Monitoring long running operations in Oracle databases

We regularly work with database tables with hundreds of millions of entries. Some operations on these table can take a while. Not necessarily queries, but operations in preparation to make queries fast, for example the creation of materialized views or indexes.

The problem with most SQL tools is: once you run your SQL statement you have no indication of how long it will take to complete the operation. No progress bar and no display of the remaining time. Will it take minutes or hours?

Oracle databases have a nice feature I learned about recently that can answer these questions. Operations that take longer than 6 seconds to complete are considered “long operations” and get an entry in a special view called V$SESSION_LONGOPS.

This view does not only contain the currently running long operations but also the history of completed long operations. You can query the status of the current long operations like this:

  WHERE time_remaining > 0;

This view contains columns like

  • TARGET (table or view on which the operation is carried out)
  • SOFAR (units of work done so far)
  • TOTALWORK (total units of work)
  • ELAPSED_SECONDS (number of elapsed seconds from the start of the operation)

Based on these values the view offers another column, which contains the estimated remaining time in seconds: TIME_REMAINING.

This remaining time is really just an estimate, because it assumes long running operations to be linear, which is not necessarily true. Also some SQL statements can spawn multiple consecutive operations, e.g. first a “Table Scan” operation and then a “Sort Output” operation, which will only become visible after the first operation has finished. Nevertheless I found this feature quite helpful to get a rough idea of how long I will have to wait or to inform decisions such as whether I really want to perform an operation until completion or if I want to cancel it.

Modern developer Issue 4: My SQL toolbox

SQL is such a basic and useful language but the underlying thinking is non-intuitive when you come from imperative languages like Java, Ruby and similar.
SQL is centered around sets and operations on them. The straight forward solution might not be the best one.


Let’s say we need the maximum value in a certain set. Easy:

select max(value) from table

But what if we need the row with the maximum value? Just adding the other columns won’t work since aggregations only work with other aggregations and group bys. Joining with the same table may be straight forward but better is to not do any joins:

select * from (select * from table order by value desc) where rownum<=1

Group by and having

Even duplicate values can be found without joining:

select value from table group by value having count(*) > 1

Grouping is a powerful operation in SQL land:

select max(value), TO_CHAR(time, 'YYYY-MM') from table group by TO_CHAR(time, 'YYYY-MM')

Finding us the maximum value in each month.

Mapping with outer joins

SQL is also good for calculations. Say we have one table with values and one with a mapping like a precalculated log table. Joining both gets the log of each of your values:

select t.value, log.y from table t left outer join log_table log on t.value=log.x

Simple calculations

We can even use a linear interpolation between two values. Say we have only the function values stored for integers but we values between them and these values between them can be interpolated linearly.

select t.value, (t.value-floor(t.value))*f.y + (ceil(t.value)-t.value)*g.y from table t left outer join function_table f on floor(t.value)=f.x left outer join function_table g on ceil(t.value)=g.x

When you need to calculate for large sets of values and insert them into another table it might be better to calculate in SQL and insert in one step without all the conversion and wrapping stuff present in programming languages.


Another often overlooked feature is to use a condition:

select case when MOD(t.value, 2) = 0 then 'divisible by 2' else 'not divisible by 2' end from table t

These handful operations are my basic toolbox when working with SQL, almost all queries I need can be formulated with them.

Dates and timestamps

One last reminder: when you work with time always specify the wanted time zone in your query.

Thinking in immutability

The way I learned programming is dictated by objects and states. According to my thinking data is packed into objects which are later modified to reflect the changes over time. State and modification are a central modelling technique. For me programming and OOP in particular resolved around this common theme. Mutating objects pervade my thinking even beyond the code into the database and even the architecture of the whole system.
Besides advantages and on going efforts in the industry I couldn’t help but thinking: immutability is nice. I can use it in some cases and keep it quietly stored in the corner.
But it didn’t remain silent.
So I asked myself: How do you construct programs that build upon immutability? How do you (mostly) avoid mutable objects? How do you think in immutability?
The first step was to unlearn. No updates. No modifications. Read, create, copy. That’s about it. No more CRUD only CR. No more SQL updates, only inserts.

Events and logs

To illustrate I use a simple example. Creating, moving, translating and deleting a point. In the traditional OO way it looks like this:

Point p = new Point(40, 30);
p.moveTo(10, 20);

Or using SQL might be something like this (omitting primary keys and where clauses here):

insert into points (x, y) values (40, 30)
update points p set p.x = p.x + 5
update points p set p.x = 10, p.y = 20
delete from points

In our memory (or database if we use one) every line updates our point:

Point p = new Point(40, 30); // p = {x: 40, y: 30}
p.translateXBy(5); // p = {x: 45, y: 30}
p.moveTo(10, 20); // p = {x: 10, y: 20}
p.delete(); // p = ?

But what if we do not store the results of the operations but the operations themselves? The events.
Imagine your state changes as a series of events. Just imagine.

new PointCreated(40, 30); // pointEvents = [{created[x: 40, y:30]}]
new PointTranslatedXBy(5); // pointEvents = [{created[x: 40, y:30]}, {translated[x: 5]}]
new PointMovedTo(10, 20); // pointEvents = [{created[x: 40, y:30]}, {translated[x: 5]}, {moved:[x: 10, y:20]}]
new PointDeleted(); // pointEvents = [{created[x: 40, y:30]}, {translated[x: 5]}, {moved:[x: 10, y:20]}, {deleted}]

Even in the database we would just use inserts, no more updates and no more deletes. The events are stored in a log (ironically the database does this the same way). A log is a fully ordered, append only queue. Once we use and store events we have some extras besides immutability: an audit trail, an undo stack, recovering, …
We could externalize the event stream in a message queue and could monitor it, replay it to reproduce bugs, distribute it. The possibilities are endless.

But. That’s all nice and fine. I have one more question: what’s the current state? A user should see the current state and other parts of the system also (not mentioning that I – coming from a mutable state kind of thinking – would also feel better seeing it).

So what’s the current state?

All events applied in order.

OK. But isn’t this expensive doing this all the time?


Here another concept from databases helps us: materialized views. We can easily translate in our mind between the new immutable event driven way and the old in place update way. It is just the same data in different representations (if we only are interested in the current state). If we store the current state as a materialized view (or cache) besides the event log we can have both.
Every part of the program which needs the current state gets an immutable copy of it. If this part needs to know when something changes, it can observe the events and act accordingly. This way mutability is pushed to the borders, to the parts where the current state is shown (like the UI layer).