SQL Joins

What are SQL joins?

SQL joins are a fundamental concept in relational database systems, used to combine records from two or more tables in a database. A join is performed whenever two or more tables are listed in an SQL statement and is based on the relationship between the columns of these tables. Here, we'll delve into the types of joins, their technical implementations, and the strategies employed to execute them efficiently, especially in large-scale or distributed environments.

We'll explore different types of SQL joins, such as Inner Join, Left Join, Right Join, Full Outer Join, Cross Join, Self Join, Semi Join, and Anti Join. Additionally, we'll discuss join algorithms like Hash Join, Nested Loop Join, and Merge Sort Join, and join strategies including Local Joins, Distributed Joins, Broadcast Joins, Shuffle Joins, and Bucket Shuffle Joins.

What Are the Different Types of Joins in SQL?

To better illustrate the concept of SQL joins, let's define two hypothetical tables commonly used in database examples: employees and salaries. Below are the details for both tables, which we will use to demonstrate various types of SQL joins. 

Table 1: Employees

employee_id name department_id manager_id
1 John Doe 101 3
2 Jane Smith 102 3
3 Alice Johnson 103 1
4 Chris Lee 101 2
5 Bob Brown 104 1

Table 2: Salaries

employee_id salary
1 50000
2 60000
3 55000
4 58000
6 62000
These tables and their respective data can be utilized to demonstrate the SQL commands in practical scenarios, helping to visualize how each type of join operation functions.


What Is Inner Join?

The Inner Join returns rows when there is at least one match in both tables. It is the most common type of join because it allows for the combination of rows between two tables wherever there is a matching column value.
Example - This example retrieves the names and salaries of employees whose IDs are present in both the employees and salaries tables:
SELECT a.name, b.salary
FROM employees a
INNER JOIN salaries b ON a.employee_id = b.employee_id;
The query performs an Inner Join on employees and salaries using the employee_id column as the join condition. It will return rows only where there is a matching employee_id in both tables, ensuring that only employees with corresponding salary records are listed.

What Is Left Outer Join (Left Join)?

A Left Outer Join returns all rows from the left table, along with matched rows from the right table. If there is no match, the result from the right table will be NULL.
Example - Lists all employees and their salaries, including those employees who do not have a salary record:
SELECT a.name, b.salary
FROM employees a
LEFT JOIN salaries b ON a.employee_id = b.employee_id;
This query lists every employee regardless of whether they have a matching salary record in the salaries table. For employees without salary records, the salary column in the result set will show NULL.


What Is Right Outer Join (Right Join)?

The Right Join returns all rows from the right table and the matched rows from the left table. If there is no match, the result is NULL on the side of the left table.
Example - To display all salary records along with the names of the employees, including salaries that do not match any employee ID:
SELECT a.name, b.salary
FROM employees a
RIGHT JOIN salaries b ON a.employee_id = b.employee_id;
This query ensures every salary is listed along with the employee name if available. If a salary record does not have a corresponding employee record, the name field in the result will be NULL.


What Is Full Outer Join (Full Join)?

A Full Outer Join returns rows when there is a match in one of the tables. If there is no match, the result is NULL on the side of the table without a match.
Example - To combine all records from both employees and salaries, filling in NULL where there is no match on either side:
SELECT a.name, b.salary
FROM employees a
FULL OUTER JOIN salaries b ON a.employee_id = b.employee_id;
This query displays all entries from both tables. Where an employee does not have a salary record, or a salary does not have an associated employee, the result will show NULL for the missing part.


What Is Cross Join?

The Cross Join returns the Cartesian product of rows from the tables in the join. It combines each row of the first table with each row of the second table.
Example - To illustrate the combination of every possible pair of rows from the two tables, regardless of any relationship between them:
SELECT a.name, b.salary
FROM employees a
CROSS JOIN salaries b;
This query does not use a join condition. It simply multiplies each row from employees with each row from salaries, leading to every possible combination.


What Is Self Join?

