Using Window Functions for Efficient Pagination

Applies to
SQL ServerYes

Window functions offer yet another way to implement pagination in SQL. This is a flexible, and above all, standards-compliant method. However, only SQL Server and the Oracle database can use them for a pipelined top-N query. PostgreSQL does not abort the index scan after fetching enough rows and therefore executes these queries very inefficiently. MySQL does not support window functions at all.

The following example uses the window function ROW_NUMBER for a pagination query:

  FROM ( SELECT sales.*
              , ROW_NUMBER() OVER (ORDER BY sale_date DESC
                                          , sale_id   DESC) rn
           FROM sales
       ) tmp
 WHERE rn between 11 and 20
 ORDER BY sale_date DESC, sale_id DESC;

The ROW_NUMBER function enumerates the rows according to the sort order defined in the over clause. The outer where clause uses this enumeration to limit the result to the second page (rows 11 through 20).

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The Oracle database recognizes the abort condition and uses the index on SALE_DATE and SALE_ID to produce a pipelined top-N behavior:

|Id | Operation                      | Name    | Rows |  Cost |
| 0 | SELECT STATEMENT               |         | 1004K| 36877 |
|*1 |  VIEW                          |         | 1004K| 36877 |
|*2 |   WINDOW NOSORT STOPKEY        |         | 1004K| 36877 |
| 3 |    TABLE ACCESS BY INDEX ROWID | SALES   | 1004K| 36877 |
| 4 |     INDEX FULL SCAN DESCENDING | SL_DTID | 1004K|  2955 |

Predicate Information (identified by operation id):
1 - filter("RN">=11 AND "RN"<=20)
2 - filter(ROW_NUMBER() OVER (
           ORDER BY "SALE_DATE" DESC, "SALE_ID" DESC )<=20)

The WINDOW NOSORT STOPKEY operation indicates that there is no sort operation (NOSORT) and that the database aborts the execution when reaching the upper threshold (STOPKEY). Considering that the aborted operations are executed in a pipelined manner, it means that this query is as efficient as the offset method explained in the previous section.

The strength of window functions is not pagination, however, but analytical calculations. If you have never used window functions before, you should definitely spend a few hours studying the respective documentation.

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About the Author

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Markus Winand tunes developers for high SQL performance. He also published the book SQL Performance Explained and offers in-house training as well as remote coaching at

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