Should I use a #temp table or a @table variable?
In a stored procedure, you often have a need for storing a set of data within the procedure, without necessarily needing that data to persist beyond the scope of the procedure. If you actually need a table structure, there are basically four ways you can "store" this data: local temporary tables (#table_name), global temporary tables (##table_name), permanent tables (table_name), and table variables (@table_name).
There is a partial list of questions and answers about table variables, including some differences between table variables and #temp tables, in KB #305977 - INF: Frequently Asked Questions - SQL Server 2000 - Table Variables.
Local Temporary Tables
A temporary table is created and populated on disk, in the system database tempdb — with a session-specific identifier packed onto the name, to differentiate between similarly-named #temp tables created from other sessions. The data in this #temp table (in fact, the table itself) is visible only to the current scope (usually a stored procedure, or a set of nested stored procedures). The table gets cleared up automatically when the current procedure goes out of scope, but you should manually clean up the data when you're done with it:
This will be better on resources ("release early") than if you let the system clean up *after* the current session finishes the rest of its work and goes out of scope.
A common use of #temp tables is to summarize/compact/reorganize data coming from another stored procedure. So, take this example, which pares down the results of the system procedure sp_who2 into only the SPID, Status, and HostName of *active* processes that are *not* part of the regular operation of the system:
One of the main benefits of using a #temp table, as opposed to a permanent table, is the reduction in the amount of locking required (since the current user is the only user accessing the table), and also there is much less logging involved. (You could also increase this performance by placing tempdb on a separate drive... but that's another story.)
One minor problem with #temp tables is that, because of the session-specific identifier that is tacked onto the name, the name you give it is limited to 116 characters, including the # sign (while other table types are limited to 128). If you try, you will see this:
Hopefully this won't be a limitation in your environment, because I can't imagine a table name that long being useful or manageable.
Another potential problem with #temp tables is that, if you enter a transaction and use a #temp table, and then cancel without ever issuing a ROLLBACK or COMMIT, you could be causing unnecessary locks in tempdb (for more information, see KB #159747).
Global Temporary Tables
Global temporary tables operate much like local temporary tables; they are created in tempdb and cause less locking and logging than permanent tables. However, they are visible to all sessions, until the creating session goes out of scope (and the global ##temp table is no longer being referenced by other sessions). If two different sessions try the above code, if the first is still active, the second will receive the following:
I have yet to see a valid justification for the use of a global ##temp table. If the data needs to persist to multiple users, then it makes much more sense, at least to me, to use a permanent table. You can make a global ##temp table slightly more permanent by creating it in an autostart procedure, but I still fail to see how this is advantageous over a permanent table. With a permanent table, you can deny permissions; you cannot deny users from a global ##temp table.
A permanent table is created in the local database, however you can (unlike #temp tables) choose to create a table in another database, or even on another server, for which you have access. Like global ##temp tables, a permanent table will persist the session in which it is created, unless you also explicitly drop the table. (For contention and concurrency reasons, creating a "temporary" permanent table in this manner doesn't really make a lot of sense.) If you are planning to create a permanent table when the procedure runs, you should check to see if it exists, in order to avoid errors like the one mentioned above. For more information about checking for the existence of both local #temp tables and permanent tables, see Article #2458.
Like global ##temp tables, there seems to be little reason to use a permanent table unless the data is going to persist... and if that is the case, why not create the permanent table before the stored procedure is ever run, thereby eliminating all the CREATE / DROP logic?
A table variable is created in memory, and so performs slightly better than #temp tables (also because there is even less locking and logging in a table variable). A table variable might still perform I/O to tempdb (which is where the performance issues of #temp tables make themselves apparent), though the documentation is not very explicit about this.
Table variables are automatically cleared when the procedure or function goes out of scope, so you don't have to remember to drop or clear the data (which can be a good thing or a bad thing; remember "release early"?). The tempdb transaction log is less impacted than with #temp tables; table variable log activity is truncated immediately, while #temp table log activity persists until the log hits a checkpoint, is manually truncated, or when the server restarts.
Table variables are the only way you can use DML statements (INSERT, UPDATE, DELETE) on temporary data within a user-defined function. You can create a table variable within a UDF, and modify the data using one of the above statements. For example, you could do this:
However, try that with a #temp table:
Or try accessing a permanent table:
Table variables can lead to fewer stored procedure recompilations than temporary tables (see KB #243586 and KB #305977), and — since they cannot be rolled back — do not bother with the transaction log.
So, why not use table variables all the time? Well, when something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Let's visit some of the limitations of table variables (part of this list was derived from KB #305977):
Like many other areas of technology, there is no "right" answer here. For data that is not meant to persist beyond the scope of the procedure, you are typically choosing between #temp tables and table variables. Your ultimate decision should depend on performance and reasonable load testing. As your data size gets larger, and/or the repeated use of the temporary data increases, you will find that the use of #temp tables makes more sense. Depending on your environment, that threshold could be anywhere — however you will obviously need to use #temp tables if any of the above limitations represents a significant roadblock.
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