Rebuilding indexes online, wasting time and resources?

Many SQL server installations does regular index rebuild or reorg in order to defragment indexes. One can question how much we really gain by doing this when using modern SANs, SSD, flashdisks, etc. But, that is not the topic for this blog post. What I want to raise with this blog is whether to use ONLINE when rebuilding indexes. Some background first::

  • With ONLINE = OFF (default), you will be blocked from accessing the data while the index rebuild is being performed. Depending on the type of index, you either get a schema modification lock on the table which prohibits any type of access, or a shared lock which allow reads only.
  • With ONLINE = ON (requires Enterprise Edition), you get a very brief lock at beginning and end of operation. I will refer to the modes as ONLINE and OFFLINE from now on.

There’s more details to what locks are acquired depending on various factors. Check out for more info. The point is that ONLINE = ON, allow for users to both read and modify data while the operation is on-going. That is a good thing, right? Well, it comes with a price…

The time it takes to rebuild the index can be substantially longer for ONLINE. Many of us has other things to do with the database during night-time and/or weekends. Yes, these are the typical window in time where we try to find things such as index rebuilds. Say that you do it night-time and it currently take 4 hours. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could cut that time down to 1.5 hours? That would leave more time for imports, massaging of data, CHECKDB and other things you want to do. Sure, you can do it ONLINE, but it will slow down access during the rebuild. Also the more data you modify during the rebuild, the more space you need in tempdb.

My point is to not do ONLINE unless you actually need it. Some system don’t have to be “open” during night-time anyhow. Only you can tell what your requirements are, of course. To get some numbers I decided to create a few indexes on a copy of the FactResellerSalesXL_PageCompressed found in the AdventureworksDW2016 database, and I named that table FactResellerSalesXL. I created a copy without data compression and also without any columnstore index. And then I created a few non-clustered index. Here’s the index and space usage for the table, using my sp_indexinfo (with some columns omitted and others re-arranged):

Not a large table by any means, but it gives us something to play with. And it allowed me to do the rebuilds several times in order to rule out figures out of the ordinary. I tested this both in FULL and SIMPLE recovery. The numbers are average after several executions,  minutes : seconds:

  • FULL recovery
    • ONLINE: 3:45
    • OFFLINE: 1:03
  • SIMPLE recovery
    • ONLINE: 1:40
    • OFFLINE: 0:31


I frequently use Ola Hallengren’s scripts for database maintenance. (We all do, right? :-)) The default for Ola’s solution (IndexOptimize) is to do the rebuild ONLINE if possible. Or, to be more specific, the defaults are:

  • < 5% fragmentation: do nothing
  • Fragmentation between 5 and 30 %: do REORGANIZE.
  • Fragmentation over 30%: do REBUILD with ONLINE = ON

I.e., when using Ola’s scripts you will rebuild your indexes ONLINE, assuming you are on Enterprise Edition (or similar). For Maintenance Plans (anybody remember those?), the checkbox for ONLINE is not checked by default.

Bottom line: If you have problems with index rebuilds taking a long time and you don’t need other people accessing the data while this is being done, consider doing it OFFLINE instead. Or perhaps not defragment in the first place? Or, raise the bar for to some 60-70 % so you only defragment the indexes that are really fragmented in the first place.

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