the hash key as the value for the hash function on the unique value, which eliminates the need to execute the hash function as part of the retrieval process. In addition, you can specify your own hash function as part of the definition of a hash cluster.

Oracle Database 10g introduced sorted hash clusters, where data is not only stored in a cluster based on a hash value, but is also stored within that location in the order in which it was inserted. This data structure improves performance for applications that access data in the order in which it was added to the database.

Extended Logic for Data

There are several features that have been added to the Oracle Database that are not unique data structures, but rather shape the way you can use the data in the database: the Rules Manager and the Expression Filter.

Rules Manager

The Oracle Database has been continually extending the functionality it can provide, from mere data storage, which still enforced some logical attributes on data, to stored procedures, which allowed you to define extensive logical operations triggered by data manipulations. The Rules Manager, introduced with Oracle Database 10g Release 2, takes this extension a step further.

The concept behind the Rules Manager is simple. A rule is stored in the database and is called and evaluated by applications. If business conditions or requirements change, the rule covering those scenarios can be changed without having to touch the application code. Rules can be shared across multiple application systems, bringing standardization along with reduced maintenance across the set of applications. You can also create granular rules that can be used in different combinations to implement a variety of conditions.

Rules are invoked by events. The event causes the rule to be evaluated and results in a rule action being performed, either immediately or at some later time.

The Rules Manager follows the event-condition action structure and helps users to define five elements required for a Rules Manager application:

  • Define an event structure, which is an object in your Oracle Database. Different events have different values for the attributes of the event object.

  • Create rules, which include conditions and their subsequent actions.

  • Create rule classes to store and group rules with similar structures.

  • Create PL/SQL procedures to implement rules.

  • Define a results view to configure the rules for external use when the PL/SQL actions cannot be called, such as an application that runs on multiple tiers and has rule actions that are invoked from the application server tier.

You can define conflict resolution routines to handle situations where more than one rule is matched by an event. The Rules Manager also can aggregate different events into composite events and maintain state information until all events are received.

Using Rules can be a very powerful tool for implementing complex logic, but the use of rules can affect your application design. For more information on the Rules Manager, please refer to the Oracle documentation.

The Expression Filter

The Expression Filter, available since Oracle Database 10g, uses the Rules Manager to work with expressions. An expression is another object type that contains attributes evaluated by the Expression Filter. You add a VARCHAR2 column to a table that stores the values for the attributes of an expression, use a PL/SQL built-in package to add the expression to the column, and use standard SQL to set the values for the expression. To compare values to an expression, you use the EVALUATE operator in the WHERE clause of your SQL statement.

Expressions can be used to define complex qualities for rows, since an expression can have many attributes. You can also use expressions to implement many-to-many relationships without an intermediary table by using expressions from two tables to join the tables.

With the Enterprise Edition of Oracle, you can add an index to an expression, which can provide the same performance benefits of an index to the values defined as an expression.

Data Design

Tables and columns present a logical view of the data in a relational database. The flexibility of a relational database gives you many options for grouping the individual pieces of data, represented by the columns, into a set of tables. To use Oracle most effectively, you should understand and follow some firmly established principles of database design.

The topic of database design is vast and deep: we won’t even pretend to offer more than a cursory overview. However, there are many great books and resources available on the fundamentals of good database design. When E. F. Codd created the concept of a relational database in the 1960s, he also began work on the concept of normalized data design. The theory behind normalized data design is pretty straightforward: a table should contain only the information that is directly related to the key value of the table. The process of assembling these logical units of information is called normalization of the database design.

The concept of normalized table design was tailored to the capabilities of the relational database. Because you could join data from different tables together in a query, there was no need to keep all the information associated with a particular object together in a single record. You could decompose the information into associated units and simply join the appropriate units together when you needed information that crossed table boundaries.

There are many different methodologies for normalizing data. The following is one example:

  1. Identify the objects your application needs to know (the entities). Examples of entities, as shown in Figure 4-3, include employees, locations, and jobs.

  2. Identify the individual pieces of data, referred to by data modelers as attributes, for these entities. In Figure 4-3, employee name and salary are attributes. Typically, entities correspond to tables and attributes correspond to columns.

  3. As a potential last step in the process, identify relationships between the entities based on your business. These relationships are implemented in the database schema through the use of a combination known as a foreign key. For example, the primary key of the DEPARTMENT NUMBER table would be a foreign key column in the EMPLOYEE NAME table used to identify the DEPARTMENT NUMBER for the department in which an employee works. A foreign key is a type of constraint; constraints are discussed later in this chapter.

