Category Archives: SQL Server Internals

Full disks and databases

How do you deal with a full hard disk/volume/partition?

I have recently had a number of discussions about dealing with hard drives or databases themselves filling up on SQL Servers. There seems to be a few different opinions on how to deal with this and I’d like to share those here and give my preferred solution.

N.B. (For brevity, I will refer to disks, but mean either disk, volume or partition where applicable)

The main error that people are confronted with when either a disk or a database file has filled to the brim is something like this:

Could not allocate a new page for database 'DatabaseName' because of insufficient disk space in filegroup 'PRIMARY'. Create the necessary space by dropping objects in the filegroup, adding additional files to the filegroup, or setting autogrowth on for existing files in the filegroup.

There are a few reasons this could happen (not an exhaustive list):

  1. The database file is full but the disk holding the database file does not have enough room to accommodate the file growth required for auto-growth to occur.
  2. The database file is full but the disk holding the database file has a quota activated that has been reached, so does not have enough room to accommodate the file growth required for auto-growth to occur.
  3. The database file is full but database does not have auto-growth setup.

The problem with the first two situations I mentioned is that they are generally not easy/quick situations to fix. If a disk is full, then extending that disk may not be possible, or only possible with a lot of administrative overhead. The same applies for disk quotas, even more so with quotas, as quotas usually have some sort of “internal politics” attached to them.

The third reason occurs surprisingly often. For some reason, certain companies just don’t want their databases to grow automatically. They want to keep everything under human control, so they turn off all sorts of automatic support options like auto-growth. I also heard a customer mention that they preferred the data files to be static in size and it was easier for them to extend these than the disk (again confirming my point about disk/partition/volume extensions being difficult).

Regardless of the reasoning for databases/database files actually filling up and the error occurring, what can be done in an attempt to help prevent this from happening, or at least allow for a speedier resolution of the issue?

Dummy/Buffer files

If you have a volume size limitation and need to ensure that you can quickly arrange for more disk space very quickly, one option is to use “dummy” or “buffer” files. These are files that are of a certain size, but have no actual content. They are created on the disk that you want to have “insurance” for and kept around until disk space is either low (a pre-defined threshold) or the disk is actually full. When either of these situations occurs, you simply delete one or more of these “dummy” files and you immediately have more disk space.

To create these files you can use fsutil a great little tool that is bundled with windows and allows sysadmins to do a number of things with disks. You call fsutil from the command line and provide it with the correct parameters and an “empty” file will be created.

Syntax of fsutil (length is in bytes)
fsutil file createnew <filename> <length>

Example to create a single 50MB file
fsutil file createnew d:\temp\dummyfile 52428800


Once the file(s) has been created you have a buffer of space so that you can quickly react to a disk filling up (even with some sort of scripted automation). Of course, with the consideration that the disk now has less space available for “real” data, meaning a full disk can actually occur quicker.

Using Max Size Limits for a Database

Among the settings that a database can have, you can control in what size “steps” a database should grow by if auto-growth is activated. You can also set a maximum size for the database file(s) to grow to.  This is similar to the idea of a disk quota, but on a database file level. Setting this limit can be useful to prevent a database from growing so large that it will completely fill a disk. I actually prefer the idea of setting an upper limit on the database file(s) rather than allowing unlimited growth. The reason for my preference is down to the fact that it is easier to change the maximum growth limitation than it is to extend a disk.

Setting the maximum size for a database is a simple operation, either in SSMS via the GUI:


Or via T-SQL:

ALTER DATABASE [sandbox] MODIFY FILE ( NAME = N'sandbox', MAXSIZE = 102400KB )

With this soft-limit for a database file, you are able to control file growth with greater precision. The main benefit is, that you can increase the maxsize at a moment’s notice and allow normal operations to continue if a database file should accidentally/suddenly fill up. This is not an ideal solution, but still improves control and allows normal operations to resume.

I like dummies!

I prefer the dummy file solution out of the two that I have explained above. Using a dummy file allows you to have auto-growth turned on (to cover those immediate growth requirements), while stilling offering you the chance to also avoid a disk from filling up completely through an auto-growth event.

Using the maxsize solution is ok, so long as you are able to connect to the instance to extend the maxsize. This is often possible for user databases, but what about TempDB? I have experienced systems where the system has locked up because TempDB is full and attempts to connect were fruitless (Remote DAC was not activated and no local access to the SQL instance), so it was not possible to extend TempDB.

Having a few dummy files around would allow me to quickly supply TempDB with the required disk space for an auto-growth and for me to connect to the instance again and take charge of the situation. The other alternative (which customers often chose in the past), was to reboot the server / restart the instance. The issue with this being, the culprit for the “crash” is no longer identifiable, unless you have a solution implemented to do just that (which I will blog about soon!).


