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Using Multiple Block Sizes in Oracle9i

Donald K. Burleson

The introduction of Oracle9i brought an amazing amount of complexity to the Oracle database engine. Oracle introduced many new internal features, including bitmap free lists, redo log-based replication, dynamic SGA, and perhaps the most important feature of all, the ability to support multiple block sizes.

When you strip away all of the advanced features, Oracles job is to deliver data, and the management of disk I/O is a very critical component and tuning of any Oracle database. Anything that can be done to reduce the amount of disk I/O is going to have a positive impact on the throughput of the Oracle database system.

If we take a look at the various tuning activities within Oracle database, will see that the common goal of almost all Oracle tuning has the directed and immediate goal of reducing disk I/O. For example, tuning an SQL statement to remove a full table scans makes the query run faster because of the direct reduction in the amount of data blocks that are read from the disk. Adjusting instance tuning parameters such as DB_CACHE_SIZE also has the goal of reducing the amount of disk overhead.

To understand how using multiple block sizes can improve performance of the Oracle database, we first have to start by taking a look at the basic nature of disk I/O. Anytime an Oracle data block is accessed from disk, we commonly see three sources of delay. The first and most important source of delay is the read-write head movement time. This is the time required for the read-write head to position itself under the appropriate cylinder. We also see rotational delay as the read-write head waits for the desired block the past beneath it, and the third source of delay is the data transmission time from the disk back to the Oracle SGA.

If we accept the premise that 99 percent of the latency is incurred prior to actually accessing the desired data block, then it makes sense that the marginal cost for reading a 32K block is not significantly greater than the cost of reading a 2K block. In other words, the amount of disk delay is approximately the same regardless of the size of the block. Therefore it should follow that the larger the block you can read in on a single I/O, the less overall I/O will be performed on the Oracle database.

The principle behind caching is not unique to Oracle databases. Access for RAM is measured in nanoseconds, while access from disk is generally measured in milliseconds. This amounts to an order of magnitude improvement in performance if we can get the Oracle data block into a RAM buffer. As Oracle grows more sophisticated and RAM becomes cheaper, we tend to see Oracle9i databases with system global areas (SGA) that commonly exceed 10 GB. This has important ramifications for the performance of the Oracle database because once read, the Oracle data blocks reside in RAM where they can be accessed tens of thousands of times faster than having to go to disk in order to retrieve the data block.

RAM buffers and Oracle data access Oracle has always provided RAM data buffers to hold incoming data blocks, and data can be read from the buffers 14,000 times faster than reading the data block from disk. The RAM data buffer has evolved from a single buffer in Oracle7 to three data buffers in Oracle8i. These were known as the KEEP pool, the RECYCLE pool, and the DEFAULT pool (refer to figure 1).

Figure 1: The Oracle8 data buffers.

In Oracle9i we still have the three data buffers, but we also have the ability to create a data buffer for every supported blocksize for the Oracle server (refer to figure 2).

Figure 2: The eight data buffers for Oracle9i.

Within each data buffer, the data buffer hit ratio measures the propensity of a data block to be in RAM memory. It is the job of the Oracle administrator to allocate RAM pages among the data buffers to ensure the optimal amount of RAM caching. With small buffers, a marginal increase of pages results in superior caching (refer to figure 3).

Figure 3: RAM pages added to a small data buffer.

As the RAM cache is increased, the marginal benefit from adding pages decreases (refer to figure 4).

Figure 4: The marginal decrease of disk I/O with large data buffers.

Indexes and Large Data Blocks

Prior to Oracle9i, Oracle professionals noticed that by moving the entire database to a larger block size, they reduce disk I/O improve the performance of the entire system. This is somewhat counterintuitive, and people ask if I only need an 80-byte row, where do I get the benefit of reading a 16K block?

The answer has to do with indexes. Most well-tuned Oracle databases have index based roughly equal to the space of the table data. Theres no question that a large block size for indexes is going to reduce I/O, and therefore improve the overall performance of the entire database.

Hence, one of the first things the Oracle9i database administrator will do is to create a 32K tablespace, a corresponding 32K data buffer, and then migrate all of the indexes in their system from their existing blocks into the 32K tablespace. Upon having done this, the Oracle9i database can read a significant amount of index note branches in a single disk I/O, thereby reducing stress on the system and improving overall performance.

Allocating Objects into Multiple Block Buffers

So given that we have the ability to create multiple data buffers within the Oracle database, how do we decide what data that we want to put each of these data buffers?

Lets start with some of the more common techniques.

Segregate large-table full-table scans - Tables that experience large-table full-table scans will benefit from the largest supported block size and should be placed in a tablespace with your largest block size.

Set db_recycle_cache_size carefully - If you are not setting db_cache_size to the largest supported block size for your server, you should not use the db_recycle_cache_size parameter. Instead, you will want to create a db_32k_cache_size (or whatever your max is), and assign all tables that experience frequent large-table full-table scans to the largest buffer cache in your database.

The Data Dictionary uses the default cache - You should ensure that the data dictionary (e.g. your SYSTEM tablespace) is always fully cached in a data buffer pool. Remember, the block size of the data dictionary is not as important as ensuring that the data buffer associated with the SYSTEM tablespace has enough RAM to fully-cache all data dictionary blocks.

