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Bind variables - The key to application performance

If you've been developing applications on Oracle for a while, you've no doubt come across the concept of «Bind Variables». Bind variables are one of those Oracle concepts that experts frequently cite as being key to application performance, but it's often not all that easy to pin down exactly what they are and how you need to alter your programming style to use them.
To understand bind variables, consider an application that generates thousands of SELECT statements against a table; for example:

SELECT fname, lname, pcode FROM cust WHERE id = 674;
SELECT fname, lname, pcode FROM cust WHERE id = 234;
SELECT fname, lname, pcode FROM cust WHERE id = 332;

Each time the query is submitted, Oracle first checks in the shared pool to see whether this statement has been submitted before. If it has, the execution plan that this statement previously used is retrieved, and the SQL is executed. If the statement cannot be found in the shared pool, Oracle has to go through the process of parsing the statement, working out the various execution paths and coming up with an optimal access plan before it can be executed. This process is know as a «hard parse» and for OLTP applications can actually take longer to carry out that the DML instruction itself.

When looking for a matching statement in the shared pool, only statements that exactly match the text of the statements are considered; so, if every SQL statement you submit is unique (in that the predicate changes each time, from id = 674 to id=234 and so on) then you'll never get a match, and every statement you submit will need to be hard parsed. Hard parsing is very CPU intensive, and involves obtaining latches on key shared memory areas, which whilst it might not affect a single program running against a small set of data, can bring a multi-user system to it's knees if hundreds of copies of the program are trying to hard parse statements at the same time. The extra bonus with this problem is that contention caused by hard parsing is pretty much immune to measures such as increasing available memory, numbers of processors and so on, as hard parsing statements is one thing Oracle can't do concurrently with many other operations, and it's a problem that often only comes to light when trying to scale up a development system from a single user working on subset of records to many hundreds of users working on a full data set.

The way to get Oracle to reuse the execution plans for these statements is to use bind variables. Bind variables are «substituion» variables that are used in place of literals (such as 674, 234, 332) and that have the effect of sending exactly the same SQL to Oracle every time the query is executed. For example, in our application, we would just submit

SELECT fname, lname, pcode FROM cust WHERE id = :cust_no;

and this time we would be able to reuse the execution plan every time, reducing the latch activity in the SGA, and therefore the total CPU activity, which has the effect of allowing our application to scale up to many users on a large dataset.

Bind Variables in SQL*Plus

In SQL*Plus you can use bind variables as follows:

SQL> variable deptno number
SQL> exec :deptno := 10
SQL> select * from emp where deptno = :deptno;

What we've done to the SELECT statement now is take the literal value out of it, and replace it with a placeholder (our bind variable), with SQL*Plus passing the value of the bind variable to Oracle when the statement is processed. This bit is fairly straighforward (you declare a bind variable in SQL*Plus, then reference the bind variable in the SELECT statement)

Bind Variables in PL/SQL

Taking PL/SQL first of all, the good news is that PL/SQL itself takes care of most of the issues to do with bind variables, to the point where most code that you write already uses bind variables without you knowing. Take, for example, the following bit of PL/SQL:

create or replace procedure dsal(p_empno in number)
as
  begin
    update emp
    set sal=sal*2
    where empno = p_empno;
    commit;
  end;
/

Now you might be thinking that you've got to replace the p_empno with a bind variable. However, the good news is that every reference to a PL/SQL variable is in fact a bind variable.

Dynamic SQL
In fact, the only time you need to consciously decide to use bind variables when working with PL/SQL is when using Dynamic SQL.

