works - types of indexes in sql with examples




How does database indexing work? (6)

Given that indexing is so important as your data set increases in size, can someone explain how indexing works at a database-agnostic level?

For information on queries to index a field, check out How do I index a database column .


Simple Description!

The index is nothing but a data structure that stores the values for a specific column in a table. An index is created on a column of a table.

Example: We have a database table called User with three columns – Name , Age and Address . Assume that the User table has thousands of rows.

Now, let’s say that we want to run a query to find all the details of any users who are named 'John'. If we run the following query:

SELECT * FROM User 
WHERE Name = 'John'

The database software would literally have to look at every single row in the User table to see if the Name for that row is ‘John’. This will take a long time.

This is where index helps us: index is used to speed up search queries by essentially cutting down the number of records/rows in a table that needs to be examined .

How to create an index:

CREATE INDEX name_index
ON User (Name)

An index consists of column values(Eg: John) from one table , and those values are stored in a data structure .

So now the database will use the index to find employees named John because the index will presumably be sorted alphabetically by the Users name. And, because it is sorted, it means searching for a name is a lot faster because all names starting with a “J” will be right next to each other in the index!


An index is just a data structure that makes the searching faster for a specific column in a database. This structure is usually a b-tree or a hash table but it can be any other logic structure.


Just a quick suggestion.. As indexing costs you additional writes and storage space, so if your application requires more insert/update operation, you might want to use tables without indexes, but if it requires more data retrieval operations, you should go for indexed table.


Just think of Database Index as Index of a book.

If you have a book about dogs and you want to find an information about let's say, German Shepherds, you could of course flip through all the pages of the book and find what you are looking for - but this of course is time consuming and not very fast.

Another option is that, you could just go to the Index section of the book and then find what you are looking for by using the Name of the entity you are looking ( in this instance, German Shepherds) and also looking at the page number to quickly find what you are looking for.

In Database, the page number is referred to as a pointer which directs the database to the address on the disk where entity is located. Using the same German Shepherd analogy, we could have something like this (“German Shepherd”, 0x77129) where 0x77129 is the address on the disk where the row data for German Shepherd is stored.

In short, an index is a data structure that stores the values for a specific column in a table so as to speed up query search.


The first time I read this it was very helpful to me. Thank you.

Since then I gained some insight about the downside of creating indexes: if you write into a table ( UPDATE or INSERT ) with one index, you have actually two writing operations in the file system. One for the table data and another one for the index data (and the resorting of it (and - if clustered - the resorting of the table data)). If table and index are located on the same hard disk this costs more time. Thus a table without an index (a heap) , would allow for quicker write operations. (if you had two indexes you would end up with three write operations, and so on)

However, defining two different locations on two different hard disks for index data and table data can decrease/eliminate the problem of increased cost of time. This requires definition of additional file groups with according files on the desired hard disks and definition of table/index location as desired.

Another problem with indexes is their fragmentation over time as data is inserted. REORGANIZE helps, you must write routines to have it done.

In certain scenarios a heap is more helpful than a table with indexes,

e.g:- If you have lots of rivalling writes but only one nightly read outside business hours for reporting.

Also, a differentiation between clustered and non-clustered indexes is rather important.

Helped me:- What do Clustered and Non clustered index actually mean?


Why is it needed?

When data is stored on disk-based storage devices, it is stored as blocks of data. These blocks are accessed in their entirety, making them the atomic disk access operation. Disk blocks are structured in much the same way as linked lists; both contain a section for data, a pointer to the location of the next node (or block), and both need not be stored contiguously.

Due to the fact that a number of records can only be sorted on one field, we can state that searching on a field that isn’t sorted requires a Linear Search which requires N/2 block accesses (on average), where N is the number of blocks that the table spans. If that field is a non-key field (i.e. doesn’t contain unique entries) then the entire tablespace must be searched at N block accesses.

