Tracking Table Usage and Identifying Unused Objects

One of the things I hate the most about “old” databases is the fact that unused tables are kept forever, because nobody knows whether they’re used or not. Sometimes it’s really hard to tell. Some databases are accessed by a huge number of applications, reports, ETL tools and God knows what else. In these cases, deciding whether you should drop a table or not is a tough call.

Search your codebase

The easiest way to know if a table is used, is to search the codebase for occurences of the table name. However, finding the table name in the code does not mean it is used: there are code branches that in turn are not used. Modern languages and development tools can help you identify unused methods and objects, but it’s not always feasible or 100% reliable (binary dependencies, scripts, dynamic code are, off top of my head, some exceptions).
On the other hand, not finding the table name in the code does not mean you can delete it with no issues. The table could be used by dynamic code and the name retrieved from a configuration file or a table in the database.

In other cases, the source code is not available at all.

Index usage: clues, not evidence

Another way to approach the problem is by measuring the effects of the code execution against the database, in other words, by looking at the information stored by SQL Server whenever a table is accessed.

The DMV sys.dm_db_index_usage_stats records information on all seeks, scans, lookups and updates against indexes and is a very good place to start the investigation. If something is writing to the table or reading from it, you will see the numbers go up and the dates moving forward.
Great, so we’re done and this post is over? Not exactly: there are some more facts to take into account.

First of all, the DMV gets cleared every time SQL Server is restarted, so the accuracy of the data returned is heavily dependant on how long the instance has been running. Moreover, some actions (rebuilding the index, to name one) reset the index usage stats and if you want to rely on sensible stats, your only option is to persist the data in some place regularly.

To achieve this goal, I coded this simple stored procedure that reads the stats from the DMV and stores it in a table, updating the read and write counts for each subsequent execution.

-- You have a TOOLS database, right?
-- If not, create one, you will thank me later

-- A place for everything, everything in its place

-- This table will hold index usage summarized at table level
CREATE TABLE meta.index_usage(
       db_name sysname,
       schema_name sysname,
       object_name sysname,
       read_count bigint,
       last_read datetime,
       write_count bigint,
       last_write datetime,
       PRIMARY KEY CLUSTERED (db_name, schema_name, object_name)

-- This table will hold the last snapshot taken
-- It will be used to capture the snapshot and
-- merge it with the destination table
CREATE TABLE meta.index_usage_last_snapshot(
       db_name sysname,
       schema_name sysname,
       object_name sysname,
       read_count bigint,
       last_read datetime,
       write_count bigint,
       last_write datetime,
       PRIMARY KEY CLUSTERED (db_name, schema_name, object_name)

-- This procedure captures index usage stats
-- and merges the stats with the ones already captured
CREATE PROCEDURE meta.record_index_usage


IF OBJECT_ID('tempdb..#stats') IS NOT NULL
       DROP TABLE #stats;

-- We will use the index stats multiple times, so parking
-- them in a temp table is convenient
       db_name sysname,
       schema_name sysname,
       object_name sysname,
       read_count bigint,
       last_read datetime,
       write_count bigint,
       last_write datetime,
       PRIMARY KEY CLUSTERED (db_name, schema_name, object_name)

-- Reads index usage stats and aggregates stats at table level
-- Aggregated data is saved in the temporary table
WITH index_stats AS (
       SELECT DB_NAME(database_id) AS db_name,
              OBJECT_SCHEMA_NAME(object_id,database_id) AS schema_name,
              OBJECT_NAME(object_id, database_id) AS object_name,
              user_seeks + user_scans + user_lookups AS read_count,
              user_updates AS write_count,
              last_read = (
                  SELECT MAX(value)
                  FROM (
                  ) AS v(value)
              last_write = last_user_update
       FROM sys.dm_db_index_usage_stats
       WHERE DB_NAME(database_id) NOT IN ('master','model','tempdb','msdb')
SELECT db_name,
       SUM(read_count) AS read_count,
       MAX(last_read) AS last_read,
       SUM(write_count) AS write_count,
       MAX(last_write) AS last_write
FROM index_stats
GROUP BY db_name,

