One of the most exciting, yet most overlooked, features of Oracle databases is the ability to dedicate multiple processors to service an Oracle query. The Oracle database has implemented parallel query features that allow a query to effectively use both symmetric multiprocessors (SMP) and massively parallel processors (MPP). Using these features, it is possible to read a one-gigabyte table with sub-second response time. Let’s begin with a review of these architectures.

A little background
Beginning in the 1960s, IBM began to implement mainframe processors with multiple CPUs. These were known as dyadic (two processors) or quadratic (four processors). Once these processors were implemented, software and database developers struggled with developing products that could take advantage of the ability to use multiple processors to service a task. These tools generally took the form of segmentation features that dedicated specific tasks to specific processors. They did not incorporate any ability to dynamically dedicate tasks to processors or to load-balance between CPUs.

Once the UNIX operating system became popular in the 1980s, hardware vendors (SUN, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard) began to offer computers with multiple CPUs and shared memory. These were known as SMP processors. On the other end of the spectrum, hardware vendors were experimenting with machines that contained hundreds, and even thousands, of individual CPUs. These became known as massively parallel processors.

As the Oracle database grew in popularity, the Oracle architects began to experiment with techniques that would allow the Oracle software to take advantage of these parallel features. However, it is not necessary to have parallel processors (SMP or MPP) in order to use and benefit from parallel processing. Even on the same processor, multiple processes can speed up queries.

Using Oracle parallel query
Oracle version 7.2 and above can partition an SQL query into sub-queries and dedicate separate processors to each one. At this time, parallel query is useful only for queries that perform full-table scans on long tables, but the performance improvements can be dramatic.

Here’s how it works. Instead of having a single query server to manage the I/O against the table, parallel query allows the Oracle query server to dedicate many processes to simultaneously access the data. (See Figure A.)

Figure A

To be most effective, the table should be partitioned onto separate disk devices, such that each process can do I/O against its segment of the table without interfering with the other simultaneous query processes. However, the client-server environment of the 1990s relies on RAID or a logical volume manager (LVM), which scrambles data files across disk packs in order to balance the I/O load. Consequently, full utilization of parallel query involves “striping” a table across numerous data files, each on a separate device.

Even if your system uses RAID or LVM, there are still some performance gains from using parallel query. In addition to using multiple processes to retrieve the table, the query manager will also dedicate numerous processes to simultaneously sort the result set. (See Figure B.)

Figure B

However, parallel query works best with symmetric multiprocessor (SMP) boxes. Also, it is important to configure the system to maximize the I/O bandwidth, either through disk striping or high-speed channels. Because of the parallel sorting feature, it is also a good idea to beef up the memory on the processor.

While sorting is no substitute for using a pre-sorted index, the parallel query manager will service requests far faster than if you use a single process. The data retrieval itself will not be particularly fast, since all of the retrieval processes are competing for a channel on the same disk. But each sort process has its own sort area (as determined by the sort_area_size init.ora parameter), so the sorting of the result set will progress very quickly.

In addition to full-table scans and sorting, the parallel query option also allows for parallel processes for merge joins and nested loops.

Query setup
Invoking the parallel query option requires several steps. The most important is that the execution plan for the query specifies a full-table scan. If the output of the execution plan does not indicate a full-table scan, the query can be forced to ignore the index by using query hints.

The number of processors dedicated to service an SQL request is ultimately determined by Oracle query manager, but the programmer can specify the upper limit on the number of simultaneous processes. When using the cost-based optimizer, the PARALLEL hint can be embedded into the SQL to specify the number of processes. For instance:

select /*+ FULL(employee_table) PARALLEL(employee_table, 4) */
       emp_type = ‘SALARIED’;


If you are using SMP with many CPUs, you can issue a parallel request and leave it up to each Oracle instance to use its default degree of parallelism. For example:

select /*+ FULL(employee_table) PARALLEL(employee_table, DEFAULT, DEFAULT) */
       emp_type = ‘SALARIED’;

Parallel query parameters

Several important init.ora parameters have a direct impact on parallel query:

  • sort_area_size—The higher the value, the more memory available for individual sorts on each parallel process. Note that the sort_area_size parameter allocates memory for every query on the system that invokes a sort. For example, if a single query needs more memory, and you increase the sort_area_size, all Oracle tasks will allocate the new amount of sort area, regardless of whether they will use all of the space.
  • parallel_min_servers—This value specifies the minimum number of query servers that will be active on the instance. There are system resources involved in starting a query server, and having the query server started and waiting for requests will accelerate processing. Note that if the actual number of required servers is less than the values of parallel_min_servers, the idle query servers will be consuming unnecessary overhead, and the value should be decreased.
  • parallel_max_servers—This value specifies the maximum number of query servers allowed on the instance. This parameter will prevent Oracle from starting so many query servers that the instance cannot service all of them properly.

Parallel dictionary queries
To see how many parallel query servers are busy at any given time, the following query can be issued against the v$pq_sysstat table:

select * from v$pq_sysstat
       where statistic = ‘Servers Busy’;


——————-        ————
Servers Busy         30

In this case, we see that 30 parallel servers are busy at this moment. Do not be misled by this number. Parallel query servers are constantly accepting work or returning to idle status, so it is a good idea to issue the query many times over a one-hour period. Only then will you receive a realistic measure of how many parallel query servers are being used.

Don Burleson is a leading database author with expertise in data warehouse technology and tuning. He has more than 15 years’ experience as a database administrator, working with some of the world’s most sophisticated Oracle systems. Don runs a Web site and can be reached by e-mail at