Which SQL Server data pump gets data in and out faster?

Every SQL Server application manager needs to move a large amount of data into or out of a SQL Server database at least once, so SQL Server has several tools for bulk data-transfer operations. In this article, I compare two familiar SQL Server utility programs—bulk copy program (bcp) and Data Transformation Services (DTS)—in a common scenario: moving data to and from an ASCII text file. I compare the performance and capabilities of these utilities to the T-SQL BULK INSERT statement, which, according to Microsoft, is the fastest bulk copy method (see "Data Import/Export Architecture" in SQL Server 2000 Books Online BOL — for more information).

Bulk Copy Architecture


SQL Server has several underlying APIs. Some of them—the original DB-Library API, OLE DB Provider for SQL Server, and the ODBC driver—include a set of bulk copy functions. In SQL Server 6.5 and earlier, the bcp utility uses the DB-Library API. In SQL Server 7.0, Microsoft introduced a new version of bcp that uses the ODBC bulk copy API instead to support new data types, which DB-Library doesn't support. (Microsoft has stabilized DB-Library at its current level of functionality, so the company won't be adding any new features.) Ultimately, SQL Server's storage engine handles calls from each of these APIs. Figure 1, page 38, shows an overview of SQL Server 2000's bulk copy architecture.

Within the storage engine, the T-SQL BULK INSERT statement, bcp, and the DTS Bulk Insert task all execute the same code. The T-SQL BULK INSERT statement can potentially perform faster than the others because BULK INSERT executes completely within the SQL Server process. Bcp and DTS, utility programs that execute in their own processes, must bear the overhead of interprocess communications to pass data from the source text file to SQL Server. When you run bcp or DTS on a client computer rather than on the SQL Server system, the need to copy the data across a network connection adds significant overhead and further slows the bulk copy operation.

In my test results, the potential advantage of the T-SQL BULK INSERT statement didn't always translate into faster loading. According to Microsoft Product Support Services (PSS), the advantage is significant with very large tables (Microsoft routinely tests with 50 million-row tables), when you load multiple tables into a database in parallel, and when you use file groups to segregate onto different disk volumes the tables that you plan to load in parallel. Other factors also influence the overall performance of a bulk copy operation: Floating-point fields are faster than character fields, and files created to store data in SQL Server's native, internal, binary data format import more quickly than files in external ASCII character format.

Creating Test Files


I created the database and defined all the objects for my test by using a T-SQL script in SQL Server Query Analyzer. Then, I backed up this empty database to create a reproducible starting point for my tests. Using a test data generator for a table with 608-byte rows (which consist of a combination of varchar and integer data types), I generated 5000-row, 100,000-row, and 1 million-row tables. I used the DTS Import/Export Wizard to export each table to text files in Comma Separated Values (CSV) format and fixed-field format. These text files became my data standard for DTS testing.

Because bcp doesn't directly create text files in the same CSV format that DTS can generate (i.e., bcp doesn't offer a simple way to automatically create text data files with comma-delimited fields and quoted text fields), I created a second set of text files for bcp and BULK INSERT testing. I used DTS to load the CSV-format data files and bcp to export them to both bcp's variable-width-field format and a fixed-field format. I used the variable-width-field format files for bcp and BULK INSERT testing.

My test system consisted of SQL Server 2000 Enterprise Edition running on Windows 2000 Advanced Server with Service Pack 1 (SP1). My test platform was a Compaq ProLiant 7000 with two 500MHz Intel Pentium II processors and 512MB of DRAM. My system included a Compaq Smart Array 3100ES Controller. I put the SQL Server data on a 12-drive RAID 0 array, and I put log files on a separate 3-drive RAID 0 array.

Using DTS


DTS and its GUI made bulk copying between SQL Server and a text file easy. SQL Server's DTS wizard uses the Transform Data task to simplify moving data. The DTS Package Designer, which provides DTS features that the wizard doesn't expose, lets you create complex procedures.

The DTS Transform Data task lets you modify the data-field format during the import or export process. DTS also exposes the functionality of the more efficient T-SQL BULK INSERT statement in the DTS Bulk Insert task. I used the DTS wizard for most of my DTS testing, engaging the Bulk Insert task only to verify that its performance was equivalent to using the T-SQL BULK INSERT statement in Query Analyzer. The DTS wizard makes exporting a table easy; you simply select the source database and table, click Text File output, provide a filename, and choose whether you want a fixed-field or comma-delimited output file.