Whereas with a sorted field, a Binary Search may be used, which has log2 N block accesses. Also since the data is sorted given a non-key field, the rest of the table doesn’t need to be searched for duplicate values, once a higher value is found. Thus the performance increase is substantial.

What is indexing?

Indexing is a way of sorting a number of records on multiple fields. Creating an index on a field in a table creates another data structure which holds the field value, and a pointer to the record it relates to. This index structure is then sorted, allowing Binary Searches to be performed on it.

The downside to indexing is that these indices require additional space on the disk since the indices are stored together in a table using the MyISAM engine, this file can quickly reach the size limits of the underlying file system if many fields within the same table are indexed.

How does it work?

Firstly, let’s outline a sample database table schema;

Field name       Data type      Size on disk
id (Primary key) Unsigned INT   4 bytes
firstName        Char(50)       50 bytes
lastName         Char(50)       50 bytes
emailAddress     Char(100)      100 bytes

Note : char was used in place of varchar to allow for an accurate size on disk value. This sample database contains five million rows and is unindexed. The performance of several queries will now be analyzed. These are a query using the id (a sorted key field) and one using the firstName (a non-key unsorted field).

Example 1 - sorted vs unsorted fields

Given our sample database of r = 5,000,000 records of a fixed size giving a record length of R = 204 bytes and they are stored in a table using the MyISAM engine which is using the default block size B = 1,024 bytes. The blocking factor of the table would be bfr = (B/R) = 1024/204 = 5 records per disk block. The total number of blocks required to hold the table is N = (r/bfr) = 5000000/5 = 1,000,000 blocks.

A linear search on the id field would require an average of N/2 = 500,000 block accesses to find a value, given that the id field is a key field. But since the id field is also sorted, a binary search can be conducted requiring an average of log2 1000000 = 19.93 = 20 block accesses. Instantly we can see this is a drastic improvement.

Now the firstName field is neither sorted nor a key field, so a binary search is impossible, nor are the values unique, and thus the table will require searching to the end for an exact N = 1,000,000 block accesses. It is this situation that indexing aims to correct.

Given that an index record contains only the indexed field and a pointer to the original record, it stands to reason that it will be smaller than the multi-field record that it points to. So the index itself requires fewer disk blocks than the original table, which therefore requires fewer block accesses to iterate through. The schema for an index on the firstName field is outlined below;

Field name       Data type      Size on disk
firstName        Char(50)       50 bytes
(record pointer) Special        4 bytes

Note : Pointers in MySQL are 2, 3, 4 or 5 bytes in length depending on the size of the table.

Example 2 - indexing

Given our sample database of r = 5,000,000 records with an index record length of R = 54 bytes and using the default block size B = 1,024 bytes. The blocking factor of the index would be bfr = (B/R) = 1024/54 = 18 records per disk block. The total number of blocks required to hold the index is N = (r/bfr) = 5000000/18 = 277,778 blocks.

Now a search using the firstName field can utilize the index to increase performance. This allows for a binary search of the index with an average of log2 277778 = 18.08 = 19 block accesses. To find the address of the actual record, which requires a further block access to read, bringing the total to 19 + 1 = 20 block accesses, a far cry from the 1,000,000 block accesses required to find a firstName match in the non-indexed table.

When should it be used?

Given that creating an index requires additional disk space (277,778 blocks extra from the above example, a ~28% increase), and that too many indices can cause issues arising from the file systems size limits, careful thought must be used to select the correct fields to index.

Since indices are only used to speed up the searching for a matching field within the records, it stands to reason that indexing fields used only for output would be simply a waste of disk space and processing time when doing an insert or delete operation, and thus should be avoided. Also given the nature of a binary search, the cardinality or uniqueness of the data is important. Indexing on a field with a cardinality of 2 would split the data in half, whereas a cardinality of 1,000 would return approximately 1,000 records. With such a low cardinality the effectiveness is reduced to a linear sort, and the query optimizer will avoid using the index if the cardinality is less than 30% of the record number, effectively making the index a waste of space.





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