Normalization provides benefits by avoiding storage of redundant data. Storing the department in every employee record not only would waste space but also would lead to a data maintenance issue. If the department name changed, you would have to update every employee record, even though no employees had actually changed departments. By normalizing the department data into a table and simply pointing to the appropriate row from the employee rows, you avoid both duplication of data and this type of problem.

Normalization also reduces the amount of data that any one row in a table contains. The less data in a row, the less I/O is needed to retrieve it, which helps to avoid this performance bottleneck. In addition, the smaller the size of a row, the more rows are retrieved per data block, which increases the likelihood that more than one desired row will be retrieved in a single I/O operation. And the smaller the row, the more rows will be kept in Oracle’s system buffers, which also increases the likelihood that a row will be available in memory when it’s needed, thereby avoiding the need for any disk I/O at all.

Finally, the process of normalization includes the creation of foreign key relationships and other data constraints. These relationships build a level of data integrity directly into your database design.

Figure 4-3 shows a simple list of attributes grouped into entities and linked by a foreign key relationship.

The normalization process
Figure 4-3. The normalization process

However, there is an even more important reason to go through the process of designing a normalized database. You can benefit from normalization because of the planning process that normalizing a data design entails. By really thinking about the way the intended applications use data, you get a much clearer picture of the needs the system is designed to serve. This understanding leads to a much more focused database and application.

Gaining a deep understanding of the way your data will be used also helps with your other design tasks. For instance, once you’ve completed an optimal logical database design, you can go back and consider what indexes you should add to improve the anticipated performance of the database and whether you should designate any tables as part of a cluster or hash cluster.

Since adding these types of performance-enhancing data structures doesn’t affect the logical representation of the database, you can always make these types of modifications later when you see the way an application uses the database in test mode or in production.


A constraint enforces certain aspects of data integrity within a database. When you add a constraint to a particular column, Oracle automatically ensures that data violating that constraint is never accepted. If a user attempts to write data that violates a constraint, Oracle returns an error for the offending SQL statement. Because a constraint is directly associated with the data it is constraining, the restriction is always enforced, eliminating the need to implement this integrity restriction in one or more other locations, such as multiple applications or access tools.

Constraints may be associated with columns when you create or add the table containing the column (via a number of keywords) or after the table has been created with the SQL command ALTER TABLE. Since Oracle8, the following constraint types are supported:


You can designate any column as NOT NULL. If any SQL operation leaves a NULL value in a column with a NOT NULL constraint, Oracle returns an error for the statement.


When you designate a column or set of columns as unique, users cannot add values that already exist in another row in the table for those columns, or modify existing values to match other values in the column.

The unique constraint is implemented by a creation of an index, which requires a unique value. If you include more than one column as part of a unique key, you will create a single index that will include all the columns in the unique key. If an index already exists for this purpose, Oracle will automatically use that index.

If a column is unique but allows NULL values, any number of rows can have a NULL value, because the NULL indicates the absence of a value. To require a truly unique value for a column in every row, the column should be both unique and NOT NULL.

Primary key

Each table can have, at most, a single primary key constraint. The primary key may consist of more than one column in a table.

The primary key constraint forces each primary key to have a unique value. It enforces both the unique constraint and the NOT NULL constraint. A primary key constraint will create a unique index, if one doesn’t already exist for the specified column(s).

Foreign key

The foreign key constraint is defined for a table (known as the child) that has a relationship with another table in the database (known as the parent). The value entered in a foreign key must be present in a unique or primary key of the parent table. For example, the column for a department ID in an employee table might be a foreign key for the department ID primary key in the department table.

A foreign key can have one or more columns, but the referenced key must have an equal number of columns. You can have a foreign key relate to the primary key of its own table, such as when the employee ID of a manager is a foreign key referencing the ID column in the same table.

A foreign key can contain a NULL value if it’s not forbidden through another constraint.

By requiring that the value for a foreign key exist in another table, the foreign key constraint enforces referential integrity in the database. Foreign keys not only provide a way to join related tables but also ensure that the relationship between the two tables will have the required data integrity.

Normally, you would not allow applications to delete or update a row in a parent table if it causes a row in the child table to violate a foreign key constraint. However, you can specify that a foreign key constraint causes a cascade delete, which means that deleting a referenced row in the parent table automatically deletes all rows in the child table that reference the primary key value in the deleted row in the parent table. In addition, you could define the constraint to set the value of a corresponding child key to NULL if the parent key value is deleted.