Dynamic SQL, allows you to execute a string containing SQL using the EXECUTE IMMEDIATE command. For next example would always require a hard parse when it is submitted:

create or replace procedure dsal(p_empno in number)
as
  begin
    execute immediate
     'update emp set sal = sal*2 where empno = '||p_empno;
  commit;
  end;
/

The way to use bind variables instead is to change the EXECUTE IMMEDIATE command as follows:

create or replace procedure dsal(p_empno in number)
as
  begin
    execute immediate
     'update emp set
     sal = sal*2 where empno = :x' using p_empno;
  commit;
  end;
/

And that's all there is to it. One thing to bear in mind, though, is that you can't substitute actual object names (tables, views, columns etc) with bind variables - you can only subsitute literals. If the object name is generated at runtime, you'll still need to string concatenate these parts, and the SQL will only match with those already in the shared pool when the same object name comes up. However, whenever you're using dynamic SQL to build up the predicate part of a statement, use bind variables instead and you'll reduce dramatically the amount of latch contention going on.

The Performance Killer
Just to give you a tiny idea of how huge of a difference this can make performance wise, you only need to run a very small test:

Here is the Performance Killer ....

SQL> alter system flush shared_pool;
SQL> set serveroutput on;

declare
      type rc is ref cursor;
      l_rc rc;
      l_dummy all_objects.object_name%type;
      l_start number default dbms_utility.get_time;
  begin
      for i in 1 .. 1000
      loop
          open l_rc for
          'select object_name
             from all_objects
            where object_id = ' || i;
          fetch l_rc into l_dummy;
          close l_rc;
          -- dbms_output.put_line(l_dummy);
      end loop;
      dbms_output.put_line
       (round((dbms_utility.get_time-l_start)/100, 2) ||
        ' Seconds...' );
  end;
/
101.71 Seconds...

... and here is the Performance Winner:

declare
      type rc is ref cursor;
      l_rc rc;
      l_dummy all_objects.object_name%type;
      l_start number default dbms_utility.get_time;
  begin
      for i in 1 .. 1000
      loop
          open l_rc for
          'select object_name
             from all_objects
            where object_id = :x'
          using i;
          fetch l_rc into l_dummy;
          close l_rc;
          -- dbms_output.put_line(l_dummy);
      end loop;
      dbms_output.put_line
       (round((dbms_utility.get_time-l_start)/100, 2) ||
        ' Seconds...' );
end;
/
1.9 Seconds...

That is pretty dramatic.  The fact is that not only does this execute much faster (we spent more time PARSING our queries then actually EXECUTING them!) it will let more users use your system simultaneously.

Conclusion - When not to use Bind Variables
Lastly, it's worth bearing in mind that there are some instances where bind variables are probably not appropriate, usually where instead of your query being executed many times a second (as with OLTP systems) your query in fact actually takes several seconds, or minutes, or hours to execute - a situation you get in decision support and data warehousing. In this instance, the time taken to hard parse your query is only a small proportion of the total query execution time, and the benefit of avoiding a hard parse is probably outweighed by the reduction in important information you're making available to the query optimizer - by substituting the actual predicate with a bind variable, you're removing the ability for the optimiser to compare your value with the data distribution in the column, which might make it opt for a full table scan or an index when this isn't appropriate. Oracle 9i helps deal with this using a feature known as bind variable peeking, which allows Oracle to look at the value behind a bind variable to help choose the best execution plan.

Another potential drawback with bind variables and data warehousing queries is that the use of bind variables disallows the potential for star transformations, taking away this powerful option for efficiently joining fact and dimension tables in a star schema.

Bind Variables in VB, Java and other applications
The next question is though, what about VB, Java and other applications that fire SQL queries against an Oracle database. How do these use bind variables? Do you have to in fact split your SQL into two statements, one to set the bind variable, and one for the statement itself?

In fact, the answer to this is actually quite simple. When you put together an SQL statement using Java, or VB, or whatever, you usually use an API for accessing the database; ADO in the case of VB, JDBC in the case of Java. All of these APIs have built-in support for bind variables, and it's just a case of using this support rather than just concatenating a string yourself and submitting it to the database.

For example, Java has PreparedStatement, which allows the use of bind variables, and Statement, which uses the string concatenation approach. If you use the method that supports bind variables, the API itself passes the bind variable value to Oracle at runtime, and you just submit your SQL statement as normal. There's no need to separately pass the bind variable value to Oracle, and actually no additional work on your part.

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