SQL Index Types

Index Types

In addition to an index being clustered or nonclustered, it can be configured in other ways:

  • Composite index: An index that contains more than one column. In both SQL Server 2005 and 2008, you can include up to 16 columns in an index, as long as the index doesn’t exceed the 900-byte limit. Both clustered and nonclustered indexes can be composite indexes.
  • Unique Index: An index that ensures the uniqueness of each value in the indexed column. If the index is a composite, the uniqueness is enforced across the columns as a whole, not on the individual columns. For example, if you were to create an index on the FirstName and LastName columns in a table, the names together must be unique, but the individual names can be duplicated.

A unique index is automatically created when you define a primary key or unique constraint:


    • Primary key: When you define a primary key constraint on one or more columns, SQL Server automatically creates a unique, clustered index if a clustered index does not already exist on the table or view. However, you can override the default behavior and define a unique, nonclustered index on the primary key.
    • Unique: When you define a unique constraint, SQL Server automatically creates a unique, nonclustered index. You can specify that a unique clustered index be created if a clustered index does not already exist on the table.
  • Covering index: A type of index that includes all the columns that are needed to process a particular query. For example, your query might retrieve the FirstName and LastName columns from a table, based on a value in the ContactID column. You can create a covering index that includes all three columns.

Index Design

As beneficial as indexes can be, they must be designed carefully. Because they can take up significant disk space, you don’t want to implement more indexes than necessary. In addition, indexes are automatically updated when the data rows themselves are updated, which can lead to additional overhead and can affect performance. As a result, index design should take into account a number of considerations.


As mentioned above, indexes can enhance performance because they can provide a quick way for the query engine to find data. However, you must also take into account whether and how much you’re going to be inserting, updating, and deleting data. When you modify data, the indexes must also be modified to reflect the changed data, which can significantly affect performance. You should consider the following guidelines when planning your indexing strategy:

  • For tables that are heavily updated, use as few columns as possible in the index, and don’t over-index the tables.
  • If a table contains a lot of data but data modifications are low, use as many indexes as necessary to improve query performance. However, use indexes judiciously on small tables because the query engine might take longer to navigate the index than to perform a table scan.
  • For clustered indexes, try to keep the length of the indexed columns as short as possible. Ideally, try to implement your clustered indexes on unique columns that do not permit null values. This is why the primary key is often used for the table’s clustered index, although query considerations should also be taken into account when determining which columns should participate in the clustered index.
  • The uniqueness of values in a column affects index performance. In general, the more duplicate values you have in a column, the more poorly the index performs. On the other hand, the more unique each value, the better the performance. When possible, implement unique indexes.
  • For composite indexes, take into consideration the order of the columns in the index definition. Columns that will be used in comparison expressions in the WHERE clause (such as WHERE FirstName = ‘Charlie’) should be listed first. Subsequent columns should be listed based on the uniqueness of their values, with the most unique listed first.
  • You can also index computed columns if they meet certain requirements. For example, the expression used to generate the values must be deterministic (which means it always returns the same result for a specified set of inputs). For more details about indexing computed columns, see the topic “Creating Indexes on Computed Columns” in SQL Server Books Online.


Another consideration when setting up indexes is how the database will be queried. As mentioned above, you must take into account the frequency of data modifications. In addition, you should consider the following guidelines:

  • Try to insert or modify as many rows as possible in a single statement, rather than using multiple queries.
  • Create nonclustered indexes on columns used frequently in your statement’s predicates and join conditions.
  • Consider indexing columns used in exact-match queries.



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