ColdFusion Muse

the TOP keyword in SQL

Mark Kruger March 18, 2005 3:34 PM SQL tips, Coldfusion & Databases Comments (7)

One of the most common things I see when looking at code I'm trying to optimize is a missunderstanding of how to effectively utilize SQL and a good database platform. Nothing illustrates this more effectively than the constant use of the "maxrow" attribute for a <cfquery> or a <cfoutput> statement. In many cases the TOP keyword should be used instead. Let me Explain...

h4>When to use "maxrows"

Before we talk about TOP let me say that maxrows are a good choice for solving a number of problems. However, I can think of almost no cases where "maxrows" should be used in a <cfquery> tag. Passing the TOP keyword as a part of the select will accomplish the same thing, but it will allow the database server to develop the execution plan appropriately - instead of the CF server and ODBC driver. There are some cases where maxrows can benefit your <cfoutput> or <cfloop> statements. 2 rules of thumb to follow however:

  1. The total number of records in the recordset should be limited. The limit will vary depending on your system resources.
  2. The query has been optimized with appropriate "where" clauses.

In regard to item 1, I've often seen sites where ALL the records in a table where pulled into the record set, then then the top 10 or 15 records are displayed. I saw one case where a site was displaying news for example. Each request would pull in 2 or 3 hundred stories (SELECT * ... titles, body, meta-data and all) ordered by date and then display only the headlines of the latest 10 or 12 stories. This is basically a waste of memory and network bandwidth.

As for Item 2, the rule of thumb for ANY query is " as much as possible, only retrieve what you will need for this request." Use a date, or filter or subquery - whatever you can - to trim the query down to just what you need. In the case above, simply adding a where clause that exclude news stories many weeks old would have been a vast improvement - even without the "top" keyword.

Typical Use

You want a positive example? Sure... how about a typical e-commerce web site. Let's say you are going to display the product page for a category. Perhaps you have 50 products, but you only want to display 10 on each page. Pulling all 50 into a cached query makes sense because it is 1 trip to the database for 50 records as opposed to 5 trips for 10. Then, you use "maxrows" to make your "next/prev" interface. The first page would use something like this:

<cfoutput maxrows="10" startrow="1">
   output here and a "next" link...
...And the second page something like this:
<cfoutput maxrows="10" startrow="11">
   output here and a "next" and "prev" link
and so on. This is exactly the sort of use of maxrows that will benefit performance and make your site more intuitive as well.

TOP is king

Ok... so maxrows has it's uses, but what if you have a bazzilion records? Or... what if you have a table that is fine now, but you expect it to grow over time. That's a fairly common mistake. You start out with code that works fine, but as the table grows larger your application bogs down because you haven't accounted for the recordset sizes. In that case the keyword "TOP" comes to the rescue. It's easy to use. It follows SELECT and then it is followed by a number specifying how many records maximum you want to retrieve. So "SELECT TOP 10 * FROM products returns only 10 records.

Let me emphasise that this is different from using <cfquery maxrows="10">. In the second case, the ODBC driver handles passing the query (the WHOLE query - select * from products) to the RDBMS - which first runs the query (getting all the records) and then begins to pass them back using the blockfactor settings. In each case, the RDBMS is building a recordset that is larger than needed and most certainly passing back MORE records than 10 to the ODBC driver - which passes them to CF. CF in turn, looks for 10 or more records and terminates the query when it has the required amount - passing those first 10 received back to the request. If you don't believe me, do a trace and you will see the nature of the request being passed to the RDBMS.

With TOP, the RDBMS creates an execution plan based on the where clause and the "TOP" keyword - then begans building ONLY until it has the required number. At that point it stops execution and forwards the records back to the web server. Here's an example of TOP in action:

<cfquery name="getNews" datasource="myNews">
   SELECT TOP 25 Title, FileDate, Byline
   FROM   tblCurrentNews
   WHERE   FileDate > DateAdd(day,-1,getdate())
Notice that TOP precedes any specified columns. Top can be used with any combination of "GROUP BY" or "UNION" or "JOIN". The only limitation is that some views that contain inner joins cannot be created correctly using TOP. Also notice that I'm letting the database server do the job of creating a date that is 1 day earlier than now. This is much better than using the "now( )" function with "createOdbcdate( )" and the CF "dateadd( )" function.

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  • rob's Gravatar
    Posted By
    rob | 5/5/05 2:32 PM
    Top is cool - I think it's specific to MSSQL Server though (mysql may support it too). In Postgres, for example, you'd end the statement with limit 25 to get the same effect. Just something to watch out for if you are writing db independent cfqueries :)
  • Mkruger's Gravatar
    Posted By
    Mkruger | 5/5/05 2:56 PM
    Yes - I believe you are right. I should have mentioned that "most" RDBMS support TOP or some similar convention.
  • barry.b's Gravatar
    Posted By
    barry.b | 5/5/05 6:04 PM
    ...and in Informix it's "select first 25..."
  • Brian's Gravatar
    Posted By
    Brian | 8/23/06 7:25 PM
    Postgres supports LIMIT instead of TOP.
  • Shawn's Gravatar
    Posted By
    Shawn | 6/28/07 1:23 PM
    In MySQL use the LIMIT FROM and TO instead of TOP
  • GiBi's Gravatar
    Posted By
    GiBi | 2/16/10 5:20 PM
    Old post, but actual problem.

    What if you have a database with 1,000,000 of records and, let's say, you want to list them 10 per page?

    Use of LIMIT would be great, but MSSQL doesn't allow it.

    What would be the best solution?

    1) Cache the query once and then output using startrow and maxrows.

    What could happen if you have a lot of unique users daily, let's say ... about 100,000? And a lot of other cached queries?

    2) Use TOP trying to simulate the MySQL LIMIT clause

    Let us suppose that the million records are NEWS and I want to link all so google can continue to index them.

    Let us suppose also that I want to order them by data.

    Page 1) select top 10 news_title from news order by data desc
    set last_data = datetime of the 10th news

    Page 2) select top 10 news_title from news where data > last_data order by data desc
    set last_data = datetime of the 20th news

    Page 3) select top 10 news_title from news where data > last_data order by data desc
    set last_data = datetime of the 30th news


    Page N) select top 10 news_title from news where data > last_data order by data desc
    set last_data = datetime of the (Nx10)th news

    Will it work?
    Posted By
    How can you achieve pagination in Oracle?