Scans and seeks are the iterators that SQL Server uses to read data from tables and indexes. These iterators are among the most fundamental ones that we support. They appear in nearly every query plan.
What is the difference between a scan and a seek?
A scan returns the entire table or index. A seek efficiently returns rows from one or more ranges of an index based on a predicate. For example, consider the following query:
select OrderDate from Orders where OrderKey = 2
With a scan, we read each row in the orders table, evaluate the predicate “where OrderKey = 2” and, if the predicate is true (i.e., if the row qualifies), return the row. In this case, we refer to the predicate as a “residual” predicate. To maximize performance, whenever possible we evaluate the residual predicate in the scan. However, if the predicate is too expensive, we may evaluate it in a separate filter iterator. The residual predicate appears in text showplan with the WHERE keyword or in XML showplan with the <Predicate> tag.
Here is the text showplan (slightly edited for brevity) for this query using a scan:
Since a scan touches every row in the table whether or not it qualifies, the cost is proportional to the total number of rows in the table. Thus, a scan is an efficient strategy if the table is small or if most of the rows qualify for the predicate. However, if the table is large and if most of the rows do not qualify, we touch many more pages and rows and perform many more I/Os than is necessary.
Going back to the example, if we have an index on OrderKey, a seek may be a better plan. With a seek, we use the index to navigate directly to those rows that satisfy the predicate. In this case, we refer to the predicate as a “seek” predicate. In most cases, we do not need to re-evaluate the seek predicate as a residual predicate; the index ensures that the seek only returns rows that qualify. The seek predicate appears in the text showplan with the SEEK keyword or in XML showplan with the <SeekPredicates> tag.
Here is the text showplan for the same query using a seek:
Since a seek only touches rows that qualify and pages that contain these qualifying rows, the cost is proportional to the number of qualifying rows and pages rather than to the total number of rows in the table. Thus, a seek is generally a more efficient strategy if we have a highly selective seek predicate; that is, if we have a seek predicate that eliminates a large fraction of the table.
A note about showplan
In showplan, we distinguish between scans and seeks as well as between scans on heaps (an object with no index), clustered indexes, and non-clustered indexes. The following table shows all of the valid combinations:
Clustered Index Scan
Clustered Index Seek
To be continued …
There is much more to write about scans and seeks. In my next post, I will continue by discussing bookmark lookup and how bookmark lookup relates to scans and seeks.