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Both a LINQ query and an SQL statement are descriptions that state which data should be fetched, but not how.. Sure, when reading LINQ or SQL, we can make assumptions about the performance but not in every case. Some queries are either too fancy or too big to grasp, so our predictions may be way too vague if we can make any at all.

This blog post is not a deep dive into the world of execution plans but a motivation to start how to read them. An execution plan is a powerful tool that can give you useful insights into the internals of query execution. If you need another example to see what execution plans are good for, I recommend reading my previous blog post about fuzzy searches.

What is an execution plan?

An execution plan is a textual representation, i.e. a description, of all operations the database does in order to fulfill a database request. An operation could be a JOIN, filtering, projection, sorting, or other. Depending on the database, we can get even more information such as the indices used, the amount of data flowing from operation to operation, and the costs of an operation, just to name a few.

Please note: this blog post is not about the particular LINQ queries I am using here but to show you how much information an execution plan can provide us with!

In this scenario, I am using Entity Framework Core 3.1 and MS SQL Server. The examples below are working on two tables containing Products and ProductGroups, but this time we have another index on Products:

    GroupId ASC,
    Id ASC

Comparing two LINQ queries

When working with Entity Framework Core (EF) we mostly write LINQ queries. So let's start with a comparison of two simple but fancy queries. Both produce the same result.

// query 1
var groups = ctx.ProductGroups
                .Select(g => new

// query 2
var groups = ctx.ProductGroups
                .Select(g => g.Products
                              .Select(p => new 

The first query uses FirstOrDefault() before selecting the required columns. The second query does the same but in reverse order.

When looking at the two queries for the first time, I could not even guess which of them would perform better. Furthermore, EF could optimize one of them or both, so in the end, the same SQL statement could be executed for both. This leads us to a comparison of the SQL statements generated by EF.

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Comparing two SQL statements

With a profiling tool for the database or alternatively, by proper configuration of the logging of EF, we are able to get to the SQL statements.

The queries are slightly modified for the sake of readability.

-- query 1
 ( SELECT TOP(1)   Id FROM Products p WHERE g.Id = p.GroupId ) AS Id,
 ( SELECT TOP(1) Name FROM Products p WHERE g.Id = p.GroupId ) AS Name
FROM ProductGroups g

-- query 2
SELECT p.Id, p.Name
FROM ProductGroups AS g
    SELECT *
        FROM Products
    ) AS p
    WHERE p.row <= 1
) AS p ON g.Id = p.GroupId

As we can see, the SQL statements are different, so the EF didn't unify them. The first query uses two sub-selects, the second one the window function ROW_NUMBER().
Is it better to rather access the table Products multiple times than to use ROW_NUMBER()?

Reading execution plans

Until now, neither reading LINQ nor the SQL queries gave us any real clues. Let's compare the execution plans without diving in too deep.

Execution plan of the first query

The execution plan of the first query consists of three main parts:

  • 1 table access for fetching all ProductGroups (in blue). To be more precise, the database scans the clustered index record by record.
  • 2 table accesses for fetching the first Product of each ProductGroup (in red). The database uses the index (seek) IX_Products_GroupId to jump to the first product.

In the end, the three data sources are JOINed together using LEFT OUTER JOIN although the actual SQL statement has no JOINs at all.

Execution plan of the 1st query

Execution plan of the second query

The second query has only two main parts:

  • 1 table access for fetching the ProductGroups (in blue). This is exactly the same operation as in the first query, but there is a minor difference. The relative cost of this operation is 8% in the first query but 7% in the second. If this operation is considered to be cheaper, in relative terms, then the rest got more expensive!
  • 1 table access for fetching the first Product by partitioning the data by GroupId (in red).

Having the Products and the ProductGroups, the database performs a LEFT OUTER JOIN before returning the result set to the client. Please note that the LEFT JOIN operation in the second query is a different one. This time it is a Merge Join instead of a Nested Loop Join, i.e. some databases have multiple approaches on how to perform a JOIN.

Execution plan of the second query

Evaluation of execution plans

Sometimes taking a glance at an execution plan is enough to spot a potential performance issue. There could potentially be multiple (unnecessary) JOINs with the same table or surprisingly high costs of an operation because the database performs a table scan, although we made an index for it.

When comparing two execution plans, the simplest way is to look at metrics or statistics provided by the database. In the case of MS SQL Server, such metrics are the estimated subtree cost, the correlation between the estimated and actual number of rows, number of reads, and so on.

Back to our examples. By hovering over the SELECT operator, we see that the cost of the first query is 0.051 and 0.058 of the second query. In other words, query one performs slightly better than query two. This is still true when comparing the estimated number or rows because both queries return 100 rows, so the estimation of query one is 100% correct, while the estimation of query two is obviously not.

Estimated subtree cost


Execution plans may appear cryptic or even daunting at first. After some time reading, it becomes natural. At first, you may start looking at metrics such as the estimated subtree cost and pretty soon you will want to know "Why?"...

If you have questions or need assistance, please feel free to contact me at

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