Software Vendor Mistakes With SQL Server: Using CASE Expressions In JOIN Or WHERE Clauses

Just In Case

There are some circumstances where you can use this approach in a non-harmful way. In general it’s something you should avoid, though, especially if you’re not sure how to tell if it’s harmful or not.

This is one of those unfortunate query patterns that leads to you getting called nights and weekends because the server blew up. I’ve seen it do everything from generate a reliably bad query plan, to adding just enough of an element of cardinality uncertainty that slight plan variations felt like parameter sniffing — even with no parameters involved!

Uncertainty is something we’ve covered quite a bit in this series, because if you don’t know what you want, SQL Server’s optimizer won’t either.

Up The Bomb

Let’s start with a reasonable index on the Posts table:


We don’t need a very complicated query to make things bad, even with that stunningly perfect index in place.

    c = COUNT_BIG(*)
FROM dbo.Users AS u
JOIN dbo.Posts AS p
    ON 1 = CASE     
               WHEN p.PostTypeId = 1
               AND  p.OwnerUserId = u.Id
               THEN 1
               WHEN p.PostTypeId = 2
               AND  p.OwnerUserId = u.AccountId
               THEN 1
               ELSE -1
WHERE u.Reputation > 500000;

This returns a count of 3,374, and runs for about a minute total.

Naughty Query Plan

The plan for this may look innocent enough, but it’s one of those cases where a Lazy Table Spool is a warning sign.

SQL Server Query Plan
unhappy ending

Operator times in query plans are generally a blessing, because they show you where execution time ratchets up. Unfortunately, it’s not always clear what you have to do to fix the problems they show you.

I suppose that’s what posts like this are for, eh?

Oh, what a feeling.

Rewriting The Query

A Useful Rewrite© of this query looks something like this, at least if you’re a fancy-pants blogger who cares a lot about formatting.

    c = COUNT_BIG(*)
    FROM dbo.Users AS u
    WHERE u.Reputation > 500000 
) AS u

    FROM dbo.Posts AS p
    WHERE p.PostTypeId = 1
    AND   p.OwnerUserId = u.Id


    FROM dbo.Posts AS p
    WHERE p.PostTypeId = 2
    AND   p.OwnerUserId = u.AccountId
) AS c;

I’m using a derived table here because if I used a Common Table Expression, you’d think they have some ridiculous magic powers that they really don’t, and one wouldn’t make the query any more readable.

Caring about formatting makes queries more readable.

Good game.

Nice Query Plan

You’ll notice that this plan no longer features a Table Spool, no longer runs for over a minute, and makes me happy.

SQL Server Query Plan
push it to the limit

I’m not a math major, but 181 milliseconds seems like a great improvement over 60 seconds.

Suede Shoes

This is another case of more typing for us results in a faster query. Perhaps there’s some wisdom to learning how to clearly express oneself before starting a career talking to databases.

Database Communications Major, or something. Just don’t buy it from Sally Struthers.

Thanks for reading!

Going Further

If this is the kind of SQL Server stuff you love learning about, you’ll love my training. I’m offering a 75% discount to my blog readers if you click from here. I’m also available for consulting if you just don’t have time for that and need to solve performance problems quickly.

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