Q&A: SQL Server Architecture

1. What is a transaction and what are ACID properties?

A transaction is a logical unit of work in which, all the steps must be performed or none. ACID stands for Atomicity, Consistency, Isolation, Durability. These are the properties of a transaction. 

  • Automicity – transactions are atomic and should be treated as one in case of rollback.
  • Consistency – the database should be in consistent state between multiple states in transaction.

  • Isolation – no other queries can access the data modified by a running transaction.

  • Durability – system crashes should not lose the data.

2. Explain different isolation levels.

An isolation level determines the degree of isolation of data between concurrent transactions. The default SQL Server isolation level is Read Committed. Here are the other isolation levels (in the ascending order of isolation): Read Uncommitted, Read Committed, Repeatable Read, Serializable. See SQL Server books online for an explanation of the isolation levels. Be sure to read about SET TRANSACTION ISOLATION LEVEL, which lets you customize the isolation level at the connection level. Read Committed – A transaction operating at the Read Committed level cannot see changes made by other transactions until those transactions are committed. At this level of isolation, dirty reads are not possible but nonrepeatable reads and phantoms are possible. Read Uncommitted – A transaction operating at the Read Uncommitted level can see uncommitted changes made by other transactions. At this level of isolation, dirty reads, nonrepeatable reads, and phantoms are all possible. Repeatable Read – A transaction operating at the Repeatable Read level is guaranteed not to see any changes made by other transactions in values it has already read. At this level of isolation, dirty reads and nonrepeatable reads are not possible but phantoms are possible. Serializable – A transaction operating at the Serializable level guarantees that all concurrent transactions interact only in ways that produce the same effect as if each transaction were entirely executed one after the other. At this isolation level, dirty reads, nonrepeatable reads, and phantoms are not possible.

3. CREATE INDEX myIndex ON myTable(myColumn). What type of Index will get created after executing the above statement?

Non-clustered index. Important thing to note: By default a clustered index gets created on the primary key, unless specified otherwise.

4. What’s the maximum size of a row?

8060 bytes. Don’t be surprised with questions like ‘what is the maximum number of columns per table’. 1024 columns per table. Check out SQL Server books online for the page titled: “Maximum Capacity Specifications”.

5. Explain Active/Active and Active/Passive cluster configurations.

Hopefully you have experience setting up cluster servers. But if you don’t, at least be familiar with the way clustering works and the two clustering configurations Active/Active and Active/Passive. SQL Server books online has enough information on this topic and there is a good white paper available on Microsoft site.

6. Explain the architecture of SQL Server.

SQL Server books online is the best place to read about SQL Server architecture. Read on Database Architecture here

7. What is lock escalation?

Lock escalation is the process of converting a lot of low level locks (like row locks, page locks) into higher level locks (like table locks). Every lock is a memory structure too many locks would mean, more memory being occupied by locks. To prevent this from happening, SQL Server escalates the many fine-grain locks to fewer coarse-grain locks. Lock escalation threshold was definable in SQL Server 6.5, but from SQL Server 7.0 onwards it’s dynamically managed by SQL Server.

8. What’s the difference between DELETE TABLE and TRUNCATE TABLE commands?

DELETE TABLE is a logged operation, so the deletion of each row gets logged in the transaction log, which makes it slow. TRUNCATE TABLE also deletes all the rows in a table, but it won’t log the deletion of each row, instead it logs the deallocation of the data pages of the table, which makes it faster. Of course, TRUNCATE TABLE can be rolled back. TRUNCATE TABLE is functionally identical to DELETE statement with no WHERE clause: both remove all rows in the table. But TRUNCATE TABLE is faster and uses fewer system and transaction log resources than DELETE. The DELETE statement removes rows one at a time and records an entry in the transaction log for each deleted row. TRUNCATE TABLE removes the data by deallocating the data pages used to store the table’s data, and only the page deallocations are recorded in the transaction log. TRUNCATE TABLE removes all rows from a table, but the table structure and its columns, constraints, indexes and so on remain. The counter used by an identity for new rows is reset to the seed for the column. If you want to retain the identity counter, use DELETE instead. If you want to remove table definition and its data, use the DROP TABLE statement. You cannot use TRUNCATE TABLE on a table referenced by a FOREIGN KEY constraint; instead, use DELETE statement without a WHERE clause. Because TRUNCATE TABLE is not logged, it cannot activate a trigger. TRUNCATE TABLE may not be used on tables participating in an indexed view.

9. Explain the storage models of OLAP.

Check out MOLAP, ROLAP and HOLAP in SQL Server books online for more infomation.

10. What are the new features introduced in SQL Server 2005? What changed between the previous version of SQL Server and the current version?

Check this section. Also check out the section titled “Backward Compatibility” in books online which talks about the changes that have taken place in the new version.