DECLARE @last_date_in_snapshot datetime;
DECLARE @sqlserver_start_date datetime;

-- reads maximum read/write date from the data already saved in the last snapshot table
SELECT @last_date_in_snapshot = MAX(CASE WHEN last_read > last_write THEN last_read ELSE last_write END)
FROM meta.index_usage_last_snapshot;

-- reads SQL Server start time
SELECT @sqlserver_start_date = sqlserver_start_time FROM sys.dm_os_sys_info;

-- handle restarted server: last snapshot is before server start time
IF (@last_date_in_snapshot) < (@sqlserver_start_date)
       TRUNCATE TABLE meta.index_usage_last_snapshot;

-- handle snapshot table empty
IF NOT EXISTS(SELECT * FROM meta.index_usage_last_snapshot)
       INSERT INTO meta.index_usage_last_snapshot
       SELECT * FROM #stats;

-- merges data in the target table with the new collected data
WITH offset_stats AS (
       SELECT newstats.db_name,
              -- if new < old, the stats have been reset
              newstats.read_count -
                      WHEN newstats.read_count < ISNULL(oldstats.read_count,0) THEN 0
                      ELSE ISNULL(oldstats.read_count,0)
                  AS read_count,
              -- if new < old, the stats have been reset
              newstats.write_count -
                      WHEN newstats.write_count < ISNULL(oldstats.write_count,0) THEN 0
                      ELSE ISNULL(oldstats.write_count,0)
              AS write_count,
       FROM #stats AS newstats
       LEFT JOIN meta.index_usage_last_snapshot AS oldstats
              ON newstats.db_name = oldstats.db_name
              AND newstats.schema_name = oldstats.schema_name
              AND newstats.object_name = oldstats.object_name
MERGE INTO meta.index_usage AS dest
USING offset_stats AS src
       ON src.db_name = dest.db_name
       AND src.schema_name = dest.schema_name
       AND src.object_name = dest.object_name
       UPDATE SET read_count += src.read_count,
              last_read = src.last_read,
              write_count += src.write_count,
              last_write = src.last_write

-- empty the last snapshot
TRUNCATE TABLE meta.index_usage_last_snapshot;

-- replace it with the new collected data
INSERT INTO meta.index_usage_last_snapshot
SELECT * FROM #stats;



You can schedule the execution of the stored procedure every hour or so and you will see data flow in the meta.index_usage_last_snapshot table. Last read/write date will be updated and the read/write counts will be incremented by comparing saved counts with the captured ones: if I had 1000 reads in the previous snapshot and I capture 1200 reads, the total reads column must be incremented by 200.

So, if I don’t find my table in this list after monitoring for some days, is it safe to assume that it can be deleted? Probably yes. More on that later.
What these stats don’t tell you is what to do when you do find the table in the list. It would be reasonable to think that the table is used, but there are several reasons why it may have ended up being read or written and not all of them will be ascribable to an application.
For instance, if a table is merge replicated, the replication agents will access it and read counts will go up. What the index usage stats tell us is that something is using a table but it says nothing about the nature of that something. If you want to find out more, you need to set up some kind of monitoring that records additional information about where reads and writes come from.

Extended Events to the rescue

For this purpose, an audit is probably too verbose, because it will record an entry for each access to each table being audited. The audit file will grow very quickly if not limited to a few objects to investigate. Moreover, audits have to be set up for each table and kept running for a reasonable time before drawing conclusions.

Audits are based on Extended Events: is there another way to do the same thing Audits do using extended events directly? Of course there is, but it’s trickier than you would expect.

First of all, the Extended Events used by the audit feature are not available directly. You’ve been hearing several times that audits use Extended Events but nobody ever told you which events they are using: the reason is that those events are not usable in a custom Extended Events session (the SecAudit package is marked as “private”). As a consequence, if you want to audit table access, you will have to use some other kind of event.

In order to find out which Extended Events provide information at the object level, we can query the sys.dm_xe_object_columns DMV:

SELECT object_name, description
FROM sys.dm_xe_object_columns
WHERE name = 'object_id'

As you will see, the only event that could help in this case is the lock_acquired event. Whenever a table is accessed, a lock will be taken and capturing those locks is a quick and easy way to discover activity on the tables.