A Self Join is employed to join a table to itself as if the table were two tables, temporarily renaming at least one table in the SQL statement to facilitate the join.
Example - To find relationships within the same table, such as identifying employees who are managed by other employees:
SELECT A.employee_name AS Employee1, B.employee_name AS Employee2
FROM employees A, employees B
WHERE A.manager_id = B.employee_id;
In this query, the employees table is joined to itself to compare each employee against each other to find matching manager-employee relationships. The result lists pairs of employees where one is the manager of the other.


What Is Semi Join?

A Semi Join is a specialized type of join that returns rows from the first table only if there is at least one matching row in the second table. Unlike Inner Join, it does not return any columns from the second table, nor does it duplicate the rows from the first table if there are multiple matches in the second table. It's particularly useful for filtering data based on the existence of a relationship in another table, without actually retrieving data from that other table.
Example - Filters employees based on the existence of corresponding salary records:
SELECT a.name
FROM employees a
FROM salaries b
WHERE a.employee_id = b.employee_id
This query uses a subquery with the EXISTS operator to check for the presence of at least one matching row in the salaries table for each row in the employees table. It returns only the names of those employees who have corresponding entries in the salaries table.


What Is ANTI Join?

An ANTI Join returns rows from the first table where there are no corresponding rows in the second table. This join is useful for identifying records in one table that do not have related records in another table, which can be particularly helpful for data validation or identifying missing entries.
Example - Lists employees who do not have salary records:
SELECT a.name
FROM employees a
FROM salaries b
WHERE a.employee_id = b.employee_id
This query employs a subquery within the NOT EXISTS clause to check for the absence of matching rows in the salaries table. It returns the names of employees who do not have corresponding salary entries, effectively performing an exclusion filter.

What are JOIN Algorithms?


Join algorithms are crucial for the performance of database operations involving joins, as they dictate how data from different tables is combined based on specific join conditions. The efficiency and effectiveness of SQL queries are significantly influenced by the choice of algorithm, which affects data access, comparison, and combination.
Factors such as data size, whether the data is pre-sorted, memory availability, the presence of indices, and the characteristics of the computing environment (whether single node or distributed) all play a role in selecting the appropriate join algorithm. A deep understanding of these algorithms enables database designers and administrators to optimize SQL queries for faster and more efficient data retrieval.


What Is Hash Join?

The hash join is a widely used technique in database operations, particularly effective when joining tables in data warehouse environments. This method involves creating a hash table from one of the input tables, typically the smaller one, to maximize efficiency. The effectiveness of a hash join is largely contingent on the ability of the hash table to fit within available memory.

Implementation Details of Hash Joins

  • Creation of Hash Table: The smaller of the two tables is chosen to construct the hash table. This selection is crucial because a smaller table is more likely to fit entirely in memory, which is essential for the performance of hash joins.
  • Partitioning: If the smaller table cannot fit into memory, it may need to be partitioned. Though partitioning can help manage memory constraints, it generally detracts from performance as it introduces additional complexity and potential disk I/O.
  • Hash Bucket Formation: The hash values are calculated using a hash function, such as modulo 40, which results in the creation of a fixed number of hash buckets—in this case, 40. Each bucket contains items that share the same hash score, effectively grouping similar data points together.
  • Application to Join Column: The hash function is then applied to the join column of the larger table. The resultant hash values dictate which bucket the data from the larger table should be compared with, allowing the algorithm to look for potential matches in the corresponding buckets.

Performance Considerations and Use Cases

  • Data Warehouse Queries: Hash joins are particularly advantageous in data warehouse settings where small dimension tables are frequently joined with larger fact tables. The ability to quickly locate and compare relevant rows based on hash buckets can significantly speed up query processing.
  • Lack of Indexes: In scenarios where appropriate indexes are not available, a hash table can serve as an alternative indexing mechanism, facilitating faster searches than would be possible by scanning the entire table.
  • Memory Requirements: Adequate memory allocation is critical for the success of hash joins. Insufficient memory can lead to performance degradation, as parts of the hash table might need to be stored on disk, increasing access times and reducing the overall efficiency of the join.
While hash joins require careful management of memory resources, they offer a robust solution for efficiently processing joins, especially in the absence of suitable indexes or when dealing with disparate table sizes. They are highly efficient if the build table can fit into memory, making hash joins a common choice in both disk-based and in-memory database systems.