A check constraint is a more general purpose constraint. A check constraint is a Boolean expression that evaluates to either TRUE or FALSE. If the check constraint evaluates to FALSE, the SQL statement that caused the result returns an error. For example, a check constraint might require the minimum balance in a bank account to be over $100. If a user tries to update data for that account in a way that causes the balance to drop below this required amount, the constraint will return an error.

Some constraints require the creation of indexes to support them. For instance, the unique constraint creates an implicit index used to guarantee uniqueness. You can also specify a particular index that will enforce a constraint when you define that constraint.

All constraints can be either immediate or deferred. An immediate constraint is enforced as soon as a write operation affects a constrained column in the table. A deferred constraint is enforced when the SQL statement that caused the change in the constrained column completes. Because a single SQL statement can affect several rows, the choice between using a deferred constraint or an immediate constraint can significantly affect how the integrity dictated by the constraint operates. You can specify that an individual constraint is immediate or deferred, or you can set the timing for all constraints in a single transaction.

Finally, you can temporarily suspend the enforcement of constraints for a particular table. When you enable the operation of the constraint, you can instruct Oracle to validate all the data for the constraint or simply start applying the constraint to the new data. When you add a constraint to an existing table, you can also specify whether you want to check all the existing rows in the table.


You use constraints to automatically enforce data integrity rules whenever a user tries to write or modify a row in a table. There are times when you want to use the same kind of timing for your own application-specific logic. Oracle includes triggers to give you this capability.


Although you can write triggers to perform the work of a constraint, Oracle has optimized the operation of constraints, so it’s best to always use a constraint instead of a trigger if possible.

A trigger is a block of code that is fired whenever a particular type of database event occurs to a table. There are three types of common events that can cause a trigger to fire:

  • A database UPDATE

  • A database INSERT

  • A database DELETE

You can, for instance, define a trigger to write a customized audit record whenever a user changes a row.

Triggers are defined at the row level. You can specify that a trigger be fired for each row or for the SQL statement that fires the trigger event. As with the previous discussion of constraints, a single SQL statement can affect many rows, so the specification of the trigger can have a significant effect on the operation of the trigger and the performance of the database.

There are three times when a trigger can fire:

  • Before the execution of the triggering event

  • After the execution of the triggering event

  • Instead of the triggering event

Combining the first two timing options with the row and statement versions of a trigger gives you four possible trigger implementations: before a statement, before a row, after a statement, and after a row.

Oracle Database 11g introduced the concept of compound triggers; with this enhancement, a single trigger can have a section for different timing implementations. Compound triggers help to improve performance, since the trigger has to be loaded only once for multiple timing options.

INSTEAD OF triggers were introduced with Oracle8. The INSTEAD OF trigger has a specific purpose: to implement data manipulation operations on views that don’t normally permit them, such as a view that references columns in more than one base table for updates. You should be careful when using INSTEAD OF triggers because of the many potential problems associated with modifying the data in the underlying base tables of a view. There are many restrictions on when you can use INSTEAD OF triggers. Refer to your Oracle documentation for a detailed description of the forbidden scenarios.

You can specify a trigger restriction for any trigger. A trigger restriction is a Boolean expression that circumvents the execution of the trigger if it evaluates to FALSE.

Triggers are defined and stored separately from the tables that use them. Since they contain logic, they must be written in a language with capabilities beyond those of SQL, which is designed to access data. Oracle8 and later versions allow you to write triggers in PL/SQL, the procedural language that has been a part of Oracle since Version 6. Oracle8i and beyond also support Java as a procedural language, so you can create Java triggers with those versions.

You can write a trigger directly in PL/SQL or Java, or a trigger can call an existing stored procedure written in either language.

Triggers are fired as a result of a SQL statement that affects a row in a particular table. It’s possible for the actions of the trigger to modify the data in the table or to cause changes in other tables that fire their own triggers. The end result of this may be data that ends up being changed in a way that Oracle thinks is logically illegal. These situations can cause Oracle to return runtime errors referring to mutating tables, which are tables modified by other triggers, or constraining tables, which are tables modified by other constraints. Oracle8i eliminated some of the errors caused by activating constraints with triggers.

Oracle8i also introduced a very useful set of system event triggers (sometimes called database-level event triggers), and user event triggers (sometimes called schema-level event triggers). For example, you can place a trigger on system events such as database startup and shutdown and on user events such as logging on and logging off.

Query Optimization

All of the data structures discussed so far in this chapter are database entities. Users request data from an Oracle server through database queries. Oracle’s query optimizer must then determine the best way to access the data requested by each query.