In my experience most installations / customers do not have a solution implemented to counteract a disk/database filling up. The two solutions I have explained are good starting points to help avoid catastrophe in future. Please take these ideas and see if you can improve the stability and availability of your systems using them, or even better, provide your ideas/solutions in the remarks of this blogpost.

Thanks for reading and have fun with your diskspace!

Full day of training in Dublin!

UPDATE! Unfortunately SQL Saturday Dublin has been cancelled. This event will be re-scheduled at a later date.


Hot on the heels of the news of my training day at SQLSaturday Exeter, I am announcing another training day. This time I will be presenting a day of SQL Replication and Cloud Data Management on the Friday before SQLSaturday Dublin in June 2015.

I presented a session on Replication Troubleshooting at SQLSaturday Dublin last year and ran out of time with the one hour session and could have gone into more depth. After seeing the interest of Replication in the Irish SQL Server community, I submitted a proposal to the organisers of the Dublin event and the rest is history!

This will be a day taking a deeper look into the inner workings of SQL Server Replication, followed by an introduction into how you can move data between your on-premises database servers and the Microsoft Azure platform.

You can take a look at the details of the training day and register for a seat here: Deep Dive into SQL Replication and Cloud Connected Data Movement

I really enjoyed SQLSaturday Dublin last year and I am looking forward to another visit in June.

See you there!

SQL Server Simple Recovery Model Requires Log Backups

“SQL Server Simple Recovery Model never requires a log backup!!!” I hear you say. Well sit back, relax and let me show you that it does…… sometimes…… although it shouldn’t!

Issue Description

I ran into a confusing situation yesterday which has a published solution, but I had never heard about it. It is one of those things that should stick in your mind considering how much havoc this may cause.

I am talking about what happens if you setup your model database so that future new databases are created in a way you want. If you stray from the SQL Server defaults, then this bug might catch you out. The issue I am talking about is the recovery model of the model database. By default SQL Server has a model database set to FULL recovery and with (in my opinion) vastly outdated initial size and auto-growth settings.

My department’s policy is to set the model database to SIMPLE and to set initial size and auto-growth to something more sensible than 1MB and 10% (for argument’s sake 128MB initial size and 128MB growth).

With SQL Server 2012 (RTM and SP1), setting the model to SIMPLE looks fine on the outside, but under the covers that is not what happens. A new database will be created using model, setting the new DB to SIMPLE recovery and you won’t immediately notice any issues. However, as soon as you start running DML you can see that something isn’t quite right by interrogating sys.databases and looking at the log_reuse_desc column for the database.

You can tag along for the ride by running the following code on a TEST!!! 2012 RTM or SP1 instance


USE master

IF EXISTS (SELECT * FROM sys.databases AS D WHERE name ='MyTestDB')


-- Create a test database using defaults from model

-- Verify that the database is in SIMPLE recovery model and log reuse is 'NOTHING'
SELECT name,
FROM sys.databases
WHERE name = 'MyTestDB';

-- Create a table in the test db and add some data (creating log file entries)
CREATE TABLE dbo.TestTable
 (Col1 int NOT NULL IDENTITY (1,1),
 Col2 char(256) NOT NULL

INSERT INTO dbo.TestTable
VALUES (default)
GO 2000

-- Now look at the log reuse information again - all is fine......
SELECT name,
FROM sys.databases
WHERE name = 'MyTestDB';

-- Perform a backup of the database, because that is what we DBAs do regularly (here to nul so we don't fill up disk space)

-- Add yet more test data
INSERT INTO dbo.TestTable
VALUES (default)
GO 2000

-- Now look at the log reuse information again - oh look..... apparently we need a log backup!!!
SELECT name,
FROM sys.databases
WHERE name = 'MyTestDB';

As you can see from running that code block, the log reuse description is now ‘LOG_BACKUP’ which is not possible for a SIMPLE recovery database! In fact, you can run a log backup if you like too, it will run successfully but won’t clear the log out for re-use!! So if you don’t do something about this, you will either fill your log file (if it isn’t set to auto-grow), or you will fill your disk drive where your log file resides. How fast this will happen depends solely on what activity is going on in that particular database. Your monitoring processes for drive space will warn you, but if the growth is fast enough, even these early warning systems may not be enough.

Solutions to the problem

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there is a solution to the problem (or rather, there are multiple solutions).

  1. Don’t set model to SIMPLE in the first place, making sure it is a step you make after creating databases that don’t require FULL recovery.
  2. Continue with model set to SIMPLE, but incorporate a process that “fixes” your databases after creation.
  3. Install at least CU4 for SQL Server 2012 SP1 or CU7 for SQL Server 2012 RTM both of which incorporate the bug-fix for this problem (along with a whole host of other fixes).

