In most cases, the query optimizer will analyze joins and JOIN the tables using the most efficient join type, and in the most efficient order. But not always. In the graphical query plan you will see icons that represent the different types of JOINs used in the query. In addition, each of the JOIN icons will have two arrows pointing to it. The upper arrow pointing to the JOIN icon represents the outer table in the join, and the lower arrow pointing to the JOIN icon represent the inner table in the join. Follow the arrows back to see the name of the tables being joined.
Sometimes, in queries with multiple JOINs, tracing the arrow back won't reveal a table, but another JOIN. If you place the cursor over the arrows pointing to the upper and lower JOINs, you will see a popup window that tells you how many rows are being sent to the JOIN for processing. The upper arrow should always have fewer rows than the lower arrow. If not, then the JOIN order selected by the query optimizer might be incorrect (see more on this below).
First of all, let's look at JOIN types. SQL Server can JOIN a table using three different techniques: nested loop, hash, and merge. Generally, the fastest type of join in a nested loop, but if that is not feasible, then a hash JOIN or merge JOIN is used (as appropriate), both of which tend to be slower than the nested JOIN.
When very large tables are JOINed, a merge join, not a nested loop join, may be the best option. The only way to know is to try both and see which one is the most efficient.
If a particular query is slow, and you suspect it may be because the JOIN type is not the optimum one for your data, you can override the query optimizer's choice by using a JOIN hint. Before you use a JOIN hint, you will want to take some time to learn about each of the JOIN types and how each one works. This is a complicated subject, beyond the scope of this tip.
JOIN order is also selected by the query optimizer, which it trying to select the most efficient order to JOIN tables. For example, for a nested loop join, the upper table should be the smaller of the two tables. For hash joins, the same is true; the upper table should be the smaller of the two tables. If you feel that the query optimizer is selecting the wrong order, you can override it using JOIN hints.
In many cases, the only way to know for sure if using a JOIN hint to change JOIN type or JOIN order will boost or hinder performance is to give them a try and see what happens. [7.0, 2000, 2005]
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