Forcing Smart Scans on Exadata – is the _serial_direct_read parameter safe to use in production?

One of the most common Exadata performance problems I see is that the direct path reads (and thus also Smart Scans) don’t sometimes kick in when running full scans in serial sessions. This is because in Oracle 11g onwards, the serial full segment scan IO path decision is done dynamically, at runtime, for every SQL execution – and for every segment (partition) separately. Whether you get a direct path read & smart scan, depends on the current buffer cache size, how big segment you’re about to scan and how much of that segment is actually cached at the moment. Note that the automatic IO path decision for index fast full scans is slightly different from table scans.

This dynamic decision unfortunately can cause unexpected surprises and variance in your report/batch job runtimes. Additionally, it looks like the SELECT part of your UPDATE/DELETE statements (the select part finds the rows to update/delete) does not ever automatically get direct path read/smart scan chosen – by design! So, when your SELECT statement may use smart scan and be really fast, the same select operation in an INSERT SELECT (or UPDATE/DELETE) context will not end up using smart scans by default. There’s even a bug explaining that – closed as “not a bug” (Exadata Smartscan Is Not Being Used On Insert As Select[Article ID 1348116.1]).

To work around these problems and force a direct path read/smart scan, you can either:

  1. Run your query in parallel as parallel full segment scans will use direct path reads, unless your parallel_degree_policy = AUTO, then you may still get buffered reads thanks to the dynamic in-memory parallel execution decision of Oracle 11.2
  2. Run your query in serial, but force the serial direct path reads by setting _serial_direct_read = TRUE (or ALWAYS in 11.2.0.2+)

Here are the valid options for this parameter in 11.2.0.2+

SQL> @pvalid _serial_direct_read

Display valid values for multioption parameters matching "_serial_direct_read"...

  PAR# PARAMETER                                                 ORD VALUE                          DEFAULT
------ -------------------------------------------------- ---------- ------------------------------ -------
  1993 _serial_direct_read                                         1 ALWAYS
       _serial_direct_read                                         2 AUTO
       _serial_direct_read                                         3 NEVER
       _serial_direct_read                                         4 TRUE
       _serial_direct_read                                         5 FALSE

And this leads to the question – as _serial_direct_read is an undocumented, hidden parameter – is it safe to use it in production?

In my mind, there are 3 kinds of parameters:

  1. Documented parameters – they should be safe and should work. If they don’t, it’s a bug and should get fixed by Oracle
  2. Undocumented parameters which nobody uses and knows much about
  3. Undocumented parameters which are documented in My Oracle Support (and are widely used in practice)

You shouldn’t use #2 parameters in production without a written blessing by Oracle Support – and I’d like to know some justification, why the recommended parameter ought to help.

The _serial_direct_read, however belongs to category #3 – it’s an undocumented parameter, but widely documented by public use and more importantly (formally), documented in My Oracle Support. If you search MOS for _serial_direct_read, you’ll find plenty of notes recommending the _serial_direct_read as a workaround – but the best of them is MOS note Best Practices for OLTP on the Sun Oracle Database Machine[Article ID 1269706.1], which says this:

Direct reads bypass the buffer cache and go directly into the process PGA. Cell offload operations occur for direct reads only. Parallel query processes always use direct reads and therefore offload any eligible operations (ex: scans). For normal foreground processes running serially, the RDBMS decides whether direct or buffered reads are the best option based on both the state of the buffer cache and the size of the table. In the event that the RDBMS does not make the correct choice to use direct reads/offload processing, you can set _serial_direct_read=TRUE (available at session level). Keep in mind that it is possible that setting this parameter will makes things worse if the app is better off with buffered reads, so make sure you know that you want direct reads/offload processing before setting it.

Comments:

  1. The abovementioned MOS note is actually incorrect stating that “Parallel query processes always use direct reads“, the in-memory parallel execution changes this, as explained above.
  2. The note recommends setting the _serial_direct_read = TRUE, but I’ve used ALWAYS for clarity. The TRUE before 11.2.0.2+ really meant “AUTO”, the dynamic decision and FALSE meant NEVER. But starting from Oracle 11.2.0.2 onwards, the TRUE = ALWAYS, FALSE = NEVER and AUTO means dynamic decision (like TRUE used to mean on 11.2.0.1 and before)
  3. This parameter forces direct reads only for full segment scans (full table scan and fast full index scan variations), your “random” index lookups and range scans etc will still use reads via buffer cache regardless of this parameter – which is great for OLTP and mixed workload systems
  4. The _serial_direct_read parameter controls the direct path read decision both for table and index segment scans

I’m not a fan of setting such parameters at system level, but in past I have created login triggers in mixed-workload environments, where the OLTP sessions will never do a direct path read (or I leave the decision automatic) and the reporting and batch sessions in the same database will have forced direct path reads for their full segment scans.

This article served two purposes, talking about direct path reads and also evaluating whether that cool-undocumented-parameter should be used in production at all. First, you must be able to argument, why would this parameter help at all – and second, is it at least documented as a valid workaround in some MOS article. If unsure, raise an SR and get the Support’s official blessing before taking the risk.

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One Response to Forcing Smart Scans on Exadata – is the _serial_direct_read parameter safe to use in production?

  1. Hi,
    Also you can find it documented in “Exadata and Database Machine Administration Workshop – D67016GC20 E2.0″ course.
    Lesson 5-16 – page 122 says:
    ” Direct path reads are mostly used by parallel operations.
    Serial operations can do direct reads too, depending on factors such
    as the table size and the state of the buffer cache. Direct path reads can also be forced
    for serial access by setting _serial_direct_read to TRUE.”

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