Importing the data from the comma-delimited file was just as easy as exporting because the text-file format matched the table format. When the first row in the text file contains the column names of the destination table (a check-box selection), the column order in the text file becomes unimportant. Under those conditions, the import will tolerate missing columns that allow NULLs and columns defined with a default constraint. Importing data from a fixed-field format file, which you create by using DTS to export the table in a fixed-field format, was just slightly more complex. DTS detects column positions that contain data preceded by a blank and places default column breaks in those positions. My data contained some such column positions that weren't the beginning of new data columns and, thus, by default, defined more data columns in the input file than the output table had. I double-clicked the extraneous column breaks to remove them, and the import proceeded without error.

The DTS Import/Export Wizard enables the Use fast load option by default. This option, available only when your system uses the SQL Server OLE DB Provider (SQLOLEDB), calls that provider's IRowsetFastLoad API to more efficiently handle simple bulk copy operations.

DTS has many functions that bcp doesn't provide, including facilities for moving data between SQL Server databases, between SQL Server and non-SQL Server databases, and between two ODBC data sources. In addition, DTS contains functions for modifying and transforming data fields during the bulk copy operation.

Using bcp


You can choose between two modes of bcp operation: interactive and noninteractive. In interactive mode, a series of prompts asks you to describe the text file's format to bcp. The bcp operation can save this information in a text-based format file for future use. In addition, bcp supports several standard file formats: standard ASCII character data files, Unicode character data files, SQL Server native data formats, and a combination of the last two. When using one of these default data types, bcp doesn't prompt for information; it uses a set of default values and optionally creates a corresponding format file. Similarly, when you specify a format file that describes the text data file's layout, you can run bcp in noninteractive mode.

The format file describes the layout of the data file you want to import or export and defines the correspondence between data file fields and SQL Server table columns. The format file gives you much power and flexibility in the data file's physical format and collation. (For more information about the data file's layout, see the sidebar "Format File Overview," page 44.)

After you have a working format file, bcp is easy to use. I created a series of simple .bat files, one for each of my tests, because bcp runs as a command-line utility. On the command line, I specified the database and table names, as well as IN or OUT to designate the copy direction. I also supplied the format-file name, the data-file name, and a user ID and password to authenticate access to the SQL Server table. The bcp operation has options that I didn't use, including the ability to specify SQL Server bulk copy hints.

Using T-SQL BULK INSERT


The BULK INSERT statement exposes bcp's functionality in a T-SQL statement. BULK INSERT moves data from a file to a SQL Server table. However, BULK INSERT can't export data from a SQL Server table to a file. The T-SQL statement relies on a bcp-style format file to determine the data file's structure. In my BULK INSERT testing, I used the same data and format files that I employed to test bcp. With these inputs, I found that using the BULK INSERT statement from Query Analyzer was no more difficult than using bcp. Then, I created a T-SQL script to execute the BULK INSERT statement and calculate how long it took to run.

T-SQL BULK INSERT supports most of the same options and the format file that bcp does. BULK INSERT lacks bcp's ability to create an error file containing the rows that failed to insert into the table. The T-SQL statement isn't compatible with data files that earlier versions of bcp created; these data files might contain field formats that SQL Server 2000 doesn't support. BULK INSERT also lacks bcp's ability to use regional formats when bulk copying currency, date, and time data. Finally, BULK INSERT lacks bcp's ability to set the network packet size for bulk copy operations to remote SQL Server systems.

Test Results


Because the length of time any particular import or export operation takes to complete depends so much on SQL Server's hardware configuration, I've chosen to represent the times in the test result graphs as a percentage of the longest import or export time (i.e., import test results are relative to the length of time DTS took to import 1 million ANSI-padded records, and export test results are relative to the length of time DTS took to export 1 million ANSI-padded records). I recorded the relative time the various bulk copy operations required to export 5000, 100,000, and 1 million records; Graph 1, page 42, shows the export comparison for 1 million records. I also recorded the relative time the various bulk copy operations required to import 5000, 100,000, and 1 million records; Graph 2, page 42, shows the import comparison for 1 million records. (The graphs shown are representative of all the results.) Because BOL states that T-SQL BULK INSERT is the fastest of the bulk copy methods, I expected BULK INSERT to win the race in my tests. But bcp and BULK INSERT finished in a virtual dead heat—and DTS wasn't far behind.

