As Kimberly blogged about earlier this year, SQLskills has an ongoing initiative to blog about basic topics, which we’re calling SQL101. We’re all blogging about things that we often see done incorrectly, technologies used the wrong way, or where there are many misunderstandings that lead to serious problems. If you want to find all of our SQLskills SQL101 blog posts, check out SQLskills.com/help/SQL101.

Often when discussing index fragmentation I find that people aren’t aware of all the differences between rebuilding an index (using ALTER INDEX … REBUILD) and reorganizing an index (using ALTER INDEX … REORGANIZE), so that’s the topic for this post. Everything I say below applies to row-based indexes only (i.e. not columnstore indexes), and equally to a clustered index or a nonclustered index.

Space Required

Rebuilding an index requires building a new index before dropping the old index, regardless of the amount of fragmentation present in the old index. This means you need to have enough free space to accommodate the new index.

Reorganizing an index first squishes the index rows together to try to deallocate some index pages, and then shuffles the remaining pages in place to make their physical (allocation) order the same as the logical (key) order. This only requires a single 8-KB page, as a temporary storage for pages being moved around. So an index reorganize is extremely space efficient, and is one of the reasons I wrote the original DBCC INDEXDEFRAG for SQL Server 2000 (the predecessor of ALTER INDEX … REORGANIZE).

If you have space constraints, and can’t make use of single-partition rebuild, reorganizing is the way to go.

Algorithm Speed

An index rebuild will always build a new index, even if there’s no fragmentation. The length of time the rebuild takes is related to the size of the index, not the amount of fragmentation in it.

Reorganizing an index only deals with the fragmentation that exists, and the more fragmentation there is, the longer a reorganize will take.

This means that for a lightly fragmented index (e.g. less than 30% fragmentation), it’s generally faster to reorganize the index, but for a more heavily fragmented index, it’s generally faster to just rebuild the index. This is why you may have seen thresholds of 0 to 5-10% do nothing, 5-10% to 30% reorganize, 30%+ rebuild. I created this guidance while I was at Microsoft – see here.

Transaction Log Generated

In the FULL recovery mode, an index rebuild is fully logged, so the transaction log will have to accommodate the full size of the index in a single transaction. This also means the entire generated transaction log may need to be mirrored, sent to your AG replicas, scanned by replication, backed up, and so on.

In the SIMPLE and BULK_LOGGED recovery modes, the amount of transaction log generated by an index rebuild will be minimal – just the allocations of pages and extents. However, the next log backup performed (either in BULK_LOGGED or after switching to FULL) will also contain all the extents changed by the rebuild, and so the log backup will be roughly the same size as if the rebuild was done in the FULL recovery mode. The benefits are in time and the fact that the transaction log itself does not have to accommodate the full size of the index during the rebuild in a single transaction.

In all recovery modes, reorganizing an index is fully logged, but is performed as a series of small transactions so should not cause the transaction log to grow inordinately. And of course, transaction log is only generated for the operations performed, which may be less for a reorganize as it only deals with fragmentation that exists.

Locks Required

An offline index rebuild of any index holds a schema-modification (i.e. super-exclusive) table lock – no updates or reads of the entire table.

An online index rebuild of any index acquires a short-term shared table lock at the start of the operation, holds an intent-shared table lock throughout the operation (which will only block exclusive and schema-modification table locks), and then acquires a short-term schema-modification  table lock at the end of the operation. ‘Online’ is a bit of a misnomer. From SQL Server 2014, you can use the WAIT_AT_LOW_PRIORITY option to delay the potential for blocking – see this blog post.

An index reorganize holds an intent-exclusive table lock throughout the operation, which will only block shared, exclusive, and schema-modification table locks. One of the major reasons I wrote DBCC INDEXDEFRAG for SQL Server 2000 was as an online alternative to DBCC DBREINDEX.

Interruptible or Not

An index rebuild operation cannot be interrupted without it rolling back everything it’s done so far – it’s atomic – all or nothing. In SQL Server 2017, however, there is a resumable-online index rebuild feature.

An index reorganize can be interrupted and the worst that will happen is that a single page move operation is rolled back.

Progress Reporting or Not

Index rebuilds do not have proper progress reporting. You can hack it for online index operations by looking at the bigintdata1 column in the Progress Report: Online Index Profiler event, which happens to show how many rows of the old index have been scanned. You can also hack it for index operations by looking at the number of page reads the SPID has done in sys.dm_exec_requests.

Index reorganize operations populate the percent_complete column of sys.dm_exec_requests so you can easily gauge how much work remains. In fact DBCC INDEXDEFRAG also used to do progress reporting, but less elegantly, by printing a progress message to your connection every 30 seconds.

Statistics

An index rebuild will always rebuild the index column statistics with the equivalent of a full scan (or sampled, for an index partition).

An index reorganize does not see a total view of the index and so cannot update statistics, meaning that manual index statistics maintenance is required.

Summary

As you can see, there are quite a few major differences between rebuilding and reorganizing, but there’s no right answer as to which one you should use – that’s your choice.

If you have an index maintenance routine that always rebuilds and never considers reorganizing, you should reconsider. It’s usually better to reorganize a lightly fragmented index and rebuild a more heavily fragmented index – to save time and resources. You’ll find that most index maintenance products and freely-available scripts allow you to make that choice.

And as always, rather than writing your own index maintenance solution, I recommend Ola Hallengren’s free code (yes, other people have done similar, but I think Ola’s is by far the best and most widely used).