Performance Surprises and Assumptions : STRING_SPLIT
SentryOne - SQL Sentry
Mar 182016

Over three years ago now, I posted a three-part series on splitting strings:

Then back in January, I took on a slightly more elaborate problem:

Throughout, my conclusion has been: STOP DOING THIS IN T-SQL. Use CLR or, better yet, pass structured parameters like DataTables from your application to table-valued parameters (TVPs) in your procedures, avoiding all the string construction and deconstruction altogether – which is really the part of the solution that causes performance problems.

And then SQL Server 2016 came along…

When RC0 was released, a new function was documented without a lot of fanfare: STRING_SPLIT. A quick example:

SELECT * FROM STRING_SPLIT('a,b,cd', ',');
/* result:

It caught the eyes of a few colleagues, including Dave Ballantyne, who wrote about the main features – but was kind enough to offer me first right of refusal on a performance comparison.

This is mostly an academic exercise, because with a hefty set of limitations in the first iteration of the feature, it is probably not going to be feasible for a large number of use cases. Here is the list of the observations that Dave and I have made, some of which may be deal-breakers in certain scenarios:

  • the function requires the database to be in compatibility level 130;
  • it only accepts single-character delimiters;
  • there is no way to add output columns (like a column indicating ordinal position within the string);
    • related, there is no way to control sorting – the only options are arbitrary and alphabetical ORDER BY value;
  • so far, it always estimates 50 output rows;
  • when using it for DML, in many cases you will get a table spool (for Hallowe'en protection);
  • NULL input leads to an empty result;
  • there is no way to push down predicates, like eliminating duplicates or empty strings due to consecutive delimiters;
  • there is no way to perform operations against the output values until after the fact (for example, many splitting functions perform LTRIM/RTRIM or explicit conversions for you – STRING_SPLIT spits back all the ugly, such as leading spaces).

So with those limitations out in the open, we can move on to some performance testing. Given Microsoft's track record with built-in functions that leverage CLR under the covers (cough FORMAT() cough), I was skeptical about whether this new function could come close to the fastest methods I'd tested to date.

Let's use string splitters to separate comma-separated strings of numbers, this way our new friend JSON can come along and play too. And we'll say that no list can exceed 8,000 characters, so no MAX types are required, and since they're numbers, we don't have to deal with anything exotic like Unicode.

First, let's create our functions, several of which I adapted from the first article above. I left out a couple that I didn't feel would compete; I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to test those.

    Numbers Table

    This one again needs some setup, but it can be a pretty small table due to the artificial limitations we're placing:

    DECLARE @UpperLimit INT = 8000;
    ;WITH n AS
            x = ROW_NUMBER() OVER (ORDER BY s1.[object_id])
        FROM       sys.all_objects AS s1
        CROSS JOIN sys.all_objects AS s2
    SELECT Number = x
      INTO dbo.Numbers
      FROM n
      WHERE x BETWEEN 1 AND @UpperLimit;

    Then the function:

    CREATE FUNCTION dbo.SplitStrings_Numbers
      @List       varchar(8000), 
      @Delimiter  char(1)
          SELECT [Value] = SUBSTRING(@List, [Number],
    	CHARINDEX(@Delimiter, @List + @Delimiter, [Number]) - [Number])
          FROM dbo.Numbers WHERE Number <= LEN(@List)
          AND SUBSTRING(@Delimiter + @List, [Number], 1) = @Delimiter


    Based on an approach first revealed by the storage engine team, I created a similar wrapper around OPENJSON, just note that the delimiter has to be a comma in this case, or you have to do some heavy duty string substitution before passing the value into the native function:

    CREATE FUNCTION dbo.SplitStrings_JSON
      @List       varchar(8000),
      @Delimiter  char(1) -- ignored but made automated testing easier
        RETURN (SELECT value FROM OPENJSON( CHAR(91) + @List + CHAR(93) ));

    The CHAR(91)/CHAR(93) are just replacing [ and ] respectively due to formatting issues.


