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Avoiding Nested Queries

How Important is it to avoid nested queries.

I have always learnt to avoid them like a plague. But they are the most natural thing to me. When I am designing a query, the first thing I write is a nested query. Then I convert it to joins, which sometimes takes a lot of time to get right. And rarely gives a big performance improvement (sometimes it does)

So are they really so bad. Is there a way to use nested queries without temp tables and filesort

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Answer

It really depends, I had situations where I improved some queries by using subqueries.

The factors that I am aware are:

  • if the subquery uses fields from outer query for comparison or not (correlated or not)
  • if the relation between the outer query and sub query is covered by indexes
  • if there are no usable indexes on the joins and the subquery is not correlated and returns a small result it might be faster to use it
  • i have also run into situations where transforming a query that uses order by into a query that does not use it and than turning it into a simple subquery and sort that improves performance in mysql

Anyway, it is always good to test different variants (with SQL_NO_CACHE please), and turning correlated queries into joins is a good practice.

I would even go so far to call it a very useful practice.

It might be possible that if correlated queries are the first that come to your mind that you are not primarily thinking in terms of set operations, but primarily in terms of procedural operations and when dealing with relational databases it is very useful to fully adopt the set perspective on the data model and transformations on it.

EDIT: Procedural vs Relational
Thinking in terms of set operations vs procedural boils down to equivalence in some set algebra expressions, for example selection on a union is equivalent to union of selections. There is no difference between the two.
But when you compare the two procedures, such as apply the selection criteria to every element of an union with make a union and then apply selection, the two are distinctly different procedures, which might have very different properties (for example utilization of CPU, I/O, memory).

The idea behind relational databases is that you do not try to describe how to get the result (procedure), but only what you want, and that the database management system will decide on the best path (procedure) to fulfil your request. This is why SQL is called 4th generation language (4GL).

One of the tricks that help you do that is to remind yourself that tuples have no inherent order (set elements are unordered). Another is realizing that relational algebra is quite comprehensive and allows translation of requests (requirements) directly to SQL (if semantics of your model represent well the problem space, or in another words if meaning attached to the name of your tables and relationships is done right, or in another words if your database is designed well).

Therefore, you do not have to think how, only what.

In your case, it was just preference over correlated queries, so it might be that I am not telling you anything new, but you emphasized that point, hence the comment.

I think that if you were completely comfortable with all the rules that transform queries from one form into another (rules such as distributiveness) that you would not prefer correlated subqueries (that you would see all forms as equal).

(Note: above discusses theoretical background, important for database design; practically the above concepts deviate – not all equivalent rewrites of a query are necessarily executed as fast, clustered primary keys do make tables have inherit order on disk, etc… but these deviations are only deviations; the fact that not all equivalent queries execute as fast is an imperfection of the actual DBMS and not the concepts behind it)

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