Here is the definition of a session to capture locking information:

ADD EVENT sqlserver.lock_acquired (
    SET collect_database_name = (0)
        ,collect_resource_description = (1)
    ACTION(sqlserver.client_app_name, sqlserver.is_system, sqlserver.server_principal_name)
    WHERE (
        [package0].[equal_boolean]([sqlserver].[is_system], (0)) -- user SPID
        AND [package0].[equal_uint64]([resource_type], (5)) -- OBJECT
        AND [package0].[not_equal_uint64]([database_id], (32767))  -- resourcedb
        AND [package0].[greater_than_uint64]([database_id], (4)) -- user database
        AND [package0].[greater_than_equal_int64]([object_id], (245575913)) -- user object
        AND (
               [mode] = (1) -- SCH-S
            OR [mode] = (6) -- IS
            OR [mode] = (8) -- IX
            OR [mode] = (3) -- S
            OR [mode] = (5) -- X
     MAX_MEMORY = 20480 KB

If you start this session and monitor the data captured with the “Watch live data” window, you will soon notice that a huge number of events gets captured, which means that the output will also be huge and analyzing it can become a daunting task. Saving this data to a file target is not the way to go here: is there another way?

The main point here is that there is no need for the individual events, but the interesting information is the aggregated data from those events. Ideally, you would need to group by object_id and get the maximum read or write date. If possible, counting reads and writes by object_id would be great. At a first look, it seems like a good fit for the histogram target, however you will soon discover that the histogram target can “group” on a single column, which is not what you want. Object_ids are not unique and you can have the same object_id in different databases. Moreover, the histogram target can only count events and is not suitable for other types of aggregation, such as MAX.

Streaming the events with Powershell

Fortunately, when something is not available natively, you can code your own implementation. In this case, you can use the Extended Events streaming API to attach to the session and evaluate the events as soon as they show up in the stream.

In this example, I will show you how to capture the client application name along with the database and object id and group events on these 3 fields. If you are interested in additional fields (such as host name or login name), you will need to group by those fields as well.

In the same way, if you want to aggregate additional fields, you will have to implement your own logic. In this example, I am computing the MAX aggregate for the read and write events, without computing the COUNT. The reason is that it’s not easy to predict whether the count will be accurate or not, because different kind of locks will be taken in different situations (under snapshot isolation no shared locks are taken, so you have to rely on SCH-S locks; when no dirty pages are present SQL Server takes IS locks and not S locks…).

Before going to the Powershell code, you will need two tables to store the information:

CREATE TABLE meta.table_usage_xe(
       db_name sysname,
       schema_name sysname,
       object_name sysname,
       client_app_name nvarchar(128),
       last_read datetime,
       last_write datetime,
       PRIMARY KEY(db_name, schema_name, object_name, client_app_name)

CREATE TABLE meta.table_usage_xe_last_snapshot(
       database_id int,
       object_id int,
       client_app_name nvarchar(128),
       last_read datetime,
       last_write datetime,
       PRIMARY KEY(database_id, object_id, client_app_name)

Now that you have a nice place to store the aggregated information, you can start this script to capture the events and persist them.

sl $Env:Temp

#For SQL Server 2014:
Add-Type -Path 'C:\Program Files\Microsoft SQL Server\120\Shared\Microsoft.SqlServer.XE.Core.dll'
Add-Type -Path 'C:\Program Files\Microsoft SQL Server\120\Shared\Microsoft.SqlServer.XEvent.Linq.dll'
#For SQL Server 2012:
#Add-Type -Path 'C:\Program Files\Microsoft SQL Server\110\Shared\Microsoft.SqlServer.XEvent.Linq.dll'

$connectionString = 'Data Source = YourServerNameGoesHere; Initial Catalog = master; Integrated Security = SSPI'

$SessionName = "audit_table_usage"

# loads all object ids for table objects and their database id
# table object_ids will be saved in order to rule out whether
# the locked object is a table or something else.
$commandText = "
DECLARE @results TABLE (
       object_id int,
       database_id int