    CREATE FUNCTION dbo.SplitStrings_XML
       @List       varchar(8000),
       @Delimiter  char(1)
       RETURN (SELECT [value] = y.i.value('(./text())[1]', 'varchar(8000)')
          FROM (SELECT x = CONVERT(XML, '<i>' 
              + REPLACE(@List, @Delimiter, '</i><i>') 
              + '</i>').query('.')
          ) AS a CROSS APPLY x.nodes('i') AS y(i));


    I once again borrowed Adam Machanic's trusty splitting code from almost seven years ago, even though it supports Unicode, MAX types, and multi-character delimiters (and actually, because I don't want to mess with the function code at all, this limits our input strings to 4,000 characters instead of 8,000):

    CREATE FUNCTION dbo.SplitStrings_CLR
       @List      nvarchar(MAX),
       @Delimiter nvarchar(255)
    RETURNS TABLE ( value nvarchar(4000) )
    EXTERNAL NAME CLRUtilities.UserDefinedFunctions.SplitString_Multi;


    Just for consistency, I put a wrapper around STRING_SPLIT:

    CREATE FUNCTION dbo.SplitStrings_Native
      @List       varchar(8000),
      @Delimiter  char(1)
        RETURN (SELECT value FROM STRING_SPLIT(@List, @Delimiter));

Source Data & Sanity Check

I created this table to serve as the source of input strings to the functions:

CREATE TABLE dbo.SourceTable
  RowNum      int IDENTITY(1,1) PRIMARY KEY,
  StringValue varchar(8000)
  SELECT TOP (60000) x = STUFF((SELECT TOP (ABS(o.[object_id] % 20))
   ',' + CONVERT(varchar(12), c.[object_id]) FROM sys.all_columns AS c
  WHERE c.[object_id] < o.[object_id] ORDER BY NEWID() FOR XML PATH(''), 
    TYPE).value(N'(./text())[1]', N'varchar(8000)'),1,1,'')
  FROM sys.all_objects AS o CROSS JOIN sys.all_objects AS o2
INSERT dbo.SourceTable(StringValue) 
  SELECT TOP (50000) x 

Just for reference, let's validate that 50,000 rows made it into the table, and check the average length of the string and the average number of elements per string:

  [Values] = COUNT(*),
  AvgStringLength = AVG(1.0*LEN(StringValue)),
  AvgElementCount = AVG(1.0*LEN(StringValue)-LEN(REPLACE(StringValue, ',','')))
 FROM dbo.SourceTable;
/* result:
    Values    AvgStringLength    AbgElementCount
    ------    ---------------    ---------------
     50000         108.476380           8.911840

And finally, let's make sure each function returns the right data for any given RowNum, so we'll just pick one randomly and compare the values obtained through each method. Your results will vary of course.

SELECT f.value
  FROM dbo.SourceTable AS s
  CROSS APPLY dbo.SplitStrings_/* method */(s.StringValue, ',') AS f
  WHERE s.RowNum = 37219
  ORDER BY f.value;

Sure enough, all the functions work as expected (sorting isn't numeric; remember, the functions output strings):

Sample set of output from each of the functionsSample set of output from each of the functions

Performance Testing

SELECT @x = f.value 
  FROM dbo.SourceTable AS s
  CROSS APPLY dbo.SplitStrings_/* method */(s.StringValue,',') AS f;
GO 100

I ran the above code 10 times for each method, and averaged the timings for each. And this is where the surprise came in for me. Given the limitations in the native STRING_SPLIT function, my assumption was that it was thrown together quickly, and that performance would lend credence to that. Boy was the result different from what I expected:

Average duration of STRING_SPLIT compared to other methodsAverage duration of STRING_SPLIT compared to other methods

Update 2016-03-20

Based on the question below from Lars, I ran the tests again with a few changes:

  • I monitored my instance with SQL Sentry Performance Advisor to capture CPU profile during the test;
  • I captured session-level wait stats in between each batch;
  • I inserted a delay in between batches so the activity would be visually distinct on the Performance Advisor dashboard.

