by Markus Winand.

Querying Top-N Rows

Top-N queries are queries that limit the result to a specific number of rows. These are often queries for the most recent or the “best” entries of a result set. For efficient execution, the ranking must be done with a pipelined order by.

The simplest way to fetch only the first rows of a query is fetching the required rows and then closing the statement. Unfortunately, the optimizer cannot foresee that when preparing the execution plan. To select the best execution plan, the optimizer has to know if the application will ultimately fetch all rows. In that case, a full table scan with explicit sort operation might perform best, although a pipelined order by could be better when fetching only ten rows—even if the database has to fetch each row individually. That means that the optimizer has to know if you are going to abort the statement before fetching all rows so it can select the best execution plan.


Inform the database whenever you don't need all rows.

The SQL standard excluded this requirement for a long time. The corresponding extension (fetch first) was just introduced with SQL:2008 and is currently only available in IBM DB2, PostgreSQL, SQL Server 2012 and Oracle 12c. On the one hand, this is because the feature is a non-core extension, and on the other hand it's because each database has been offering its own proprietary solution for many years.

The following examples show the use of these well-known extensions by querying the ten most recent sales. The basis is always the same: fetching all sales, beginning with the most recent one. The respective top-N syntax just aborts the execution after fetching ten rows.


DB2 supports the standard's fetch first syntax since version 9 at least (LUW and zOS).

  FROM sales
 ORDER BY sale_date DESC

The proprietary limit keyword is supported since DB2 LUW 9.7 (requires db2set DB2_COMPATIBILITY_VECTOR=MYS).


MySQL and PostgreSQL use the limit clause to restrict the number of rows to be fetched.

  FROM sales
 ORDER BY sale_date DESC

The Oracle database introduced the fetch first extension with release 12c. With earlier releases you have to use the pseudo column ROWNUM that numbers the rows in the result set automatically. To use this column in a filter, we have to wrap the query:

  FROM (
       SELECT *
         FROM sales
        ORDER BY sale_date DESC
 WHERE rownum <= 10

PostgreSQL supports the fetch first extension since version 8.4. The previously used limit clause still works as shown in the MySQL example.

  FROM sales
 ORDER BY sale_date DESC
SQL Server

SQL Server provides the top clause to restrict the number of rows to be fetched.

  FROM sales
 ORDER BY sale_date DESC

Starting with release 2012, SQL Server supports the fetch first extension as well.

All of the above shown SQL queries are special because the databases recognize them as top-N queries.


The database can only optimize a query for a partial result if it knows this from the beginning.

If the optimizer is aware of the fact that we only need ten rows, it will prefer to use a pipelined order by if applicable:

Explain Plan
ID | Operation                      |               Rows |   Cost
 1 | RETURN                         |                    |     24
 2 |  FETCH SALES                   |      10 of 1009326 | 458452
 3 |   IXSCAN (REVERSE) SALES_DT_PR | 1009326 of 1009326 |   2624

Predicate Information

The top-N behaviour is not directly visible in the DB2 execution plan unless there is a SORT operation required (then the last_explained view indicates it in brackets: SORT (TOP-N), see next example).

In this particular example, one might suspect that this must be a top-N query because of the sudden drop of the row count estimate that cannot explained by any filtering predicates (Predicate Information section is empty).

| Operation                     | Name        | Rows | Cost |
| SELECT STATEMENT              |             |   10 |    9 |
|  COUNT STOPKEY                |             |      |      |
|   VIEW                        |             |   10 |    9 |
|    TABLE ACCESS BY INDEX ROWID| SALES       | 1004K|    9 |

The Oracle execution plan indicates the planned termination with the COUNT STOPKEY operation. That means the database recognized the top-N syntax.


Appendix A, “Execution Plans, summarizes the corresponding operations for DB2, MySQL, Oracle, PostgreSQL and SQL Server.

Using the correct syntax is only half the story because efficiently terminating the execution requires the underlying operations to be executed in a pipelined manner. That means the order by clause must be covered by an index—the index SALE_DT_PR on SALE_DATE and PRODUCT_ID in this example. By using this index, the database can avoid an explicit sort operation and so can immediately send the rows to the application as read from the index. The execution is aborted after fetching ten rows so the database does not read more rows than selected.


A pipelined top-N query doesn't need to read and sort the entire result set.

If there is no suitable index on SALE_DATE for a pipelined order by, the database must read and sort the entire table. The first row is only delivered after reading the last row from the table.

This execution plan has no pipelined order by and is almost as slow as aborting the execution from the client side. Using the top-N syntax is still better because the database does not need to materialize the full result but only the ten most recent rows. This requires considerably less memory. The Oracle execution plan indicates this optimization with the STOPKEY modifier on the SORT ORDER BY operation.

The advantages of a pipelined top-N query include not only immediate performance gains but also improved scalability. Without using pipelined execution, the response time of this top-N query grows with the table size. The response time using a pipelined execution, however, only grows with the number of selected rows. In other words, the response time of a pipelined top-N query is always the same; this is almost independent of the table size. Only when the B-tree depth grows does the query become a little bit slower.

Figure 7.1 shows the scalability for both variants over a growing volume of data. The linear response time growth for an execution without a pipelined order by is clearly visible. The response time for the pipelined execution remains constant.

Figure 7.1 Scalability of Top-N Queries

Although the response time of a pipelined top-N query does not depend on the table size, it still grows with the number of selected rows. The response time will therefore double when selecting twice as many rows. This is particularly significant for “paging” queries that load additional results because these queries often start at the first entry again; they will read the rows already shown on the previous page and discard them before finally reaching the results for the second page. Nevertheless, there is a solution for this problem as well as we will see in the next section.

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