Some result trends are obvious (e.g., the more bytes SQL Server must process, the longer it takes). What surprised me was how much longer SQL Server took to import the fixed-length data file—in which each varchar field is padded with blanks to the full 50-byte column length—than it took to import the variable-length data file. Although the number of records, columns, and keys SQL Server needed to insert remained constant, the number of bytes it processed correlates strongly with the length of time SQL Server required to complete the task.

For example, using the 1 million-row database, the DTS fixed-format data file was 2.7 times the size of the CSV file and took 2.5 times as long to import. By averaging the bcp and T-SQL BULK INSERT import times together, I found that the fixed-format data file was 3 times the size of the variable-length file and took 2.7 times as long to import.

Performance Monitoring


After capturing timing data for the 1 million-row tests, I ran the import again with the Win2K Performance Monitor active, logging CPU and disk utilization statistics. Graph 3 shows the CPU utilization I observed, and Graph 4 displays the I/O statistics.

The CPU utilization profile was interesting. For both bcp and DTS, CPU utilization during the import occurred in three distinct phases of approximately equal duration. During Phase 1, which roughly correlates to the time that the bulk copy operation was reading the input file and writing it to tempdb, CPU utilization averaged 44 percent. During Phase 2, which covers housekeeping activities, CPU utilization dropped to just 6 percent. During Phase 3, which reflects the completed batch being committed from tempdb to the target database table, CPU utilization averaged 46 percent, with one CPU running at 74 percent and the other at 18 percent.

When using T-SQL BULK INSERT, Phase 1 occurs within the SQL Server process and, according to my observations, takes only 82 percent of the CPU cycles that bcp or DTS requires. Note the heavy use of one CPU during Phase 3. I suspect that the more robust case (i.e., when you load several tables concurrently to different file groups on different disk devices) would use multiple processors more heavily. Also, note the reduction in Phase 3 CPU utilization during a minimally logged BULK INSERT operation—from 44 percent to 27 percent of the CPU.

I also observed disk utilization by viewing disk read and write I/Os per second and the average disk queue length for the system volume, a 3-disk drive RAID 0 array, and the two RAID arrays that hosted the SQL Server transaction log file and the database's data file. The I/Os-per-second metric showed fairly heavy I/O activity against the system volume (about 90 I/Os per second) throughout the bulk copy operation, except for a brief lull at about the three-quarter mark. This RAID 0 array also hosted the tempdb database and the ASCII data files. All I/O on the database data and transaction log arrays occurred in Phase 3.

In general, an average disk I/O queue length of more than twice the number of disk drives in an array signals a potential bottleneck (i.e., a resource that limits the operation from completing faster). The system volume (with the tempdb database and the input ASCII files) had an average disk queue length of 1.4 and, in spite of steady I/O traffic, my testing didn't heavily stress the queue. My testing also didn't stress the disk with the database transaction log file—the average disk queue length never hit 1.

My tests most heavily used the volume holding the database's data file, with average I/O queue lengths during DTS, bcp, and BULK INSERT operations of 39.6, 67.7, and 31.9 events, respectively, as Graph 4 shows. These I/O queue lengths indicate a performance bottleneck on this array because it had 12 drives. Most computer operations have a bottleneck in the I/O subsystem. By identifying the source of performance problems, you'll know which resources to address if you need to speed up the load.

A Few Surprises


I was surprised a few times during testing (to help avoid surprises, see the sidebar "Some Gotchas to Remember," page 39). First, importing the data from the fixed-field format file took considerably longer than importing the same data from the CSV format file, and after the import, the database occupied much more disk space—almost three times as much. Trailing blanks in the varchar fields in the fixed-field format file caused this inordinate space consumption.

You specify trailing blanks by setting ANSI_PADDING to ON. ON isn't the default for SQL Server 2000. ANSI_PADDING is one of seven SET options that SQL Server requires when you work with indexed views, so administrators often turn it on. The value of ANSI_PADDING in effect when you define the field determines whether to truncate trailing blanks from varchar fields. The value in effect when you add or update the field isn't relevant. I ran a script in Query Analyzer to define the database. The database's Connection Properties defaults to setting ANSI_PADDING to ON, so the option was on when I ran the database definition script. If you aren't using indexed views and want to conserve disk space and reduce processing time, set ANSI_PADDING to OFF before you create or add fields to your table.

Logging Bulk Copy Operations


My second surprise came when I realized how complex minimally logging bulk copy operations was. When you import large numbers of records into a database, complete update logging can quickly fill the transaction log. However, when you set bulk copy operations for minimal logging, SQL Server logs only extent allocations (SQL Server's 64KB, 8-page units of disk space), not the data inserted. The extent allocation information lets SQL Server roll back the transaction, but the amount of information isn't sufficient to roll the transaction forward during database recovery operations.