One of the great virtues of a relational database is its ability to access data without predefining the access paths to the data. When a SQL query is submitted to an Oracle Database, Oracle must decide how to access the data. The process of making this decision is called query optimization, because Oracle looks for the optimal way to retrieve the data. This retrieval is known as the execution path. The trick behind query optimization is to choose the most efficient way to get the data, since there may be many different options available.

For instance, even with a query that involves only a single table, Oracle can take either of these approaches:

  • Use an index to find the ROWIDs of the requested rows and then retrieve those rows from the table.

  • Scan the table to find and retrieve the rows; this is referred to as a full table scan.

Although it’s usually much faster to retrieve data using an index, the process of getting the values from the index involves an additional I/O step in processing the query. This additional step could mean that there were more total I/Os involved to satisfy the query—if, for instance, all the rows in a table were being selected. Query optimization may be as simple as determining whether the query involves selection conditions that can be imposed on values in the index. Using the index values to select the desired rows involves less I/O and is therefore more efficient than retrieving all the data from the table and then imposing the selection conditions. But when you start to consider something as simple as what percent of the rows in a table will be eliminated by using an index, you can see that the complexity in selecting the right execution path can grow very complex very rapidly in a production scenario.

Another factor in determining the optimal query execution plan is whether there is an ORDER BY condition in the query that can be automatically implemented by the presorted index. Alternatively, if the table is small enough, the optimizer may decide to simply read all the blocks of the table and bypass the index since it estimates the cost of the index I/O plus the table I/O to be higher than just the table I/O.

The query optimizer has to make some key decisions even with a query on a single table. When a more involved query is submitted, such as one involving many tables that must be joined together efficiently, or one that has complex selection criteria and multiple levels of sorting, the query optimizer has a much more complex task.

Prior to Oracle Database 10g, you could choose between two different Oracle query optimizers, a rule-based optimizer and a cost-based optimizer; these are described in the following sections. Since Oracle Database 10g, the rule-based optimizer is desupported. The references to syntax and operations for the rule-based optimizer in the following sections are provided for reference and are applicable only if you are running a very old release of Oracle.

Rule-Based Optimization

Oracle has always had a query optimizer, but until Oracle7 the optimizer was only rule based. The rule-based optimizer, as the name implies, uses a set of predefined rules as the main determinant of query optimization decisions. Since the rule-based optimizer has been desupported as of Oracle Database 10g, your interest in this topic is likely be limited to supporting old Oracle Databases where this choice may have been made.

Rule-based optimization sometimes provided better performance than the early versions of Oracle’s cost-based optimizer for specific situations. The rule-based optimizer had several weaknesses, including offering only a simplistic set of rules—and, at the time of this writing, has not been enhanced for several releases. The Oracle rule-based optimizer had about 20 rules and assigned a weight to each one of them. In a complex database, a query can easily involve several tables, each with several indexes and complex selection conditions and ordering. This complexity means that there were a lot of options, and the simple set of rules used by the rule-based optimizer might not differentiate the choices well enough to make the best choice.

The rule-based optimizer assigned an optimization score to each potential execution path and then took the path with the best optimization score. Another weakness in the rule-based optimizer was resolution of optimization choices made in the event of a “tie” score. When two paths presented the same optimization score, the rule-based optimizer looked to the syntax of the SQL statement to resolve the tie. The winning execution path was based on the order in which the tables occured in the SQL statement.

You can understand the potential impact of this type of tiebreaker by looking at a simple situation in which a small table with 10 rows, SMALLTAB, is joined to a large table with 10,000 rows, LARGETAB, as shown in Figure 4-4. If the optimizer chose to read SMALLTAB first, the Oracle Database would read the 10 rows and then read LARGETAB to find the matching rows for each of the 10 rows. If the optimizer chose to read LARGETAB first, the database would read 10,000 rows from LARGETAB and then read SMALLTAB 10,000 times to find the matching rows. Of course, the rows in SMALLTAB would probably be cached, reducing the impact of each probe, but you could still see a dramatic difference in performance.

The effect of optimization choices
Figure 4-4. The effect of optimization choices

Differences like this could occur with the rule-based optimizer as a result of the ordering of the table names in the query. In the previous situation the rule-based optimizer returned the same results for the query, but it used widely varying amounts of resources to retrieve those results.

Cost-Based Optimization

To improve the optimization of SQL statements, Oracle introduced the cost-based optimizer in Oracle7. As the name implies, the cost-based optimizer does more than simply look at a set of optimization rules; instead, it selects the execution path that requires the least number of logical I/O operations. This approach avoids the problems discussed in the previous section. The cost-based optimizer would know which table was bigger and would select the right table to begin the query, regardless of the syntax of the SQL statement.

