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Filter Early

Yesterday, my 12 year-old son Alex was excited to tell me that he had learned a new trick that made it easier to multiply fractions. Here’s the trick:

The neat thing for me is that this week I’m working on my slides for ODTUG Kaleidoscope 2010 (well, actually, for the Performance Symposium that’ll occur on Sunday 27 June), and I need more examples to help encourage application developers to write code that will Filter Early. This “trick” (it’s actually an application of the Multiplicative Inverse Law) is a good example of the Filter Early principle.

Filter Early is all about throwing away data that you don’t need, as soon as you can know that you don’t need it. That’s what this trick of arithmetic is all about. Without the trick, you would do more work to multiply 4/7 × 3/4 = (4 × 3)/(7 × 4) = 12/28, and then you would do even more work again to figure out that 12 and 28 both share a factor of 4, which is what you need to know before you then divide 12/4 = 3 and then 28/4 = 7 to reduce 12/28 to 3/7. It’s smarter, faster, and more fun to use the trick. Multiplying fractions without the trick is a Filter Late operation, which is just dumb and slow.

Here are some other examples of the Filter Early pattern’s funnier (unless you’re the victim of it), sinister antipattern, Filter Late. You shouldn’t do these things:

  • Drop a dozen brass needles into a haystack, shuffle the haystack, and then try to retrieve the needles. (Why did I specifically choose brass? Two reasons. Can you guess?)
  • Pack everything you own into boxes, hire a moving company to move them to a new home, and then, after moving into your new home, determine that 80% of your belongings are junk that should be thrown away.
  • Return thousands of rows to the browser, even though the user only wants one or two.
  • To add further insult to returning thousands of rows to the browser, return the rows in some useless order. Make the user click on an icon that takes time to sort those rows into an order that will allow him to figure out which one or two he actually wanted.
  • Execute a database join operation in a middle-tier application instead of the database. I’m talking about the Java application that fetches 100,000 rows from table A and 350,000 rows from table B, and then joins the two result sets in a for loop, in an operation that makes 100,000 comparisons to figure out that the result set of the join contains two rows, which the database could have told you much more efficiently.
  • Slog row-by-row through a multimillion-row table looking for the four rows you need, instead of using an index scan to compute the addresses of those four rows and then access them directly.

Converting a Filter Late application into a Filter Early application can make performance unbelievably better.

One of my favorite features of the Oracle Exadata machine is that it applies the Filter Early principle where a lot of people would have never thought to try it. It filters query results in the storage server instead of the database server. Before Exadata, the Oracle Database passed disk blocks (which contain some rows you do need, but also some rows you don’t) from the storage server to the database. Exadata passes only the rows you need back to the database server (Chris Antognini explains).

How many Filter Early and Filter Late examples do you know?