I created a new table to capture wait stat information:

CREATE TABLE dbo.Timings
  dt                  datetime,
  test                varchar(64),
  point               varchar(64),
  session_id          smallint,
  wait_type           nvarchar(60),
  wait_time_ms        bigint,

Then the code for each test changed to this:

WAITFOR DELAY '00:00:30';
INSERT dbo.Timings(dt, test, point, wait_type, wait_time_ms)
SELECT @d, test = /* 'method' */, point  = 'Start', wait_type, wait_time_ms
FROM sys.dm_exec_session_wait_stats WHERE session_id = @@SPID;
SELECT @x = f.value 
  FROM dbo.SourceTable AS s
  CROSS APPLY dbo.SplitStrings_/* method */(s.StringValue, ',') AS f
GO 100
INSERT dbo.Timings(dt, test, point, wait_type, wait_time_ms)
SELECT @d, /* 'method' */, 'End', wait_type, wait_time_ms
FROM sys.dm_exec_session_wait_stats WHERE session_id = @@SPID;

I ran the test and then ran the following queries:

-- validate that timings were in same ballpark as previous tests
FROM dbo.Timings WITH (NOLOCK)
-- determine window to apply to Performance Advisor dashboard
SELECT MIN(dt), MAX(dt) FROM dbo.Timings;
-- get wait stats registered for each session
SELECT test, wait_type, delta FROM
  SELECT f.test, rn = RANK() OVER (PARTITION BY f.point ORDER BY f.dt), 
    f.wait_type, delta = f.wait_time_ms - COALESCE(s.wait_time_ms, 0)
  FROM dbo.Timings AS f 
  LEFT OUTER JOIN dbo.Timings AS s
    ON s.test = f.test
    AND s.wait_type = f.wait_type
    AND s.point = 'Start'
  WHERE f.point = 'End'
) AS x 
WHERE delta > 0
ORDER BY rn, delta DESC;

From the first query, the timings remained consistent with previous tests (I'd chart them again but that wouldn't reveal anything new).

From the second query, I was able to highlight this range on the Performance Advisor dashboard, and from there it was easy to identify each batch:

Batches captured on the CPU chart on the Performance Advisor dashboard

Clearly, all of the methods *except* STRING_SPLIT pegged a single core for the duration of the test (this is a quad-core machine, and CPU was steadily at 25%). It is likely that Lars was insinuating below that STRING_SPLIT is faster at the cost of hammering the CPU, but it doesn't appear that this is the case.

Finally, from the third query, I was able to see the following wait stats accruing after each batch:

Per-Session Waits, in millisecondsPer-Session Waits, in milliseconds

The waits captured by the DMV do not fully explain the duration of the queries, but they do serve to show where additional waits are incurred.


While custom CLR still shows a huge advantage over traditional T-SQL approaches, and using JSON for this functionality appears to be nothing more than a novelty, STRING_SPLIT was the clear winner – by a mile. So, if you just need to split a string and can deal with all of its limitations, it looks like this is a much more viable option than I would have expected. Hopefully in future builds we'll see additional functionality, such as an output column indicating the ordinal position of each element, the ability to filter out duplicates and empty strings, and multi-character delimiters.

I address multiple comments below in two follow-up posts:

  15 Responses to “Performance Surprises and Assumptions : STRING_SPLIT()”

  1. It is important to note that the XML and JSON approaches do not work with certain classes of input such as "" and '<'.

    Besides that, the tests and reasoning performed in this article are expert level and a great community service.

    It might be interesting to see where CLR and STRING_SPLIT spend their time using PerfView. The call stacks sometime give rise to additional optimizations.

    • Yes, true, one of the secret reasons I I chose a sequence of integers instead of real strings. :-)

    • The XML approach works well including with XML reserved chars if the source strings are encoded using FOR XML before REPLACE(string, separator, xml elements). I used many times bellow approach:

      SELECT	y.XmlCol.value(N'.', N'NVARCHAR(100)')
      FROM (VALUES (CONVERT(XML, N'<i>' + REPLACE((SELECT N'a,b,c&a,dg' AS N'*' FOR XML PATH(N'')), N',', N'</i><i>') + N'</i>'))
      ) AS x(ListAsXml)
      CROSS APPLY x.ListAsXml.nodes(N'r/i') AS y(XmlCol)

      The performance is affected by that FOR XML but there are no issues generated by those chars.