Oracle8 and later versions, by default, use the cost-based optimizer to identify the optimal execution plan. And, since Oracle Database 10g, the cost-based optimizer is the only supported optimizer. To properly evaluate the cost of any particular execution plan, the cost-based optimizer uses statistics about the composition of the relevant data structures. These statistics are automatically gathered by default since the Oracle Database 10g release. Among the statistics gathered in the AWR are database segment access and usage statistics, time model statistics, system and session statistics, statistics about which SQL statements that produce the greatest loads, and Active Session History (ASH) statistics.

How statistics are used

The cost-based optimizer finds the optimal execution plan by assigning an optimization score for each of the potential execution plans using its own internal rules and logic along with statistics that reflect the state of the data structures in the database. These statistics relate to the tables, columns, and indexes involved in the execution plan. The statistics for each type of data structure are listed in Table 4-1.

Table 4-1. Database statistics

Data structure

Type of statistics


Number of rows

Number of blocks

Number of unused blocks

Average available free space per block

Number of chained rows

Average row length


Number of distinct values per column

Second-lowest column value

Second-highest column value

Column density factor


Depth of index B*-tree structure

Number of leaf blocks

Number of distinct values

Average number of leaf blocks per key

Average number of data blocks per key

Clustering factor

Oracle Database 10g and more current database releases also collect overall system statistics, including I/O and CPU performance and utilization. These statistics are stored in the data dictionary, described in this chapter’s final section, Data Dictionary Tables.

You can see that these statistics can be used individually and in combination to determine the overall cost of the I/O required by an execution plan. The statistics reflect both the size of a table and the amount of unused space within the blocks; this space can, in turn, affect how many I/O operations are needed to retrieve rows. The index statistics reflect not only the depth and breadth of the index tree, but also the uniqueness of the values in the tree, which can affect the ease with which values can be selected using the index.


The accuracy of the cost-based optimizer depends on the accuracy of the statistics it uses, so updating statistics has always been a must. Formerly, you would have used the SQL statement ANALYZE to compute or estimate these statistics. When managing an older release, many database administrators also used a built-in PL/SQL package, DBMS_STATS, which contains a number of procedures that helped automate the process of collecting statistics.

Stale statistics can lead to database performance problems, which is why database statistics gathering has been automated by Oracle. This statistics gathering can be quite granular. For example, as of Oracle Database 10g, you can enable automatic statistics collection for a table, which can be based on whether a table is either stale (which means that more than 10 percent of the objects in the table have changed) or empty.

The optimizer in Oracle Database 12c now automatically decides whether available statistics can generate a good execution plan during the compilation of SQL statements. If statistics are missing or out of date, dynamic sampling of tables automatically occurs to generate new statistics. Also in this database release, statistics are automatically created as part of bulk loading operations.

The use of statistics makes it possible for the cost-based optimizer to make a much more well-informed choice of the optimal execution plan. For instance, the optimizer could be trying to decide between two indexes to use in an execution plan that involves a selection based on a value in either index. The rule-based optimizer might very well rate both indexes equally and resort to the order in which they appear in the WHERE clause to choose an execution plan. The cost-based optimizer, however, knows that one index contains 1,000 entries while the other contains 10,000 entries. It even knows that the index that contains 1,000 values contains only 20 unique values, while the index that contains 10,000 values has 5,000 unique values. The selectivity offered by the larger index is much greater, so that index will be assigned a better optimization score and used for the query.

In Oracle9i, you have the option of allowing the cost-based optimizer to use CPU speed as one of the factors in determining the optimal execution plan. An initialization parameter turns this feature on and off. As of Oracle Database 10g, the default cost basis is calculated on the CPU cost plus the I/O cost for a plan.

Even with all the information available to it, the cost-based optimizer did have some noticeable initial flaws. Aside from the fact that it (like all software) occasionally had bugs, the cost-based optimizer used statistics that didn’t provide a complete picture of the data structures. In the previous example, the only thing the statistics tell the optimizer about the indexes is the number of distinct values in each index. They don’t reveal anything about the distribution of those values. For instance, the larger index can contain 5,000 unique values, but these values can each represent two rows in the associated table, or one index value can represent 5,001 rows while the rest of the index values represent a single row. The selectivity of the index can vary wildly, depending on the value used in the selection criteria of the SQL statement. Fortunately, Oracle 7.3 introduced support for collecting histogram statistics for indexes to address this exact problem. You could create histograms using syntax within the ANALYZE INDEX command when you gathered statistics yourself in Oracle versions prior to Oracle Database 10g. This syntax is described in your Oracle SQL reference documentation.