The steps required to follow option 2 would be:

  • Set the affected database to FULL recovery model
  • Perform a FULL backup of the database
  • Set the database back to SIMPLE recovery model

Here is the code to achieve that and also prove the title of this blog post:

-- Now look at the log reuse information again - oh look..... apparently we need a log backup!!!
SELECT name,
FROM sys.databases
WHERE name = 'MyTestDB';

-- Perform the "required" log backup

-- The log has been cleared...... So we have FULL recovery in disguise
SELECT name,
FROM sys.databases
WHERE name = 'MyTestDB';

-- How about we fix this permanently. Change to FULL, run a backup, change back to SIMPLE




-- Now fill our table with more data and check the log reuse column again
INSERT INTO dbo.TestTable
VALUES (default)
GO 2000

SELECT name,
FROM sys.databases
WHERE name = 'MyTestDB';

As for option 3: I realise that using RTM is something people just shouldn’t be doing, but the fact that this bug is in SP1 is a nasty one. Also, not everyone will install Cumulative Updates (CUs) because they are not as rigorously tested as Service Packs (SPs). I know of companies that have policies strictly forbidding installing CUs on production machines for this reason alone. This makes it all the more serious that it is a bug that managed to get through to SP1. Obviously, as soon as SP2 for SQL 2012 comes out (but when will that be?) this bug-fix will be available, but until that time, you have to live with CUs or other workarounds.

I have to say again, I am surprised I hadn’t heard about this issue before – it flew under my radar or was just not picked up by the “normal news channels”. Either way, I thought I’d throw this out there to help the google juices for anyone who has similar issues.

And so, that is how the SIMPLE recovery model sometimes does need a log backup……… sort of.

Have fun 🙂

Reducing data footprints on test systems

Picture the scene:

You are a DBA. You have to make everyone happy, including DEVs (yes, including them too). Part of that is to ensure that your DEVs have a fresh copy of your production data so that they can test their programming with current data and structures. The issue with that is your production database is multiple hundreds of GB in size and your test system doesn’t have the capacity to store a full copy of your database. Your IT Budget will also not stretch to purchasing more storage! What can you do?

I had a similar situation recently and took a look at the possibilties and here is what I came up with:

1. Try out tools like SQL Virtual Restore to allow you to “mount” a backup from a remote server avoiding the space issue all together. This is, of course, a solution that requires a license (no budget maybe?)

2. Use the great features offered to you by SQL Server Developer Edition: data compression to the rescue!

So of course, I chose door number 2.

As you may know, Developer Edition offers the same features as Enterprise Edition with the caveat that the instance cannot be used for production purposes in any way. This means that the seriously powerful and useful data compression becomes available for your test servers! This counts even if you only use Standard Edition in production – joy of joys! The good thing being that Developer Edition only costs around $50 (or less if you have an MSDN subscription) – even more joys!

If you have never seen/used compression take a quick look over on MSDN to see what it all is (Data Compression). Basically, you can compress data in indexes and tables at the storage level avoiding any query rewrites and still profiting from the storage savings. This can be a major advantage in terms of raw storage needs, but can also benefit you in high read environments with low RAM sizes. The data remains compressed when held in the buffer pool and is only de-compressed when being accessed. This means that you can keep more data in the buffer pool and reduce hard disk I/O (obviously not for free, compressing and de-compressing costs CPU cycles).  This may be acceptable on a test system with extremely constrained storage space.

The usage in my example scenario is now an even better proposition, not only can I reduce my storage footprint, I can also potentially increase test system performance on the I/O side of the equation (who doesn’t have I/O issues, especially on a test box!).

The next hurdle is of course identifying which indexes and tables that are in the database you want to squeeze down. This is possible via SSMS’ object explorer, but only if you want to spend an eternity doing so! The best way is to take a look at the meta-data tables/views/functions to interrogate the system objects. These are really interesting on their own (at least they are to me), but after writing my Index Script Creator, I realised the potential for using the information in these system objects to allow me to automate certain tasks like this one.

Similarly to the Index Script Creator, my Index Compressor Script (uploaded as a doc  but it is a .sql file really – stupid wordpress restrictions!) runs off and investigates all tables and indexes (down to the partition level) and then generates an index rebuild command to compress any currently non-compressed partitions of indexes / tables. The resulting commands can then be run and space can be reclaimed – just be aware that rebuilding indexes does cause log activity.

After compressing your tables and indexes you should have a much smaller amount of data (depending on how well your data compresses) and be able to reclaim some disk space.

I realise that this method will mean that you have to have a large enough disk to have the database in its uncompressed state to begin with, but you can end up with a cost effective solution to a budget-constrained test environment.

Happy zipping!