What Is Nested Loop Join?

A Nested Loop Join involves iterating over each row of the first table (often referred to as the "outer" table) and, for each row, iterating over each row of the second table (the "inner" table) to find matching rows based on the join condition. This approach is efficient when the expected result set is relatively small—typically fewer than 5,000 rows.

Operational Mechanics

  • Outer Loop: The algorithm begins with the outer loop, which scans each row of the outer table.
  • Inner Loop: For each row of the outer table, the inner loop iterates over every row in the inner table.
  • Match Test: During the inner loop's iteration, each pairing of outer and inner rows is tested against the join condition. If the condition is met (e.g., the join key of the outer row matches the join key of the inner row), the rows are combined into the result set.

Use Cases and Advantages

  • Small Datasets: Nested Loop Joins are effective when at least one of the tables is small enough that the inner table's full scan does not impose a significant performance penalty.
  • Lack of Indexes: This type of join can be useful if the tables do not have indexes on the join columns. Since it does not rely on the pre-existence of indexes or sorted data, it can be implemented in scenarios where other join types might be less efficient.
  • Selective Queries: It is particularly advantageous when the outer table is substantially filtered by other query conditions, reducing the number of rows that need to be checked in the inner loop.
While it may not always be the best choice for large-scale operations without appropriate indexes, its straightforward implementation and the ability to handle joins without additional requirements (such as sorted data or hash keys) make it an indispensable option, especially in systems where other join algorithms might not be as feasible due to system limitations or specific data characteristics. Its role is particularly crucial in transactional databases or smaller-scale analytical processes where data sizes are manageable, and the overhead of more complex algorithms is not justified.


What Is Merge Sort Join?

The merge join is a highly efficient database join algorithm when both tables involved are pre-sorted on the join columns. This algorithm works much like a zipper, seamlessly merging two sorted lists by quickly identifying matching entries from each side.

Implementation of Merge Join

  • Pre-Sorted Data: For a merge join to be effective, both tables need to be sorted by the join column. This prerequisite allows the join process to efficiently merge the two tables, as each element from one table can be directly compared with elements from the other table without unnecessary backtracking.
  • Sorting Mechanisms:
    • Best Case: The ideal scenario for a merge join is when both tables already have an index on the join column that can be leveraged for an indexed order scan. This setup minimizes the overhead as no additional sorting is required.
    • Alternative Case: If the necessary indexes are not available, the SQL engine must sort the tables before initiating the join. This sorting introduces additional computational costs and can impact overall performance.

Performance Considerations and Use Cases

  • Optimal Conditions: Merge joins perform best when indexes are present on the join columns of both tables, allowing the database to utilize indexed order scans to efficiently merge the tables. The presence of indexes eliminates the need for separate sorting steps, significantly enhancing performance.
  • Handling Differently Sized Tables: This method is also advantageous when joining a large indexed table with a smaller table that may need to be sorted first. Sorting a smaller table is relatively less resource-intensive and can be quickly aligned with the larger table’s indexed order for the merge process.
Merge joins are particularly beneficial in scenarios where large volumes of data are pre-sorted or can be quickly aligned using existing indexes. The straightforward nature of the merging process, akin to closing a zipper, allows for rapid combination of rows based on matching join keys. This method is highly effective for equi-joins and is known for its predictable performance, especially in well-organized database environments.
While the initial requirement for pre-sorted data or the presence of indexes might seem restrictive, the efficiency gains during the join operation make merge joins a preferred choice in many database management scenarios. This algorithm is especially useful in environments where data continuity and order are maintained, making it a robust choice for complex queries involving large datasets.