Influencing the cost-based optimizer

There are two ways you can influence the way the cost-based optimizer selects an execution plan. The first way is by setting the OPTIMIZER_MODE initialization parameter. ALL_ROWS is the default setting for OPTIMIZER_MODE, enabling optimization with the goal of best throughput. FIRST_ROWS optimizes plans for returning the first set of rows from a SQL statement. You can specify the number of rows using this parameter. The optimizer mode tilts the evaluation of optimization scores slightly and, in some cases, may result in a different execution plan.

Oracle also gives you a way to influence the decisions of the optimizer with a technique called hints. A hint is nothing more than a comment with a specific format inside a SQL statement. Hints can be categorized as follows:

  • Optimizer SQL hints for changing the query optimizer goal

  • Full table scan hints

  • Index unique scan hints

  • Index range scan descending hints

  • Fast full index scan hints

  • Join hints, including index joins, nested loop joins, hash joins, sort merge joins, Cartesian joins, and join order

  • Other optimizer hints, including access paths, query transformations, and parallel execution

Hints come with their own set of problems. A hint looks just like a comment, as shown in this extremely simple SQL statement. Here, the hint forces the optimizer to use the EMP_IDX index for the EMP table:


If a hint isn’t in the right place in the SQL statement, if the hint keyword is misspelled, or if you change the name of a data structure so that the hint no longer refers to an existing structure, the hint will simply be ignored, just as a comment would be. Because hints are embedded into SQL statements, repairing them can be quite frustrating and time-consuming if they aren’t working properly. In addition, if you add a hint to a SQL statement to address a problem caused by a bug in the cost-based optimizer and the cost-based optimizer is subsequently fixed, the SQL statement will still not use the corrected (and potentially improved) optimizer.

However, hints do have a place—for example, when a developer has a user-defined datatype that suggests a particular type of access. The optimizer cannot anticipate the effect of user-defined datatypes, but a hint can properly enable the appropriate retrieval path.

For more details about when hints might be considered, see the sidebar Accepting the Verdict of the Optimizer later in this chapter.

Specifying an Optimizer Mode

In the previous section, we mentioned two optimizer modes: ALL_ROWS and FIRST_ROWS. Two other optimizer modes for Oracle versions prior to Oracle Database 10g were:


Forces the use of the rule-based optimizer


Allowed Oracle to choose whether to use the cost-based optimizer or the rule-based optimizer

With an optimizer mode of CHOOSE, which previously was the default setting, Oracle would use the cost-based optimizer if any of the tables in the SQL statement had statistics associated with them. The cost-based optimizer would make a statistical estimate for the tables that lacked statistics. In the years since the cost-based optimizer was introduced, the value of using costs has proven itself as this version of the optimizer has grown in accuracy and sophistication, as the next section and the remainder of this chapter illustrate.

Newer database releases and the cost-based optimizer

The cost-based optimizer makes decisions with a wider range of knowledge about the data structures in the database than the previous rule-based optimizer. Although the cost-based optimizer isn’t flawless in its decision-making process, it does make more accurate decisions based on its wider base of information, especially because it has matured since its introduction in Oracle7 and has improved with each new release.

The cost-based optimizer also takes into account improvements and new features in the Oracle Database as they are released. For instance, the cost-based optimizer understands the impact that partitioned tables have on the selection of an execution plan, while the rule-based optimizer does not. The cost-based optimizer optimizes execution plans for star schema queries, heavily used in data warehousing, while the rule-based optimizer has not been enhanced to deal effectively with these types of queries or leverage many other such business intelligence query features.

Oracle Corporation was quite frank about its intention to make the cost-based optimizer the optimizer for the Oracle Database through a period of years when both optimizer types were supported. In fact, since Oracle Database 10g, the rule-based optimizer is no longer supported.

We will remind you of one fact of database design at this point. As good as the cost-based optimizer is today, it is not a magic potion that remedies problems brought on by a poor database and application design or a badly selected hardware and storage platform. When performance problems occur today, they are most often due to bad design and deployment choices.

Saving the Optimization

There may be times when you want to prevent the optimizer from calculating a new plan whenever a SQL statement is submitted. For example, you might do this if you’ve finally reached a point at which you feel the SQL is running optimally, and you don’t want the plan to change regardless of future changes to the optimizer or the database.

Starting with Oracle8i, you could create a stored outline that stored the attributes used by the optimizer to create an execution plan. Once you had a stored outline, the optimizer simply used the stored attributes to create an execution plan. As of Oracle9i, you could also edit the hints that were in the stored outline.

