Carlos Sierra's Tools and Tips

Tools and Tips for Oracle Performance and SQL Tuning

Forcing a “Nested Loop only” Execution Plan

with 5 comments

Sometimes you do what you have to do. So here I confess doing something I usually avoid: forcing an Execution Plan (which is not the same as using a more conventional method for Plan stability).

This is a case on base release where the application vendor sets the optimizer to 9i, and tweaks other CBO parameters in questionable ways, then some queries produce suboptimal plans (as expected); and you are called to help without changing the obvious.

There is a family of queries from an ad-hoc query generator that permits users to issue queries without a set of selective predicates. These queries join several large tables and their performance is poor (as expected as well!). On top of the previous, all these queries include the /*+ FIRST_ROWS */ CBO Hint and the questionable DISTINCT keyword. Note: it is quite common for developers to throw a DISTINCT keyword “to avoid duplicates” where the mere existence of duplicates would be an indication of an application bug; so “why fix it if I can hide it, right?”.

There is one caveat although: these queries include a generic predicate “rownum <= :b1”, and value passed defaults to 5000, so users rationale is “if I only want the first X rows my query should return fast”. This highlights still another questionable practice since it is hard to imagine a user scrolling 5000 rows and making any sense of such large set, especially when the full “filtered” set would be several million rows long. So the original problem is questionable in several ways. Nevertheless, sometimes we are called to help besides providing advice. And no, we are not allowed to slap hands 😉

The good news is that we can use this extra predicate on rownum and make these queries to return the first X rows really fast; and I mean less than 5 seconds instead of over one hour or more! And if users want not 5000 but 500 or even 50 rows, then we can be in the sub-second range!

You may be thinking FIRST_ROWS optimization, and that was my first try. Unfortunately, on, even reversing all the suboptimal CBO parameters at the session level, I would consistently get an Execution Plan with a few Hash Joins and a large Cost; and if I were to force a Nested Loop Plan, the cost would be several orders of magnitude larger so the CBO would not pick it! Nevertheless, such a “Nest Loop only” Execution Plan would fulfill the user’s expectations, regardless the validity of the initial request. And yes, CBO statistics are OK, not perfect but simply OK. One more piece of info: this is not Exadata! (if it were Exadata most probably these same Execution Plans with full table scans and Hash Joins would simply fly!).

So, my issue became: How do I force an Execution Plan that only contains Nested Loops? If I could do that, then the COUNT STOP operation could help me to halt my SQL execution once I fetched the first X rows (Hash Join does not allow me do that). Remember: these tables have literally millions of rows. I could pepper these queries with a ton of CBO Hints and I would get my desired “Nested Loop only” Execution Plan… But that would be a lot of work and tricky at best.

SQL Patch to the rescue

I could had used a SQL Profile, but I think this dirty trick of suppressing Hash Joins and Sort Merge Joins, would be better served with a SQL Patch. I also thought Siebel: They do tweak CBO parameters as well, and they suppress Hash Joins, but they change System and Session level parameters… Since I wanted my change to be very localized, SQL Patch could provide me just what I needed.

Under the Downloads section on the margin of this page, there is a “cscripts” link that includes the sqlpch.sql script. I used this script and passed as the second parameter the following string (1st parameter is SQL_ID). With a SQL Patch generated this way, I could systematically produce a “Nested-Loops only” Execution Plan for these few queries. I did not have to change the original SQL, nor change the CBO environment at the System or Session level, neither restrict the query generator, and I did not had to “educate” the users to avoid such unbounded queries.

OPT_PARAM("_optimizer_sortmerge_join_enabled" "FALSE") OPT_PARAM("_hash_join_enabled" "FALSE")


I have to concede doing something questionable, in this case using a SQL Patch to force a desired Execution Plan instead of fixing the obvious, simply because that was the shortest path to alleviate the user’s pain.

I consider this technique above a temporary work-around and not a solution to the actual issue. In this case the right way to handle this issue would be:

  1. Have the application vendor certify their application to the latest release of the database and reset all CBO related parameters, plus
  2. Have the application vendor remove CBO Hints and DISTINCT keyword from queries, plus
  3. Configure the ad-hoc query generator to restrict users from executing queries without selective predicates, then
  4. Tune those outlier queries that may still need some work to perform as per business requirements, and possibly
  5. Educate the users to provide as many selective predicates as possible

Anyways, the potential of using a SQL Patch to tweak an Execution Plan in mysterious ways is quite powerful, and something we may want to keep in the back of our minds for a rainy day…


Written by Carlos Sierra

August 8, 2015 at 8:30 am

5 Responses

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  1. Nice trick Carlos! Recently I was considering something quite similar, that is, how to force a nested loops.
    I had forgotten about your sqlpch.sql script, maybe this will help me remember.


    August 8, 2015 at 9:19 am

  2. Hi Carlos,

    We met briefly at #oow14. You can go to #oow15 without fear though: it has been declared a Stew-free zone …

    With 12c you could have tried the SQM Translation Framework:

    You could probably remove a “bad” hint from every statement with one translation.

    Best regards, Stew Ashton


    August 8, 2015 at 9:51 am

  3. Hi Carlos,

    Just went through your blog and the sqlpch.sql script. A small question though how is creating sql patch different from creating a sql profile for a sql?


    August 10, 2015 at 1:14 am

    • They are similar. The main difference is that SQL Profile requires the Tuning Pack. Besides that, I use a SQL Profile to reproduce a desired Plan, and a SQL Patch to add diagnostics related Hints. In this case it is something different since I am suppressing CBO capabilities to get the plan that I want, so I feel a SQL Patch is more appropriate.

      Carlos Sierra

      August 10, 2015 at 7:49 am

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