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Profiling MySQL Queries with phpMyAdmin

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I have used phpMyAdmin for over a decade. In my early years with the tool, I simply needed something that could show me table structure and quickly give me the data inside. As my needs have grown, so have the tools included with phpMyAdmin which keeps me coming back as my primary MySQL tool, even with optimization.

Introduction and Scope: Using the Tools at Hand

I have had the pleasure to work with several different databases. Each have their drawbacks, and each have their strengths. When given a choice, I tend to migrate back to MySQL, despite me being too cheap to purchase the MySQL Enterprise. Instead, I make due with phpMyAdmin as my main profiling tool. It works well for me, but I had to do quite a bit of research to understand what I am looking at while profiling my applications. I am hoping to pass this along in a way that can be understood by the beginner, up to the seasoned pro.

Optimization takes time. Managers, clients, and peers for that matter, do not like to hear that a project is behind schedule because of optimization. Often times we rush the optimization in order to meet those benchmarks. In the end though, we aren't doing anyone any favors. The prettiest web application in the world is going to get you repeat business if it takes 10 seconds to load every page. Likewise, if we wait to optimize until the end of our projects, chances are there will be much more work to do, than if we had been checking as the project goes along.

A couple of notes before we get into the meat and potatoes. First, I am not going to get into MySQL Tuning, as it is a bit out of the scope for this tutorial. While tuning is optimization, it's a topic all to itself in my opinion. I will briefly mention a couple of opportunities to optimized how to tune your server, but the mentions will be brief. In addition, I will be mainly looking at MyISAM tables and not InnoDB tables. The rule of thumb is if you are writing lots of data, use InnoDB, but if you are using SELECT much more, then use MyISAM. Also, I am not getting into table level REPAIR, OPTIMIZE, CHECK and ANALYZE as this tutorial is covering query optimization with phpMyAdmin. Again, this is a bit out of the scope for this tutorial.

Finally, I am going to look at WordPress as a real world example. I will be the first to tell you that I am not an expert in WordPress, but I can look at the generated queries with the best of them. From what I have seen the database with WordPress is well indexed, but once we start adding things that are outside of those main core files, those indexes might not be the best for what we need.

"Optimization takes time. Managers, clients, and peers for that matter, do not like to hear that a project is behind schedule because of optimization."

Do I Need to Optimize?: Look internally

The short answer is yes.

The long answer is phpMyAdmin gives us a chance to see if we need to optimize our queries, and how badly we need to optimize them. I would imagine that you have seen this screen more than once if you have used phpMyAdmin:

It's the standard start screen for phpMyAdmin. Unless you are looking for ways to optimize, you might well go straight to your tables on the left hand menu, and never see the tab menu at the top. That menu, specifically the Status and Variables tabs are where we are going to start.

Let's start with the Status screen, which might be the most important tool that phpMyAdmin provides:

This is the top of the status screen. While it does have some interesting data, if you have never gone below the scroll you have missed out on some very important information. For the sake of brevity, I want to look at two very simple counter values which I obsess over, the first from my test environment:

The two values to pay very close attention to are, Handler_read_rnd and Handler_read_rnd_next. If those two values are in the red, then there are some queries out there that need to be checked, as when MySQL does a SELECT, it is reading the entire table. In some cases, this might be by design, as when you place an index on a table, it takes a bit longer to write, and it takes a bit more space. However, if you see something like this:

chances are, this wasn't by design. 141 Million requests to read a row on a fixed position, and 16 Billion requests to read the next row, probably means that we are missing an index or two (thousand). Obviously, this number grows based on the number of requests, so the more a search engine indexes your site, or the more visitors that you have, the greater a small missed index becomes. Full table scans are the enemy, and this gives you a quick way to spot how close that enemy is to the gates.

Another great table to check for query performance takes a look at selects and indexes directly:

This table pays particular attention to your joins. A dangerous combination is not using and index on either table, because your full table scans go up exponentially on the number of joins that you use. The more normalized your tables, the more you need to pay attention to your indexes, as well as the definition of the fields you are joining.

Finally, depending on a global variable, you also will want to check this variable table as well:

If you are logging your slow queries, this variable counter shows the number that have been identified for observation, depending on the setting of long query time. Those variables can be found from the variables tab. A quick look in my test environment shows this setting (for now):

These two tabs show quite a bit more information, some of which is absolutely vital for tuning your MySQL server. PhpMyAdmin makes it real easy for even the novice to spot a problem, and to have a basic understanding of what that problem might be. If a value is green, we are good. If it is red, it needs some attention. It also allows us to understand that we made some progress. When we restart our server, these session variables are all flushed. If we have made changes, we can see right off the bat if we made any impact.

EXPLAIN: Understanding the Gibberish

Now that we have identified that we need to do some optimization, let's look at some of the tools that we are going to use prior to finding our problems. The first of the tools, and probably the most helpful is to use EXPLAIN. EXPLAIN basically gives us our query execution plan. This tells us what MySQL plans to do with this query before it executes.