11. What are constraints? Explain different types of constraints.

Constraints enable the RDBMS enforce the integrity of the database automatically, without needing you to create triggers, rule or defaults. Types of constraints: NOT NULL, CHECK, UNIQUE, PRIMARY KEY, FOREIGN KEY. For an explanation of these constraints see books online for the pages titled: “Constraints” and “CREATE TABLE”, “ALTER TABLE”

12. What is an index? What are the types of indexes? How many clustered indexes can be created on a table? I create a separate index on each column of a table. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this approach?

Indexes in SQL Server are similar to the indexes in books. They help SQL Server retrieve the data quicker. Indexes are of two types. Clustered indexes and non-clustered indexes. When you create a clustered index on a table, all the rows in the table are stored in the order of the clustered index key. So, there can be only one clustered index per table. Non-clustered indexes have their own storage separate from the table data storage. Non-clustered indexes are stored as B-tree structures (so do clustered indexes), with the leaf level nodes having the index key and it’s row locater. The row located could be the RID or the Clustered index key, depending up on the absence or presence of clustered index on the table.


If you create an index on each column of a table, it improves the query performance, as the query optimizer can choose from all the existing indexes to come up with an efficient execution plan. At the same time, data modification operations (such as INSERT, UPDATE, DELETE) will become slow, as every time data changes in the table, all the indexes need to be updated. Another disadvantage is that, indexes need disk space, the more indexes you have, more disk space is used.

Columns that contain a relatively high degree of duplicate values and that are accessed in sequence are good candidates for clustered indexes because SQL Server physically reorders the data rows and stores the values in either ascending (the default) or descending order so they can be quickly retrieved. Also, columns that are searched in a range are good candidates. Due to the physical reordering of data you can only have one clustered index per table. Conversely, columns that contain many unique values are good candidates for nonclustered indexes. You may have up to 249 nonclustered indexes per table.

When tables use primary keys, SQL Server automatically (by default) creates a unique cluster index on the column(s) comprising the key. Clearly, the uniqueness of the primary key is enforced through the creation of the unique index on the column(s). When creating foreign key relationships, it’s a good idea to create a nonclustered index on the foreign key column if you’re planning on using it frequently in joins. Tables that have a clustered index maintain the relationship between the data pages via a linked list (e.g., leaf and nonleaf level). Conversely, if no clustered index exists on a table, SQL Server will store the data pages in a heap.


13. What are Data pages and Fillfactor? Which is the tool for maintaining indexes?

When an index is created, SQL Server creates data pages, which are pointers that assist in finding the data row that contains the information of interest. When the index is established, a fillfactor is set. The purpose of a fillfactor is to designate the percentage of the data pages filled upon index creation. Over time, the free space is consumed as modifications occur, which causes page splits. The result of the page splits is that they degrade the performance of the indexes and thus the queries that utilize them by causing the data storage to become fragmented. The index’s fillfactor is set at the time of the indexes creation and isn’t dynamically maintained. To update the fillfactor in the data pages, we can drop and recreate the indexes and reset the fillfactor (keep in mind that this will negatively impact concurrent database activity and should be used judiciously in production systems).

DBCC INDEXDEFRAG and DBCC DBREINDEX are statements that defragment both clustered and nonclustered indexes. INDEXDEFRAG is an online operation (i.e., it does not block other table activity, such as a query), whereas DBREINDEX physically rebuilds the index(s). In most cases, rebuilding an index achieves greater defragmentation, but it comes at the cost of blocking concurrent activity on that table. INDEXDEFRAG can take longer to complete when large fragmented indexes are present because it executes in small transactional blocks. When you perform one of these actions, the database engine can more efficiently return indexed data.

Fillfactor tweaking should be employed with a careful eye toward the intended usage of the table for which the index is created. SQL Server dynamically chooses which indexes to use during the execution of a query. To make this choice, SQL Server uses statistics about the distribution of keys in each index to determine which indexes it will use to process the query. It is essential to consider that the statistics SQL Server is using can become out of date during the course of normal database activity (e.g., inserts, deletes, and updates on the table). To ascertain the current status of your statistics, you can execute DBCC SHOWCONTIG. When you determine that your statistics are out of date, you should run the UPDATE STATISTICS statement on the table to allow SQL Server to refresh its information about the indexes.

Maintaining indexes

SQL Server provides a utility that simplifies and automates the maintenance of a database, including the indexes. This tool is called the Database Maintenance Plan Wizard (DMPW). If you run this wizard, you’ll see that you can schedule the statistics on the indexes in the database to be updated as a regularly scheduled job, thus alleviating the burden of manually rebuilding your indexes. Another mutually exclusive choice in the DMPW is to reorganize data and data pages, which effectively drops and recreates your indexes with a specified fillfactor.

14. Describe a few system stored procedures.

sp_helpdb , sp_who2, sp_renamedb are some of system defined stored procedures.  

sp_lock is a stored procedure used to report information about active locks.
sp_who provides information about current SQL Server users and processes.
sp_help reports information about a database object or a user-defined data type.
sp_helptext prints the text of a rule, a default, or an unencrypted stored procedure, user-defined function, trigger, or view.
syslockinfo is a system table contains information on all granted, converting, and waiting lock requests.



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