With the release of Oracle Database 11g, Oracle suggested that you move your stored outlines to SQL plan baselines. Now, in addition to manually loading plans, Oracle can be set to automatically capture plan histories into these SQL plan baselines. Included in this gathered history is the SQL text, outline, bind variables, and compilation environment. When a SQL statement is compiled, Oracle will first use the cost-based optimizer to generate a plan and will evaluate any matching SQL plan baselines for relative cost, choosing the plan with the lowest cost.

Oracle Database 12c adds a new capability for SQL plans called adaptive plan management. This feature lets you specify multiple plans for query optimization and have the optimizer select between them based on runtime statistics and user directives.

Comparing Optimizations

Oracle makes changes to the optimizer in every release. These changes are meant to improve the overall quality of the decisions the optimizer makes, but a generally improved optimizer could still create an execution plan for any particular SQL statement that could result in a decrease in performance.

The Oracle SQL Plan Analyzer tool is designed to give you the ability to recognize potential problems caused by optimizer upgrades. This tool compares the execution plans for the SQL statements in your application, flagging the ones in which the plans differ. Once these statements are identified, SQL Plan Analyzer executes the SQL in each environment and provides feedback on the performance and resource utilization for each. Although SQL Plan Analyzer cannot avoid potential problems brought on by optimizer upgrades, the tool can definitely simplify an otherwise complex testing task.

Oracle Database 11g also includes a feature called Database Replay. This feature captures workloads from production systems and allows them to be run on test systems. With this capability, you can test actual production scenarios against new configurations or versions of the database, and Database Replay will spot areas of potential performance problems on the changed platform. Both SQL Plan Analyzer and Database Replay are part of the Real Application Testing toolkit from Oracle.

Performance and Optimization

The purpose of the optimizer is to select the best execution plan for your queries. But there is a lot more to optimizing the overall performance of your database. Oracle performance is the subject of Chapter 7 of this book.

SQL Translation

The Oracle Database supports a rich set of SQL syntax; however, other databases also have their own SQL syntax, which may differ from the exact syntax supported in Oracle. In the past, these differences would require a sometimes burdensome change in the actual SQL statements in an application.

Oracle Database 12c introduces a SQL Translation Framework. This feature uses SQL Translators to intercept non-Oracle SQL statements and translate the statements into Oracle syntax. The SQL statements are captured and translated, and the translations are automatically used once they are created.

If a SQL statement cannot be translated, the Oracle Database returns an error. You can add custom translations using the same framework, allowing you to address SQL issues without having to change the actual SQL statements in the application.

You would use SQL Developer, a very popular tool for the Oracle Database, to implement not only SQL translation, but to migrate data structures and data from other databases. SQL Developer is available as a free download from the Oracle Technology Network, and includes a great deal of useful functionality for managing and administration of your Oracle Database and Oracle Database Cloud Service, discussed in Chapter 15.

Understanding the Execution Plan

Oracle’s query optimizer uses an execution plan for each query submitted. By and large, although the optimizer does a good job of selecting the execution plan, there may be times when the performance of the database suggests that it is using a less-than-optimal execution plan.

The only way you can really tell what path is being selected by the optimizer is to see the layout of the execution plan. You can use two Oracle character-mode utilities to examine the execution plan chosen by the Oracle optimizer. These tools allow you to see the successive steps used by Oracle to collect, select, and return the data to the user.

The first utility is the SQL EXPLAIN PLAN statement. When you use EXPLAIN PLAN, followed by the keyword FOR and the SQL statement whose execution plan you want to view, the Oracle cost-based optimizer returns a description of the execution plan it will use for the SQL statement and inserts this description into a database table. You can subsequently run a query on that table to get the execution plan, as shown in SQL*Plus in Figure 4-5.

Results of a simple EXPLAIN PLAN statement in SQL*Plus
Figure 4-5. Results of a simple EXPLAIN PLAN statement in SQL*Plus

The execution plan is presented as a series of rows in the table, one for each step taken by Oracle in the process of executing the SQL statement. The optimizer also includes some of the information related to its decisions, such as the overall cost of each step and some of the statistics that it used to make its decisions. You can also view an execution plan for a single SQL statement with SQL Developer or in the SQL Workshop area of Application Express, which is discussed in Chapter 15.

The optimizer writes all of this information to a table in the database. By default, the optimizer uses a table called PLAN_TABLE; make sure the table exists before you use EXPLAIN PLAN. (The utlxplan.sql script included with your Oracle Database creates the default PLAN_TABLE table.) You can specify that EXPLAIN PLAN uses a table other than PLAN_TABLE in the syntax of the statement. For more information about the use of EXPLAIN PLAN, please refer to your Oracle documentation.