Without reading up on EXPLAIN, the output might not mean much to you. Using a table I created for a past tutorial, let's look at an unoptimized execution plan. My table only has two fields in this case, one being sales_id, and the other being sale_amount. Here's the query that I am working with:

On the surface, this is a very simple query. Being a sales table though, the table will grow and grow and grow. I generated 200 records for the previous tutorial, and by doing a simple SELECT with an ORDER BY clause, it actually took quite a bit longer than I would have expected:

That query with only 200 records cost us .15 seconds. Let's use EXPLAIN to understand how MySQL see's this query. Just click the "Explain SQL" link to see the results:

Like most things, this doesn't make much sense unless you understand what is being said. To someone that has never run an EXPLAIN on a query, this might as well be written in hieroglyphics. Let's see if we can translate to something a little more understandable.

The select_type tells us that MySQL sees this SELECT as a simple, go to one table and process. If there was an union or a subquery, then this would show what part of the SELECT statement this would be calling. For instance if I create a query which has a subquery:

We get an EXPLAIN of this:

Which tells us about the query itself. In this case our select_type has changed to say that the first query is the primary, and then MySQL is going to go out and perform the subquery, which is a view, so there is another subquery to perform, hence we end with the three separate ids. The MySQL Reference manual gives all of the possible values:

Back to our original example:

The type is the one to pay attention to, as it tells you whether MySQL is going to scan the entire table, or whether it will be using an index to quickly find the results. This is the primary column to look at when you are optimizing your queries. From the order good to bad, the values are:

  1. system, using the system tables to return one value
  2. const, using primary key to return one row
  3. eq_ref, query is joined on primary key or unique key
  4. ref, query is joined on index and matches only a few rows
  5. fulltext, joined on fulltext index
  6. ref_or_null, does a ref, but also has to search for null rows
  7. index_merge, join on the output row contains indexes
  8. unique_subquery, indexed lookup function with unique values
  9. index_subquery, same as last one, but not unique values
  10. range, rows in a given range are retrieved using index to select the rows
  11. index, bad, but at least using an index tree to scan
  12. all, really bad, scanning the entire table

Where you want to start is getting optimizing any query that is either the type of index or all. If you can rid your application of these two types, your performance is going to improve. This my friends, is where you start.

The rest of the columns deal with the indexes that MySQL will use, and the number of rows that it will have to scan before it can see if there is a valid result. As you get rid of the "index" and "all" types, these come in handy to understand exactly what index MySQL is using to execute this query. To move a query up the ladder, you begin to tweak your indexes to improve performance. For the purpose of illustration, I am going to stick with ridding "all" or full table scans.

The final column is the "extra" column. The extra column tells you information about the query, whether or not a WHERE clause is used, whether or not it is an impossible WHERE, meaning this query will always return a NULL because the WHERE clause makes it impossible to execute. The one value that we need to pay very close attention to, and rid ourselves of, is the "Using filesort" which we have in our example. When you see that value, MySQL has to make another pass through the results to sort the values. So, in the case of our original query:

Not only is MySQL scanning the entire table, but it has to scan it twice to sort the results because of our ORDER BY statement. This, is obviously doubly bad. We will optimize this query and many more in the following sections.

MySQL Profiler: After the query runs

In MySQL 5.0.37 another tool became available for us to use in optimization, and that is the MySQL profiler. In addition, phpMyAdmin added support for this feature in version 2.11, so if you have both of these versions available, we have another tool to add to optimization.

What the MySQL Profiler does, is give information about the bottlenecks of our queries. It allows us to see what happens during the actual execution of our queries, vice what EXPLAIN does, which is give the execution plan before. Let's see what information we can get from phpMyAdmin from my original bad query:

If we click on the "Profiling" checkbox below our query, a new world opens up with:

phpMyAdmin provides the actual execution times of the query that was provided. We can now see the bottlenecks of where our queries, or even table level structure should be addressed. Perhaps, we see the need from log files that this table really isn't written to as much as it is read from, so instead of InnoDB, we can now switch it to MyISAM.

There is a bit of a drawback to using phpMyAdmin when using the MySQL Profiler, and that is that the profiler is based on the session, and phpMyAdmin destroys the session on each pageview.. The problem this gives us is that we do not have a way to keep a running total of the profiling data, but there is a way to trick phpMyAdmin, albeit in a kludgy fashion:

Which results in:

Since we are executing multiple queries, you do need to use the delimiter. This will show that my query is query_id 1. Each subsequent time I run this query, it is still query_id 1 since my session is being destroyed on start up. I am not sure if this is by design, a bug or ignorance on my part that phpMyAdmin destroys the session with the QUIT command, but we can work around this problem just a bit. MySQL has a wonderful write up on using the profiler by Robin Schumacher, and I am going to use a bit of Robin's query to get the number of operations in phpMyAdmin:

Again, not ideal with phpMyAdmin, but we still get what we want in the end:

Log Files and Global Vars: Catching the Queries

Before we put all that we have learned together, let's also take a look at how to capture queries by using MySQL's log files. We can capture every query that MySQL runs into the mysql.general_log table. By running this command:

We can now have a record for all of the queries that are run, regardless of the source. While this operation is expensive, and I would not run it on a production setting, it gives us a clear and concise method of getting all of our queries, and the order of their execution from our applications. In short, this might be the most valuable SQL query optimization tool you have in your toolbox. By setting these two GLOBAL vars, we have the final step to getting some practical optimization techniques.