Join Strategies

Local Joins vs. Distributed Joins

Local joins and distributed joins are two methodologies for handling database queries, differentiated by data location. Local joins occur when all required data resides on a single server, facilitating faster and more efficient query processing due to reduced network overhead and no need for data transfer. Conversely, distributed joins involve data spread across multiple servers, necessitating data movement over the network to execute the join, which introduces latency but allows for handling larger datasets and scaling beyond the capacity of a single server. 

What are Local Joins?

Traditionally, "local joins" refer to join operations performed within a single database node using data that resides entirely on that node. These joins do not involve data interactions between different nodes or clusters, making them inherently isolated and independent of network considerations.

In the context of non-distributed systems, local joins are straightforward as they involve accessing and combining data that is stored locally, without external dependencies. These joins are efficient due to the absence of network latency and are typically used in scenarios where all necessary data is available within a single server or database instance.

Local Joins in Distributed Systems

In distributed systems, the traditional concept of local joins is less applicable because data is typically partitioned across multiple nodes. Here, the terminology often shifts to more specific types of operations that mimic the "local" nature of traditional joins:

Co-located Joins

  • A co-located join is a specific strategy used within distributed databases where the join operation is executed in a way that emulates local joins.
  • In co-located joins, both tables involved in the join are distributed across multiple nodes such that all rows with the same join key are colocated on the same node. This setup ensures that the join can be performed locally at each node without requiring data transfer between nodes.
  • This strategy significantly reduces network overhead and improves performance by leveraging local processing on each node. However, it requires careful upfront data organization and distribution based on expected join keys.


colocated join


How Co-located Joins Work

  • Data Distribution: For a co-located join to be possible, both tables must be organized such that rows with the same join key are located on the same node. This alignment ensures that all necessary data for the join is already present locally, eliminating the need for data shuffling between nodes.
  • Join Execution: Since the data resides locally, the join can be performed quickly and efficiently on each node independently, without waiting for data to be transferred from other parts of the system.
  • Prior Knowledge Requirement: A critical aspect of implementing a co-located join is the requirement for advance knowledge of the join conditions. This knowledge is essential because it dictates how data must be distributed across nodes during the initial data ingestion process.

Characteristics and Considerations

  • Speed and Efficiency: Co-located joins are highly efficient due to the lack of network traffic and the ability to leverage local processing power. This efficiency makes them particularly suitable for scenarios where network bandwidth is a limitation or where rapid query response is necessary.
  • Flexibility: While co-located joins are fast, they lack flexibility. The data distribution strategy must be determined based on the anticipated join conditions, which means changes in query requirements might necessitate a reorganization of the data distribution, a potentially costly and time-consuming process.


What are Distributed Joins?

Distributed joins involve combining data from multiple tables that are stored across different nodes in a distributed system. The key challenges with distributed joins include:
  • Minimizing Network Utilization: It’s essential to reduce the amount of data transferred between nodes to lower network traffic and enhance performance.
  • Minimizing Memory Utilization: Efficient memory use ensures that the system can handle large datasets without excessive consumption of resources, preventing bottlenecks.

Shuffling in Distributed Joins:

  • Purpose: Shuffling is the process of redistributing data across all participating nodes based on the join key. This is critical because it aligns the data from the joining tables on the same nodes, making the join operation possible.
  • Importance: Shuffling is vital for scalability in distributed joins. Without proper shuffling, the join might not scale efficiently as data grows because each node must have access to relevant pieces of data to perform its part of the join computation.

Distributed Joins - Broadcast Join

broadcast join

A broadcast join is a specific type of distributed join that simplifies the joining process by eliminating the need for data shuffling. This join strategy is especially effective when dealing with a large "left" table and a much smaller "right" table.

How Broadcast Joins Work

  • Data Broadcasting: In this approach, the smaller right table is replicated and sent to each worker node in the cluster. This means that each node receives a complete copy of the right table, allowing it to perform the join locally with its segment of the larger left table.
  • Network Overhead: For instance, if there are three nodes in a cluster and the right table consists of a thousand rows, the total network overhead would involve broadcasting these thousand rows to each of the three nodes, effectively multiplying the data transmitted across the network to three thousand rows. This can be resource-intensive and costly in terms of network bandwidth.
  • Memory Requirements: A critical limitation of the broadcast join is that the entire right table must fit into the memory of each worker node. If the right table is too large to fit into memory, the join cannot proceed, making this approach feasible only with sufficiently small right tables.