SQL Server 7.0 provided the Select into/bulk copy database option to support minimally logged T-SQL BULK INSERT operations. SQL Server 2000 has two recovery models, simple and bulk-logged, that can result in minimally logged BULK INSERT operations. However, these settings alone aren't sufficient to keep SQL Server from fully logging BULK INSERT operations.

To get minimal logging, you must ensure that nothing replicates the target table, the target table has no triggers, the target table is either empty or has no indexes defined, and you used the TABLOCK hint so that the BULK INSERT operation will use table-level, rather than row-level, locking. With large bulk copy operations, you must also consider the BATCHSIZE setting in effect. By default, the entire input file is one batch; SQL Server considers it to be one transaction. Until you commit that transaction, SQL Server won't release the transaction log space that holds the rollback information. (For more information about recovery models, see Kalen Delaney, Inside SQL Server, "Database Recovery Models," June 2000.)

Using the TABLOCK Bulk Copy Hint


The TABLOCK hint is necessary for SQL Server to minimally log T-SQL BULK INSERT operations. The TABLOCK hint is also one of the conditions SQL Server requires when you load data into one table from multiple clients at one time—a parallel data-load operation.

When I tested the TABLOCK option, I found that SQL Server minimally used the transaction log—only 13MB were in use after I loaded the 1 million-record table with the TABLOCK option, compared with more than 370MB after I loaded the table without the option. However, after I loaded the table with the TABLOCK option, the table occupied almost 2GB of disk space. Loading the table from the same input file without the TABLOCK option used only 228MB of disk space.

The DBCC SHOWCONTIG command, which tells you whether your indexes are fragmented, showed both versions with a scan density of 99 percent plus, indicating that both tables had very little external fragmentation. (For information about multiple types of fragmentation, see Kalen Delaney, "Keep SQL Server Up and Running," December 2000.) The difference between the tables was in their page density, the average amount of space used for each 8KB page allocated to the table. The average page density of the table with TABLOCK was only 11 percent; the table without the TABLOCK option had a page density of 99 percent.

I created the table with a clustered primary key constraint on the IDENTITY column and a FILLFACTOR of 10 percent. SQL Server uses the FILLFACTOR only when it builds an index; SQL Server ignores the FILLFACTOR when it modifies the index. (For more information about FILLFACTOR, see Kalen Delaney, Inside SQL Server, "The Fill-Factor Truth," page 29.) Thus, when you omit the TABLOCK hint, SQL Server appears to treat the T-SQL BULK INSERT operation as updates to the database. When you specify the TABLOCK hint, SQL Server seems to treat the BULK INSERT operation as an initial table load.

Note that the data disk's I/O queue length during minimally logged T-SQL BULK INSERT operations dropped to 3.7 events, which specifies the number of sequential write operations waiting and implies no disk I/O bottleneck. Additional testing with TABLOCK in effect revealed that SQL Server used the FILLFACTOR during table loading only when loading a new table. SQL Server ignored FILLFACTOR when I ran the BULK INSERT with TABLOCK on an empty table that had previously contained records. Sources at Microsoft explained this behavior as follows: "In return for disallowing updates concurrent with the BULK INSERT, TABLOCK allows some optimizations. I imagine you have a clustered index. If TABLOCK is set, we use the same algorithm internally that we use to populate the index during index creation, which is why it pays attention to the fill factor. This results in faster load times, but introduces some inconsistencies in behavior."

Which One to Use


For simple table loading when either bcp or T-SQL BULK INSERT will do the job, choose the one that best fits the way you work. You can't beat DTS's capabilities and ease of use, but you pay a performance penalty when you use SQL Server's Import/Export Wizard—which invokes the DTS Transform Data task—especially for larger tables (e.g., the cost was about 15 percent on my 1 million-row test). To combine the performance of T-SQL BULK INSERT with the convenience of a DTS package, use DTS's Bulk Insert task.

When you import very large numbers of rows into a database, the way you design the operation impacts not only the speed but also the operation's ultimate success. The batch size determines how frequently SQL Server frees log space during the bulk copy operation and helps you ensure that you won't run out of log space. Meeting the requirements for minimally logging the bulk copy operation has a huge impact on log space disk requirements and some impact on performance—yielding a 3 percent faster score in my 1 million-row, variable-length record test.