  2. Very interesting

    Could you please share the amount of CPU consumed by these 5 methods ?

    Are they the same or are something relevant lurking in the shadows? Say: the engine is simply better at executing over multiple CPU's with the (new) build in function or something similar?

  3. I was wondering about this just the other day — thanks! Indeed surprising results.

  4. How does it estimate the data size when joined to another (or multiple) split function? The link below is a write up of a CLR Based split implementation. Does the 2016 do a 'better' job with data estimates? (unfortunately i don't have hte ability to install the RC yet).

  5. STRING_SPLIT is indeed very fast, however also slow as hell when working with temporary table (unless it get fixed in a future build).

    SELECT f.value
    INTO #test
    FROM dbo.SourceTable AS s
    CROSS APPLY string_split(s.StringValue, ',') AS f

    Will be WAY slower than SQL CLR solution (15x and more!).

    • You're right, for that specific use case, the native solution is way slower.

      I looked into waits to see what was happening. JSON and STRING_SPLIT() took about 10 seconds each, they accumulated nearly 25 seconds in latch waits, while the XML, CLR, and Numbers versions accumulated almost nothing there. So it seems like some kind of parallelism issue.

      You should find that the CLR and STRING_SPLIT() methods are much closer together in performance if you add OPTION (MAXDOP 1) to inhibit parallelism. In this case I get ~900ms for CLR and ~1300ms for STRING_SPLIT(). And the plan for STRING_SPLIT() is a lot simpler (missing a spool and a sort that exist in the CLR plan). CLR is of course even faster if you only turn off parallelism for STRING_SPLIT().

      (And again, I only found this to be true when using SELECT INTO #temp. Usually I try to *avoid* the cost of materializing intermediate result sets unless I have a specific reason to do so.)

  6. How do these functions compare with table-valued parameters?

  7. As a long time participator in the running contest to write the fastest sql server string splitter, the fact that its perf when loading into a table (a very common technique) is very disappointing.

    Here is my simple benchmark I built. Simply loading 100000 strings containing 20 elements each of about 20-30 elements and having them be split and the result saved into a table (temp or not it doesn't matter)
    I compared the fastest CLR func, the fastest t-sql function, and the native function.
    Results were unfortunate. The string_split function took nearly as long as the t-sql version, and the clr function was about 5 times faster.

  8. I am using this to split the strings, a dynamic sql. It is fast enough for my needs and I didn't see it among on the options over the internet.
    select @databases=’select ”’+replace(@databases,’,’,”’ union all select ”’)+””
    I don't know how fast it is in comparison with others but for a string of 50k is under 50ms

  9. What do you think about this method
    declare @databases nvarchar(max)
    set @databases=’a,b,c,d’
    select @databases=’select ”’+replace(@databases,’,’,”’ union all select ”’)+””

    • No, I don't like the dynamic SQL approach very much, simply because what if someone passes in this:

      @databases = N'a,b,c,d'';
      update dbo.employees set salary*=2;
      delete dbo.auditLog;
      select ''foo';

      And even if you go to great lengths to "cleanse" that input string, validate that the databases exist, ensure that the executing user has insufficient permissions on other tables, and so on, I don't see what advantage this approach has over passing 'a,b,c,d' into STRING_SPLIT().

      • Hello Aaron, thanks a lot for your reply and your time, I understood your point and indeed this is very dangerous. But why to not insert another replace char there and replace ' with nothing to avoid bad things, your code will become a simple select. Of course there are words like – don't – that will be broke but it will still work.

        select @string ='select "'+replace(replace(@string,"","),',',"' union all select "')+""

        select 'a' union all select 'b' union all select 'c' union all select 'd;
        update dbo.employees set salary*=2;
        delete dbo.auditLog;
        select foo'

        What I tried to convey is that this approach at least in my mind is easier to understand and write and it is doing the job, maybe not 100% in 100% of the cases but it is quite closed.

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