As is so often the case with my blog, today's topic came about as the result of an e-mail question I received from a DBA I know. His question was this:
"A great debate rages here about the use of ‘synthetic’ keys. We read all sorts of articles on the wild wild web but none seem to address the database performance impacts of designs using synthetic keys. I wondered if you could point me to any information on this…"
If you've ever Googled the term "surrogate key" you know the hornet's nest of opinions that swirls around "out there" about the topic. For those who haven't heard the term, here is my attempt at a quick summary: a surrogate key is a generated unique value that is used as the primary key of a database table; database designers tend to consider surrogate keys when the natural key consists of many columns, is very long, or may need to change.
And here is the response I sent to my e-mail inquisitor:
I doubt that there is any “final word” on this topic. It has been raging on for years and years; so folks pro, others con. This Wikipedia article offers up a nice start: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surrogate_key
However, when I get to the performance area of this article I don’t think I agree. The article puts a lot of emphasis on there being fewer columns to join and therefore better performance.. If you’ve got an index on those multiple columns how much “worse” will the performance be, really? Sure, the SQL is more difficult to write, but will a join over 4 or 5 indexed columns perform that much worse than a join on one indexed column? I suppose as the number of columns required for the natural key increases the impact could be greater (e.g. 10 columns???)
I guess I can see the argument if you are swapping a variable length key with a surrogate having a fixed length key – that should improve things!
Furthermore consider this: the natural key columns are still going to be there, after all, they are naturally part of the data, right? So the surrogate (synthetic) key gets added to each row. This will likely reduce the number of rows per page (maybe not, but probably). And that, in turn, will negatively impact the performance of sequential access because more I/O will be required to read the “same” number of rows.
And what about the impact of adding data? If there are a significant number of new rows being added at the same time by different processes there will be locking issues as they all try to put the new data on the same page (unless, of course, your surrogate key is not a sequential number and is, instead, something like the microseconds portion of the current timestamp [that must be tested to avoid duplicates]).
The one thing that usually causes me to tend to favor natural keys is just that – they are natural. If the data is naturally occurring it becomes easier for end users to remember it and use it. If it is a randomly generated surrogate nobody will actually know the data. Yes, this can be masked to a great deal based on the manner in which you build your applications to access the data, but ad hoc access becomes quite difficult.
I guess the bottom line is that “it depends” on a lot of different things! No surprise there, I suppose.
Here are a few other resources with information (not so much on performance though) that you may or may not have reviewed already:
- http://www.sqlservercentral.com/articles/Primary+key/70747/ - this one talks about SQL Server performance
What do you think about natural keys versus surrogate keys? Surely some readers here have an opinion on this topic! If so, post them as comments...