Here's an abbreviated output from mysql.general_log table using this query:

produces this:

I basically have my query, along with everything that phpMyAdmin has been doing in the background. If I empty the table before each new command, I have something that I can work with on each page view, or AJAX call I make from my applications. To empty the log, we simply TRUNCATE the table like so:

Truncate is a much better statement to use here than DELETE FROM, as the DELETE statement deletes row by row, where as TRUNCATE empties the entire table at once.

Once you are done with your optimization, you simply need to turn off your query log with this command:

The general log becomes expensive over time, and certainly slows down the performance of your application. I keep it turned off in between my optimizations simply so I can get a organic feel for the performance of what I am writing. That said, in development, I always keep the slow query log turned on as I want to see my slower queries as a quick optimization tool. You can do this easily:

and we can check that from our Variables tab from our welcome page:

To see the output, we just need to either check the mysql.slow_log or we can use a query like this:

Which gives me the actual queries that were logged as slow:

Putting it Together: We're talking about practice

Now we can put this altogether and use phpMyAdmin as a relatively decent query optimization tool. Let's start with the first query example:

Which produces an output of:

We know we need to get at least one INDEX on this table. Let's stop and think how this table is used. It's a simple look-up table to join a sales_force table to tell us that they made a sale that was of the amount recorded. If all we ever do is join against this table on the sales_id, then that is what we need to index by clicking on the details link:

We can then just define that index like so:

Our original query still gives us a full scan, but in a practical application:

Let's see if this is any better:

Now we are getting somewhere. However, if we do something like this:

Then we are back in the same boat of doing a full scan of the table. In this case, we can just edit the index and add the sale_amount:

Which improves us from really bad to just bad:

Or we can add a new index on just the amount:

And we have the wonderful result of:

Which means that MySQL doesn't even have to open the table, as it just has to look into the index. We have now hit the absolute optimum level for this COUNT function. Check out how long it took to execute this query now:

And for good measure, let's click the Profiling checkbox on the query to see any bottlenecks now:

Real World: It gets a bit harder

We have been playing with pretend queries, and pretend databases, but let's put this tutorial to the test. I have a stock WordPress install, with just the Lorem Ipsum plugin to add about 5000 posts and 11,000 comments, so we can put just a little strain on MySQL when we are making our selects.

Let's start logging our queries again from phpMyAdmin and also truncate the slow and general logs so we can see what happens when we load a page from WordPress:

There is going to be a few artifacts in the general_log as phpMyAdmin causes some activity within MySQL, but we should be able to get everything in order when I reload my index page from WordPress at this point, and if we use a LIKE condition, we can get mostly just WordPress results since the tables are prefixed with wp_:

Which gives us a reasonable result of:

Now, we know that WordPress simply gives us 11 queries on loading the index page with a pretty vanilla installation. Let's find something to optimized that they might have missed. If we take the very first query that is executed whenever WordPress loads:

We find that this is not optimized:

Let's take a look at what they did through phpMyAdmin:

We see that there is an index on option_name, but there is not an index on autoload, which is the condition specifies on the index page. Let's add it, and see if we can't optimize the core WordPress installation just a bit:

Since, autoload is varchar and either "yes" or "no" from what I see, I can limit my index value to 1. Meaning, it now sees either "y" or "n" which reduces our time even greater. Let's see the EXPLAIN after we have optimized:

We have gone from really bad, to the fourth best type. Not bad for a couple of minutes of work. Granted, WordPress wasn't choking on this value, but depending on the load of your blog, every little bit helps. Granted now, the writes take longer, because we have to index our "y" or "n" for each line that is written.

If we go just a little further, we can also see the MySQL Profiler in action by just checking the "Profiling" checkbox. Now we see that our query is really buzzing right along:


Optimization isn't easy, nor is it really very much fun. However, when you ignore this step of development, it always comes back to haunt you. I believe that it is relatively easy to use the tools in phpMyAdmin to get a pretty good optimization look at your applications. That said, there are new tools added all the time, such as Jet Profiler which takes what I have just done into a real time, and graphical nature.

It's not difficult, or really time consuming to approach optimization through phpMyAdmin. It does take a little patience to learn how to do it, and what can be done. I hope that I have given you the tools to start being a bit more effective in your approaches. Please, let me know what you think in the comments section.

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