DECLARE @sql nvarchar(max);

SET @sql = '
       SELECT object_id, db_id()
       FROM sys.tables t
       WHERE is_ms_shipped = 0

DECLARE @statement nvarchar(max);

SET @statement = (
       SELECT 'EXEC ' + QUOTENAME(name) + '.sys.sp_executesql @sql; '
       FROM sys.databases d
       WHERE name NOT IN ('master','model','msdb','tempdb')
       FOR XML PATH(''), TYPE

INSERT @results
EXEC sp_executesql @statement, N'@sql nvarchar(max)', @sql;

FROM @results

$objCache = @{}

$conn = New-Object -TypeName System.Data.SqlClient.SqlConnection -ArgumentList $connectionString
$cmd = New-Object -TypeName System.Data.SqlClient.SqlCommand
$cmd.CommandText = $commandText
$cmd.Connection = $conn
$rdr = $cmd.ExecuteReader()

# load table object_ids and store them in a hashtable

while ($rdr.Read()) {
	$objId = $rdr.GetInt32(0)
	$dbId = $rdr.GetInt32(1)
	if(-not $objCache.ContainsKey($objId)){
	else {
		$arr = $objCache.Get_Item($objId)
		$arr += $dbId
		$objCache.set_Item($objId, $arr)


# create a DataTable to hold lock information in memory
$queue = New-Object -TypeName System.Data.DataTable
$queue.TableName = $SessionName


# create a DataView to perform searches in the DataTable
$dview = New-Object -TypeName System.Data.DataView
$dview.Table = $queue
$dview.Sort = "database_id, client_app_name, object_id"

$last_dump = [DateTime]::Now

# connect to the Extended Events session
[Microsoft.SqlServer.XEvent.Linq.QueryableXEventData] $events = New-Object -TypeName Microsoft.SqlServer.XEvent.Linq.QueryableXEventData `
    -ArgumentList @($connectionString, $SessionName, [Microsoft.SqlServer.XEvent.Linq.EventStreamSourceOptions]::EventStream, [Microsoft.SqlServer.XEvent.Linq.EventStreamCacheOptions]::DoNotCache)

$events | % {
    $currentEvent = $_

	$database_id = $currentEvent.Fields["database_id"].Value
	$client_app_name = $currentEvent.Actions["client_app_name"].Value
	if($client_app_name -eq $null) { $client_app_name = [string]::Empty }
	$object_id = $currentEvent.Fields["object_id"].Value
	$mode = $currentEvent.Fields["mode"].Value

	# search the object id in the object cache
	# if found (and database id matches) ==> table
	# otherwise ==> some other kind of object (not interesting)
	if($objCache.ContainsKey($object_id) -and $objCache.Get_Item($object_id) -contains $database_id)
		# search the DataTable by database_id, client app name and object_id
		$found_rows = $dview.FindRows(@($database_id, $client_app_name, $object_id))

		# if not found, add a row
		if($found_rows.Count -eq 0){
			$current_row = $queue.Rows.Add()
			$current_row["database_id"] = $database_id
			$current_row["client_app_name"] = $client_app_name
			$current_row["object_id"] = $object_id
		else {
			$current_row = $found_rows[0]

		if(($mode.Value -eq "IX") -or ($mode.Value -eq "X")) {
			# Exclusive or Intent-Exclusive lock: count this as a write
			$current_row["last_write"] = [DateTime]::Now
		else {
			# Shared or Intent-Shared lock: count this as a read
			# SCH-S locks counted here as well (snapshot isolation ==> no shared locks)
			$current_row["last_read"] = [DateTime]::Now

	$ts = New-TimeSpan -Start $last_dump -End (get-date)

	# Dump to database every 5 minutes
	if($ts.TotalMinutes -gt 5) {
		$last_dump = [DateTime]::Now

		# BCP data to the staging table TOOLS.meta.table_usage_xe_last_snapshot
		$bcp = New-Object -TypeName System.Data.SqlClient.SqlBulkCopy -ArgumentList @($connectionString)
		$bcp.DestinationTableName = "TOOLS.meta.table_usage_xe_last_snapshot"
		$bcp.Batchsize = 1000
		$bcp.BulkCopyTimeout = 0