There are times when you want to examine the execution plan for a single statement. In such cases, the EXPLAIN PLAN syntax is appropriate. There are other times when you want to look at the plans for a group of SQL statements. For these situations, you can set up a trace for the statements you want to examine and then use the second utility, TKPROF, to give you the results of the trace in a more readable format in a separate file. At other times, you might also use Oracle’s SQL Trace facility to generate a file containing the SQL generated when using TKPROF in tuning applications.

You must use the EXPLAIN keyword when you start TKPROF, as this will instruct the utility to execute an EXPLAIN PLAN statement for each SQL statement in the trace file. You can also specify how the results delivered by TKPROF are sorted. For instance, you can have the SQL statements sorted on the basis of the physical I/Os they used; the elapsed time spent on parsing, executing, or fetching the rows; or the total number of rows affected.

The TKPROF utility uses a trace file as its raw material. Trace files are created for individual sessions. You can start collecting a trace file either by running the target application with a switch (if it’s written with an Oracle product such as Developer) or by explicitly turning it on with an EXEC SQL call or an ALTER SESSION SQL statement in an application written with a 3GL. The trace process, as you can probably guess, can significantly affect the performance of an application, so you should turn it on only when you have some specific diagnostic work to do.

You can also view the execution plan through Enterprise Manager for the SQL statements that use the most resources. Tuning your SQL statements isn’t a trivial task, but with the EXPLAIN PLAN and TKPROF utilities you can get to the bottom of the decisions made by the cost-based optimizer. It takes a bit of practice to understand exactly how to read an execution plan, but it’s better to have access to this type of information than not. In large-scale system development projects, it’s quite common for developers to submit EXPLAIN PLANs for the SQL they’re writing to a DBA as a formal step toward completing a form or report. While time-consuming, this is the best way to ensure that your SQL is tuned before going into production.

SQL Advisors

Oracle Database 10g added a tool called the SQL Tuning Advisor. This tool performs advanced optimization analysis on selected SQL statements, using workloads that have been automatically collected into the Automatic Workload Repository or that you have specified yourself. Once the optimization is done, the SQL Tuning Advisor makes recommendations, which could include updating statistics, adding indexes, or creating a SQL profile. This profile is stored in the database and is used as the optimization plan for future executions of the statement, which allows you to “fix” errant SQL plans without having to touch the underlying SQL.

The tool is often used along with the SQL Access Advisor since that tool provides advice on materialized views and indexes. Oracle Database 11g introduces a SQL Advisor tool that combines functions of the SQL Tuning Advisor and the SQL Access Advisor (and now includes a new Partition Advisor). The Partition Advisor component advises on how to partition tables, materialized views, and indexes in order to improve SQL performance.

Data Dictionary Tables

The main purpose of the Oracle data dictionary is to store data that describes the structure of the objects in the Oracle Database. Because of this purpose, there are many views in the Oracle data dictionary that provide information about the attributes and composition of the data structures within the database.

All of the views listed in this section actually have three varieties, which are identified by their prefixes:


Includes all the objects in the database. A user must have DBA privileges to use this view.


Includes only the objects in the user’s own database schema.


Includes all the objects in the database to which a particular user has access. If a user has been granted rights to objects in another user’s schema, these objects will appear in this view.

This means that, for instance, there are three views that relate to tables: DBA_TABLES, USER_TABLES, and ALL_TABLES. Oracle Database 12c includes views for container databases prefixed with CDB_.

Some of the more common views that directly relate to the data structures are described in Table 4-2.

Table 4-2. Data dictionary views about data structures

Data dictionary view

Type of information


Information about the object and relational tables


Information about the relational tables


Information about XML tables


Comments about the table structures


Statistics about the use of tables


Information about the partitions in a partitioned table


Different views detailing all the privileges on a table, the privileges granted by the user, and the privileges granted to the user


Information about the columns in tables and views


Comments about individual columns


Different views detailing all the privileges on a column, the privileges granted by the user, and the privileges granted to the user


Information about large object (LOB) datatype columns


Information about views


Information about the indexes on tables


Information about the columns in each index


Information about each partition in a partitioned index


Different views detailing the composition and usage patterns for partitioned tables and indexes


Information about the columns in each constraint


Information about constraints on tables


Information about sequence objects


Information about synonyms


Statistics used by the cost-based analyzer


Information about the triggers on tables


Information about the columns in triggers

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