Segregate Indexes - In many cases, Oracle SQL statements will retrieve index information via an index range scan, scanning the b-tree or bitmap index for ranges of values that match the SQL search criteria. Hence, it is beneficial to have as much of an index residing in RAM as possible. One of the very first things the Oracle 9i database administrator should do is to migrate all of their Oracle indexes into a large blocksize tablespace. Indexes will always favor the largest supported blocksize.

Segregate random access reads - For those databases that fetch small rows randomly from the disk, the Oracle DBA can segregate these types of tables into 2K Tablespaces. We have to remember that while disk is becoming cheaper every day, we still dont want to waste any available RAM by reading in more information to RAM number actually going be used by the query. Hence, many Oracle DBAs will use small block size in cases of tiny, random access record retrieval.

Segregate LOB column tables - For those Oracle tables that contain raw, long raw, or in-line LOBs, moving the table rows to large block size will have an extremely beneficial effect on disk I/O. Experienced DBAs will check dba_tables.avg_row_len to make sure that the blocksize is larger than the average size. Row chaining will be reduced while at the same time the entire LOB can be read within a single disk I/O, thereby avoiding the additional overhead of having Oracle to go out of read multiple blocks.

Segregate large-table full-table scan rows - When the recycle pool was first introduced in Oracle8i, the idea was the full table scan data blocks (which are not likely to be re-read by other transactions) could be quickly flushed through the Oracle SGA thereby reserving critical RAM for those data blocks which are likely to be re-read by another transaction. In Oracle9i, you can configure your recycle pool to use the a smaller block size.

Check the average row length - The block size for a tables tablespace should always be greater than the average row length for the table (dba_tables.avg_row_len). Note: If it is smaller than the average row length, rows chaining occurs and excessive disk I/O is incurred.

Use large blocks for data sorting - Your TEMP tablespace will benefit from the largest supported blocksize. This allows disk sorting to happen in large blocks with a minimum of disk I/O.

Tools for Viewing Data Buffer Usage

The process of segregating Oracle objects into separate data buffers is fairly straightforward and Oracle9i provides tools to assist in this effort. Many Oracle administrators are not aware of those table blocks which consume a disproportional amount of data space within the data buffer caches, and Oracle9i provides numerous scripts to allow you to see which objects reside most frequently within the data cache.

The query below counts the number of blocks for all segments that reside in the buffer cache at that point in time. Depending on your buffer cache size, this could require a lot of sort space.

column object_name format a40
column number_of_blocks format 999,999,999,999

column object_name      format a40
column number_of_blocks format 999,999,999,999

   COUNT(1) number_of_blocks
   V$BH bh
   o.object_id  = bh.objd
   o.owner != 'SYS'
   count(1) desc;

Here we see the object name and the number of data blocks in the buffer.

OBJECT_NAME                              NUMBER_OF_BLOCKS
---------------------------------------- ----------------
ORDER_TABLE                                       123,273
ORDER_IDX                                         112,492
CUSTOMER                                           83,272
. . . 
OEM_EXT                                               701

Creating Separate Data Buffers

The process of assigning table or index blocks into named block size tablespaces is very straightforward within Oracle9i. We begin by creating a tablespace and using the new blocksize parameter in the create tablespace syntax. In the example below we create a 32K tablespace within the Oracle database.

create tablespace

Once we have the named tablespaces created, the next step is to set a database cache to correspond to that block size. Remember, with Oracle 9i we no longer have the init.ora file, and we create the named cache dynamically with an alter database statement.

alter system set db_2k_cache_size=200M;       
alter system set db_4k_cache_size=500M;      
alter system set db_8k_cache_size=800M;      
alter system set db_16k_cache_size=1600M;    

Once weve created the named RAM buffer and the tablespace, we are now ready to migrate the Oracle objects into the new tablespace. There are a variety of methods for moving objects from one tablespace to another, and many Oracle administrators are already familiar with using the create table as select or CTAS syntax in order to move the table. For indexes, the alter index rebuild command can be used to quickly migrate an index tree between tablespaces.


Out of all of the sophisticated enhancements of Oracle9i, many experienced DBAs consider multiple block sizes to be the most important feature for tuning the Oracle database. The Oracle database administrator now has up to seven separate and distinct data pools that they can manage a control, giving the Oracle9i DBA a huge amount of control over the amount of data buffer blocks that can be assigned to specific database objects. Through judicious inspection all of buffer access characteristics, overall disk I/O can be tremendously reduced, and the performance of the database will be greatly improved.


Donald K. Burleson is one of the world’s top Oracle Database experts with more than 20 years of full-time DBA experience. He specializes in creating database architectures for very large online databases and he has worked with some of the world’s most powerful and complex systems. A former Adjunct Professor, Don Burleson has written 15 books, published more than 100 articles in national magazines, serves as Editor-in-Chief of Oracle Internals and edits for Rampant TechPress. Don is a popular lecturer and teacher and is a frequent speaker at Oracle Openworld and other international database conferences. Dons Web sites include DBA-Oracle, Remote-DBA, Oracle-training, remote support and remote DBA.

Contributors : Donald K. Burleson
Last modified 2005-06-22 12:19 AM
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