		# Merge data with the destination table TOOLS.meta.table_usage_xe
		$statement = "


				MERGE INTO meta.table_usage_xe AS dest
				USING (
					SELECT db_name(database_id) AS db_name,
						object_schema_name(object_id, database_id) AS schema_name,
						object_name(object_id, database_id) AS object_name,
					FROM meta.table_usage_xe_last_snapshot
				) AS src
					ON src.db_name = dest.db_name
					AND src.schema_name = dest.schema_name
					AND src.object_name = dest.object_name
					AND src.client_app_name = dest.client_app_name
					UPDATE SET last_read = src.last_read,
						last_write = src.last_write
					INSERT (db_name, schema_name, object_name, client_app_name, last_read, last_write)
					VALUES (db_name, schema_name, object_name, client_app_name, last_read, last_write);

				TRUNCATE TABLE meta.table_usage_xe_last_snapshot;



		$conn = New-Object -TypeName System.Data.SqlClient.SqlConnection -ArgumentList $connectionString
		$cmd = New-Object -TypeName System.Data.SqlClient.SqlCommand
		$cmd.CommandText = $statement
		$cmd.Connection = $conn




WARNING: Be careful running this script against a production server: I tried it with a reasonaly busy server and the CPU/memory load of powershell.exe is non-negligible. On the other hand, the load imposed by the session per se is very low: make sure you run this script from a different machine and not on the database server.

What to do with unused objects

After monitoring for a reasonable amount of time, you will start to notice that some objects are never used and you will probably want to delete them. Don’t!

In my experience, as soon as you delete an object, something that uses it (and you didn’t capture) pops up and fails. In those cases, you want to restore the objects very quickly. I usually move everything to a “trash” schema and have it sitting there for some time (six months/one year) and eventually empty the trash. If somebody asks for a restore, it’s just as simple as an ALTER SCHEMA … TRANSFER statement.

Bottom line

Cleaning up clutter from a database is not simple: hopefully the techniques in this post will help you in the task. Everything would be much simpler if the Extended Events histogram target was more flexible, but please keep in mind that it’s not about the tools: these techniques can help you identify unused objects when no other information is available, but nothing is a good substitute for a correct use of the database. When new tables are added to a database, keep track of the request and take notes about who uses the tables for which purpose: everything will be much easier in the long run.


Posted on April 20, 2015, in PowerShell, SQL Server and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. This is excellent, thank you

  2. A great post. I really like the mix of extended events and Powershell. It’s a pity that extended events doesn’t allow the capture of the ‘Audit Schema Object Access Event’ class. SQL trace allows this but extended events don’t, apparently because this class is limited to SQL Audit. However, when chosen in SQL Audit you can’t see the host name, client app etc. So because extended event don’t expose the class you’re only option is a SQL trace. Only mentioning ‘Audit Schema Object Access Event’ class because it shows you the permissions used when an object is accessed – select, insert, update, delete, execute. Lock acquired is good but I’d suggest ‘Audit Schema Object Access Event’ is better.

    • I completely agree. The audit events are limited to SQL Audit, so that you can’t recreate enterprise-only features without buying expensive enterprise licenses… Too bad that the event is not available directly even when you have EE.

  3. I am unable to use the poweshell script because the Microsoft.SqlServer.XE.Core.dll are not vailble in SQL server 2012. Is there any way to fix it.

    • Just change the Add-Type lines to this:
      Add-Type -Path ‘C:\Program Files\Microsoft SQL Server\110\Shared\Microsoft.SqlServer.XEvent.Linq.dll’
      With SQL Server 2012 you don’t need the XE.Core.dll assembly. I updated the post to include this information.

  4. what about running one extended event session *per each database* on the SQL instance and then using the bucketizer/histogram target for each of those sessions? This would remove the resteriction of object_id not being unique across multiple databases.

    • That’s another option too. Actually, it’s quite unlikely that you need to perform this kind of analysis on more than one database at the same time. However, the histogram target can only count occurrences of the events and won’t calculate other kinds of aggregates (min/max for instance)

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