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The N+1 Problem

The N+1 problem is when multiple queries are executed against a persistent store when a reduced amount could serve the same purpose. This degrades performance, uses more memory and can cause complexity to be added to the code that processes the results. Most sources of the problem come from the poor use of ORMs or developers thinking procedurally instead of in terms of how the underlying database operates.

Example

Consider a collection of posts that each contain zero or more comments.

  Post
    Comment
    Comment
  Post
    Comment
    Comment
    Comment
    Comment
    Comment
  Post

To retrieve a selection of ten posts including their comments, one option would be to query all posts then perform a query for each individual posts' comments. This would result in a total of eleven queries. While this solution works it is far from ideal. Disturbingly this solution is easily introduced when developers execute queries against databases using loops or misconfigured ORMs.

Solutions

Solutions to solving the N+1 problem are remarkably straightforward. In the case of manual queries such changes are usually easy to implement.

Single Query

Use a join operation to perform a single query. This one query would pull back all posts and their matching comments. This would be the ideal fix for the example described above.

Query and Stitch

Sometimes there is no clear grouping or relation between sets of data. This is often the case when normalized data needs to be denormalized prior to retrieval. In these cases the query and stitch method can be used.

  • One query to grab master set.
  • Another query to grab the related set.

Then simply match on a key in code. The key would be something that groups the data and is present in both sets or is the result of additional programming logic. Query and stitch is useful for paging or when relational thinking and grouping does not fit. This tends to be the case for REST APIs where data is aggregated or composed from multiple sources, or needs further processing after retrieval.

Despite two queries here, it is often possible to return separate datasets within a single query prior to stitching the data together as a further optimisation and simplification.

ORMs or Tooling

When ORMs are used discovering the N+1 problem is more obscured without logging the underlying queries that are performed. Once an issue is discovered it is usually a case of consulting documentation on what the fix is - often configuration related. Due to this it is worth enabling logging during development so queries can be analysed.

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