Presenting the Index Creator Script

Born of a need to originally script out indexes in a way similar to how SSMS creates them, I created a script to do just that. The original was very quick-n-dirty as can be seen here:
I had not accounted for very much, other than the indexes as they were. All options, schema information etc. was ignored, as we have nothing special at work and I really needed those indexes quickly.

Since posting on ASK, I have tinkered on-and-off with the script for a while. I am now at a point where I think other people could really profit from it and no longer have it stuck to some hard-coded schemas etc.

Presenting the Index Creator Script v1.0! This script will go through the current database, finding all indexes (optionally system indexes too) and supply you with create index scripts.

It is clever enough to spot the difference between / usage of :

– Primary Keys
– Unique Constraints
– Clustered and Non-Clustered Indexes
– Filtered Indexes (produces the filter too)
– Included Columns
– Partitioned Tables/Indexes (although the partition schema and functions are not produced – yet!)
– Data Compression (on a partition level if used – yes this is possible!)
– Fill Factor
– Index Padding
– Locking (Row and Page)

I have supplied two versions of the code; one for SQL 2005 and one for SQL 2008 and above. This is done as SQL 2008 offers Data Compression, which is implemented in the indexes and partitions. Some of the script relies on this information and would not be backwards compatible.

It has been very interesting coding this script, as it has enlightened me on the structures in SQL server with regards to indexes. For example, as of SQL 2005, regardless of edition, SQL Server creates indexes using partitions. Although partitions cannot be used by editions lower than Enterprise/Developer Edition, all indexes are created with at least one partition. This makes sense, as that would mean there would have to be a separate structures depending upon edition. This way, regardless of edition, the storage engine works the same, you just don’t get the option of creating partitions on an edition lower than Enterprise/Developer. As soon as you migrate a database to Enterprise Edition, you get the possibility of then splitting the indexes on to multiple partitions.

Even better than that, I found out that indexes can be compressed by partition. I sort of knew this already, but in writing the script I saw this in even more clarity. Each partition of an index can use a different level of compression. This can be very interesting, especially if the costs of compression are high, but the benefits in storage are high too. Think of a CPU bound system where some partitions are accessed often and would need a lower compression to reduce CPU load, with other partitions that are accessed rarely which can benefit from the higher compression ratio.

I hope these scripts are of some benefit. If you have comments/questions/suggestions, please get in touch.

Index Creator Script – This is a zip file. Download, change file extension and open in your favourite ZIP manager (damn you wordpress!). There are 2 .sql files in there (one for 2005 and one for 2008). Disclaimer – use at your own risk, I am not responsible if it breaks your PC/Server.

In reality, this script can’t break things, but you have been warned!

UPDATE: Thanks to @Fatherjack for the quick heads-up on a syntax error. Things should look good now though! 🙂

Who accessed my indexes?

I saw and answered a question today at ASK about the DMV sys.dm_db_index_usage_stats, a really useful DMV that shows you the usage of indexes in a database since the statistics were last reset (this happens when SQL Server is restarted, or the database is attached/detached or brought online).

The question asked what the data in the column system_scans actually meant.  To better understand this, we have to understand what the usage stats are.  This is my take on the matter (please get in touch with your views/comments).

The usage statistics for an index keep track of how often an index has been accessed, be it from a user through queries or through the system itself for internal use.  The statistics are updated when one or more of the following occur:

  • an index is used to satisfy a query
  • an index is updated when data has been changed/deleted/inserted
  • an index has been rebuilt/reorganised
  • the statistics for an index have been recalculated

Note that the list above can be split into two categories.  User actions (the first two) and system actions (the second two).  These categories are also separated in the index usage statistics.  This allows you to see at a glance, who (users/system) is responsible for the most index usage, and also what usage you are seeing.

The original question posted at ASK was wanting to know what the system_scan column data really meant.  This counter keeps track of how often the index has been scanned (entirely or partially) by SQL Server internally.  This type of operation would be for index rebuilds/reorgs or statistics updates.  The system runs off and scans the index to collect the information it needs.  This may have been triggered by a user requesting a statistics refresh, but the real work is still classed as being done by SQL Server internally.

If a user were to write a query that scanned an index, then the column user_scans would be incremented by one as it was a request by the user for data from the index.  Equally, if an index seek is performed, the counter user_seeks would be incremented.

As a rule of thumb, if you have low user reads (user_scans+user_seeks) and high system values or high user updates, then an index may be a good candidate for being dropped.

But remember, the usage statistics are only as valid as your system uptime.  First, a freshly started system will have low values across the board.  Secondly, a system that has been running for over a year may have skewed values just through the long uptime.  An index may have had high usage 6 months ago, but is now behaving totally differently after a further 6 months of use.