Blog on Physical execution of SQL query

Understanding the order in which SQL queries are executed is crucial for anyone working with databases, whether you’re a database administrator, a developer, or a data analyst. SQL queries follow a specific sequence of steps, which, when comprehended, can help you write efficient and effective database queries. In this blog post, we’ll break down the physical order in which SQL queries are executed.

The Physical Order of SQL Query Execution

It’s important to know the physical order in which a SQL query is executed by the database management system. The physical order of execution may vary depending on the database system.

SQL Server query execution is typically broken down into the following steps:

  1. FROM and JOIN: The database system first identifies the tables specified in the FROM clause and performs any necessary table joins. It retrieves the initial set of rows that will be considered for further processing.
  2. WHERE: The database applies the conditions specified in the WHERE clause to filter the rows from the combined tables, excluding rows that do not meet the specified criteria.
  3. GROUP BY: If a GROUP BY clause is present, the system groups the filtered rows based on the specified columns. This step is followed by the application of any aggregate functions like SUM, AVG, or COUNT within each group.
  4. HAVING: After the GROUP BY operation, the HAVING clause is applied to filter groups of rows based on aggregate values. Groups that do not meet the specified conditions are excluded.
  5. SELECT: The system identifies which columns to include in the result set, and any expressions or calculations within the SELECT clause are computed. This step produces the final set of columns to be displayed in the result.
  6. DISTINCT: If the DISTINCT keyword is present, the system removes duplicate rows from the result set at this stage.
  7. ORDER BY: If the ORDER BY clause is specified, the system sorts the rows in the result set based on the specified columns and sort order.
  8. LIMIT/OFFSET: Finally, if the query includes LIMIT and OFFSET clauses, the system limits the number of rows returned and applies any necessary offsets for pagination.

Let’s illustrate the difference between an optimized and unoptimized SQL query execution order using a practical example. In this example, we’ll consider a database with two tables: orders and order_items, and we want to retrieve the total order amount for each order. The orders table contains order information, and the order_items table contains line items for each order.

Unoptimized Query:

SELECT orders.order_id, orders.order_date, SUM(order_items.quantity * order_items.price) AS total_amount

FROM orders

JOIN order_items ON orders.order_id = order_items.order_id

WHERE orders.order_date BETWEEN ‘2023-01-01’ AND ‘2023-12-31’

GROUP BY orders.order_id, orders.order_date;

In this Unoptimized Query:

  • FROM and JOIN: The database first identifies the tables, orders, and order_items, and performs the join to combine data from both tables.
  • WHERE: The WHERE clause is applied to filter the rows. However, this filtering is performed after the join, meaning that the database has to process and filter a potentially large dataset.
  • GROUP BY: Rows are then grouped based on order_id and order_date. Aggregation functions are applied to calculate the total order amount.
  • SELECT: Finally, the SELECT clause computes the total order amount using the aggregated values and selects columns for the result set.

Now, let’s see the same query with an optimized execution order.

Optimized Query:

SELECT orders.order_id, orders.order_date, total_amount


  SELECT order_id, SUM(quantity * price) AS total_amount

  FROM order_items

  GROUP BY order_id

) AS order_totals

JOIN orders ON orders.order_id = order_totals.order_id

WHERE orders.order_date BETWEEN ‘2023-01-01’ AND ‘2023-12-31’;

In this Optimized Query:

  • FROM and JOIN: The optimized query starts with a subquery that calculates the total amount for each order in the order_items table and groups them by order_id. This reduces the amount of data being joined and processed.
  • WHERE: After the subquery, the WHERE clause filters the orders table, further reducing the data that needs to be joined.
  • SELECT: Finally, the SELECT clause retrieves the necessary columns from both tables and combines the results.

By using a subquery to pre-aggregate, the order_items table and filtering the orders table early in the execution plan, this optimized query significantly reduces the amount of data that needs to be processed. This can lead to a substantial improvement in query performance, especially when dealing with large datasets.

Optimizing the physical execution order of SQL queries is an important practice to enhance database performance and efficiency, and it often involves using subqueries, indexing, and other optimization techniques.

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