Benchmarking SQL Server 2005 Covering Indexes

What is a Covering Index?

A covering index is a form of a non-clustered composite index, which includes all of the columns referenced in the SELECT, JOIN, and WHERE clauses of a query. Because of this, the index contains the data the query is looking for and SQL Server does not have to look up the actual data in the table, reducing logical and/or physical I/O, and boosting performance.

One way to help determine if a covering index could help a query’s performance is to create a graphical query execution plan in SQL Server 2005 Management Studio for the query in question and see if there are any Bookmark Lookups being performed. Essentially, a Bookmark Lookup tells you that the Query Processor had to look up the row columns it needs from a table or a clustered index, instead of being able to read it directly from a non-clustered index. Bookmark Lookups can reduce query performance because they produce extra disk I/O to retrieve the column data.

Bookmark lookups are a mechanism to navigate from a non-clustered index row to the actual data row in the base table (clustered index) and can be very expensive when dealing with a large number of rows. When a small number of rows are requested by a query, the SQL Server optimizer will try to use a non-clustered index on the column or columns contained in the WHERE clause to retrieve the data requested by the query. If the query requests data from columns not contained in the non-clustered index, SQL Server must go back to the data pages to obtain the data in those columns. It doesn’t matter if the table contains a clustered index or not, the query will still have to return to the table or clustered index to retrieve the data.

One way to avoid a Bookmark Lookup is to create a covering index. This way, all the columns from the query are available directly from the non-clustered index, which means that Bookmark Lookups are unnecessary, which reduces disk I/O and helps to boost performance of your queries.

For more information, see Tips on Optimizing Covering SQL Server Indexes.


Covering indexes are used to boost query performance because the index includes all the columns in the query. Non-clustered indexes include a row with an index key value for every row in a table. In addition, SQL Server can use these entries in the index’s leaf level to perform aggregate calculations. This means that SQL Server does not have to go to the actual table to perform the aggregate calculations, which can boost performance.

While covering indexes boost retrieval performance, they can slow down INSERT, DELETE, and UPDATE queries. This is because extra work is required for these procedures to maintain a covering index. This is generally not a problem, unless your database is subject to a very high level of INSERTs, DELETEs, and UPDATEs. You may have to experiment with covering indexes to see if they help more than they hurt performance before you implement them in your production systems.

While introducing a covering index provides both positive and negative performance issues, as discussed above, the focus of this article is to find out what will happen under the following conditions when running a query under SQL Server 2005:

  1. Performance without any indexes.
  2. Performance with non-clustered indexes.
  3. Performance with covering indexes.


In this section, we take a look at how we will be testing the above three index conditions. First, we create a table with the following format.

CREATE TABLE [dbo].[OrderDetails](
     [OrderNo] [int] NOT NULL,
     [ItemCode] [varchar](50) NOT NULL,
     [Qty] [int] NULL,
     [Price] [float] NULL,
     [Status] [char](1) NULL

Then, we insert data into the table OrderDetails. This table needs a large volume of data so that SELECT statements without a covering index force a table scan, index scan, or bookmark lookup, which will result in a sufficiently long enough timeframe so we can better compare results. So we have selected a table with more than 2,000,000 records for our testing.

We will execute the following query and note the query execution plan, Execution Time, CPU Cost, and I/O Cost. A query execution plan outlines how the SQL Server query optimizer actually ran (or will run) a specific query. This information is very valuable when it comes to finding out why a specific query is running slow. We will analyze the execution plans for each case and identify how performance has increased or decreased. Execution time is the time taken to execute a query, and the smaller the execution time, the better should be the performance. When you have smaller I/O or CPU cost, this indicates that fewer server resources will be used, indicating better performance.

Below is the query that we are going to use throughout our testing. We have selected this query so that it will use a Bookmark Lookup as specified previously.

FROM dbo.OrderDetails
WHERE ItemCode = ‘A2-K137-FF1931’
     AND (OrderNo BETWEEN 250000 and 300000)

Our first test is to see what the performance is when there are no indexes on the table.

Then, our next step is to create two non-clustered indexes, as follows:

CREATE NONCLUSTERED INDEX IX_Order_Details_ItemCode ON OrderDetails (ItemCode)
CREATE NONCLUSTERED INDEX IX_Order_Details_OrderNo ON OrderDetails (OrderNo)

And last, we apply a covering index. As per the definition of the covering index, we have to apply the index for the all the columns in the query. So we will apply a covering index to the OrderNo, ItemCode, Qty, and Price columns of the OrderDetails table, like this:

CREATE NONCLUSTERED INDEX IX_Order_Details_Coverindex ON OrderDetails (

We will then re-execute the query and note the above parameters again to obtain performance numbers for data retrieval when the covering index exists.

For each of the above cases the following INSERT query will be executed and the same data will be returned.

INSERT INTO OrderDetails

NOTE: CHECKPOINT and DBCC DROPCLEANBUFFERS will be executed after every operation, which clears data from the cache. The DBCC DROPCLEANBUFFERS command is used to remove all the test data from SQL Server’s data cache (buffer) between tests to ensure fair testing. Keep in mind that this command only removes clean buffers, not dirty buffers. Because of this, before running the DBCC DROPCLEANBUFFERS command, you may first want to run the CHECKPOINT command first. Running CHECKPOINT will write all dirty buffers to disk. And then when you run DBCC DROPCLEANBUFFERS, you can be assured that all data buffers are cleaned out, not just the clean ones.


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