Suitability and Limitations

  • Cluster Size: Broadcast joins are more suitable for smaller clusters where the duplication of the right table across multiple nodes does not overwhelm network or memory resources.
  • Use Cases: This method is ideal for scenarios where the smaller right table can be easily accommodated in memory across all nodes, such as with small lookup tables that are frequently joined with larger transactional data.
  • Platform Specifics: Certain database systems like ClickHouse, which do not support data shuffling, are limited to using broadcast joins for distributing joins. This restriction makes understanding the memory and network implications of broadcast joins particularly important for users of such systems.
While broadcast joins simplify the distributed joining process by avoiding data shuffling, they require careful consideration of network and memory resources, especially as the size of the data and the number of nodes increase. This join type is ideal for specific scenarios where the size of the right table and the structure of the cluster allow for efficient distribution without exceeding resource capacities.

Distributed Joins - Shuffle Join

shuffle join

Shuffle join is a dynamic method used in distributed database systems where data from both joining tables is redistributed across all nodes based on the join key. This strategy plays a key role in enabling scalable joins across large distributed environments.

How Shuffle Joins Operate

  • Data Redistribution: In a shuffle join, both tables involved in the join are broken down into smaller segments according to their join keys. These segments are then shuffled across the cluster so that rows with the same join key from both tables end up on the same node.
  • Scalability: One of the significant advantages of shuffle joins is their scalability. As the number of nodes in the system increases, the join operation can distribute the workload more evenly across the cluster. This distribution allows for handling larger datasets and more complex queries without a proportional increase in memory demand per node.
  • Performance Enhancement: The distributed nature of shuffle joins means that as you add more nodes to the system, the performance of the join operation improves. Since each node handles a smaller portion of the data, the overall query execution times can decrease, making this approach highly effective for scaling large applications.

Key Advantages

  • Efficient Data Handling: Shuffle joins are designed to manage large volumes of data by effectively utilizing the distributed architecture of modern data systems. By ensuring that related data points are co-located on the same node, these joins minimize unnecessary data movement and optimize query performance.
  • Adaptability to Cluster Size: This join type adapts well to changes in cluster size, offering flexibility in resource management and planning. Whether expanding or contracting the number of nodes, shuffle joins maintain efficient operation, aligning well with dynamic computing environments.
Shuffle joins are essential for systems requiring high scalability and performance in distributed settings. By redistributing data based on join keys, these joins ensure efficient data processing across multiple nodes, making them a cornerstone for scalable database architectures. Their ability to improve performance with additional nodes without increasing the memory requirement for each query makes them particularly suited for large-scale data operations.

Bucket Shuffle Join

bucket shuffle join

StarRocks and similar systems implement an optimized version of the shuffle join known as the Bucket Shuffle Join. This method further enhances efficiency by aligning the distribution key of the data with the join key.

Operational Mechanics:

  • Selective Shuffling: If the join key matches the distribution key of the left table, only the right table needs to be shuffled. This selective shuffling reduces the amount of data that needs to be moved across the network.
  • Automatic Optimization: This strategy is automated in systems that support it, requiring no additional configuration from the user. It leverages existing data organization to minimize network traffic and maximize join efficiency.

Key Benefit:

  • Reduced Network Overhead: By only shuffling the necessary table, the network overhead is significantly reduced, making this strategy ideal for large datasets and high-query environments.


Understanding and implementing the appropriate joins, algorithms, and strategies are crucial for database engineers and developers. This knowledge enables them to harness the full potential of their database systems, ensuring optimal performance, scalability, and reliability in handling complex data queries. Whether working in small enterprises or large-scale operations, mastery of these components is essential for efficient database management and robust data analysis.