7.3.1. How MySQL Uses Indexes

Indexes are used to find rows with specific column values quickly. Without an index, MySQL must begin with the first row and then read through the entire table to find the relevant rows. The larger the table, the more this costs. If the table has an index for the columns in question, MySQL can quickly determine the position to seek to in the middle of the data file without having to look at all the data. If a table has 1,000 rows, this is at least 100 times faster than reading sequentially.

Most MySQL indexes (PRIMARY KEY, UNIQUE, INDEX, and FULLTEXT) are stored in B-trees. Exceptions are that indexes on spatial data types use R-trees, and that MEMORY tables also support hash indexes.

In general, indexes are used as described in the following discussion. Characteristics specific to hash indexes (as used in MEMORY tables) are described at the end of this section.

MySQL uses indexes for these operations:

  • To find the rows matching a WHERE clause quickly.

  • To eliminate rows from consideration. If there is a choice between multiple indexes, MySQL normally uses the index that finds the smallest number of rows (the most selective index).

  • To retrieve rows from other tables when performing joins. MySQL can use indexes on columns more efficiently if they are declared as the same type and size. In this context, VARCHAR and CHAR are considered the same if they are declared as the same size. For example, VARCHAR(10) and CHAR(10) are the same size, but VARCHAR(10) and CHAR(15) are not.

    Comparison of dissimilar columns may prevent use of indexes if values cannot be compared directly without conversion. Suppose that a numeric column is compared to a string column. For a given value such as 1 in the numeric column, it might compare equal to any number of values in the string column such as '1', ' 1', '00001', or '01.e1'. This rules out use of any indexes for the string column.

  • To find the MIN() or MAX() value for a specific indexed column key_col. This is optimized by a preprocessor that checks whether you are using WHERE key_part_N = constant on all key parts that occur before key_col in the index. In this case, MySQL does a single key lookup for each MIN() or MAX() expression and replaces it with a constant. If all expressions are replaced with constants, the query returns at once. For example:

    SELECT MIN(key_part2),MAX(key_part2)
      FROM tbl_name WHERE key_part1=10;
    
  • To sort or group a table if the sorting or grouping is done on a leftmost prefix of a usable key (for example, ORDER BY key_part1, key_part2). If all key parts are followed by DESC, the key is read in reverse order. See Section 7.13.9, “ORDER BY Optimization”, and Section 7.13.10, “GROUP BY Optimization”.

  • In some cases, a query can be optimized to retrieve values without consulting the data rows. (An index that provides all the necessary results for a query is called a covering index.) If a query uses only columns from a table that are numeric and that form a leftmost prefix for some key, the selected values can be retrieved from the index tree for greater speed:

    SELECT key_part3 FROM tbl_name
      WHERE key_part1=1
    

Indexes are less important for queries on small tables, or big tables where report queries process most or all of the rows. When a query needs to access most of the rows, reading sequentially is faster than working through an index. Sequential reads minimize disk seeks, even if not all the rows are needed for the query. See Section 7.2.1.4, “How to Avoid Table Scans” for details.

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