What Is Cardinality In Databases: A Comprehensive Guide

Understanding Cardinality and Its Impact on Database Performance


Cardinality is a fundamental concept in databases that plays a crucial role in designing efficient databases and optimizing query performance. For those new to databases, understanding what is cardinality is essential for effective data management. This comprehensive guide will explain the meaning of cardinality, its types, and its impact on database performance, making it accessible for both beginners and intermediate users.

What Is Cardinality?

Cardinality in databases refers to the uniqueness of data values contained in a column. It essentially measures how many distinct values exist in a column compared to the total number of rows in a table.

Cardinality Definition in Databases

Cardinality can be understood in two main ways:

  • Mathematical Sense: The number of elements in a set.
  • Database Context: The number of unique values in a column, which helps in optimizing how data is stored and retrieved.

Importance of Cardinality in Databases

Understanding cardinality is vital for database performance and efficiency. It affects query optimization, indexing, and overall database design.

Query Optimization

Database query optimizers use cardinality to determine the most efficient way to execute queries. Knowing how many unique values are in a column helps the optimizer choose the best method to retrieve data.

For example, in an e-commerce database, the ProductID column typically has high cardinality because each product has a unique ID. This makes it ideal for indexing. On the other hand, the Category column might have low or medium cardinality because many products share the same category.

Impact on Indexing

  • High Cardinality: Columns with high cardinality are great for indexing because they allow the database to quickly locate specific rows.
  • Low Cardinality: Columns with low cardinality are less effective for indexing as they result in larger sets of data to be scanned.

High Cardinality vs. Low Cardinality

High Cardinality High cardinality refers to columns with many unique values. These columns are typically used for primary keys or unique identifiers. Example: In a user database, the Email column would have high cardinality because each user has a unique email address. This uniqueness makes it suitable for indexing, allowing for fast searches and data retrieval.

Low Cardinality Low cardinality refers to columns with few unique values. These columns are often used for categorical data. Example: In a survey database, the Gender column would have low cardinality with values like “Male” and “Female”. Since there are only a few distinct values, indexing this column might not significantly speed up queries.

Cardinality in SQL

In SQL databases, cardinality affects query execution plans. When you execute a query, the database engine uses cardinality estimates to determine the most efficient way to retrieve data.

Impact on Query Performance

  • Execution Plans: The query optimizer creates execution plans based on cardinality to minimize resource usage.
  • Statistics: Databases maintain statistics about cardinality, often stored as histograms, to help the optimizer make accurate decisions. Example of SQL Cardinality

Consider the following SQL query:

SELECT * FROM employees WHERE department_id = 5;

If the department_id column has low cardinality (few departments), the optimizer might choose a full table scan. However, if it has high cardinality (many departments), it might use an index to quickly find the matching rows.

Monitoring and Managing Cardinality

Effectively managing cardinality involves using database management tools to monitor and analyze data distribution.

Tools and Techniques

  • Monitoring Tools: Tools like Netdata Database Performance Monitor can help track and understand cardinality in your database.
  • Statistics Updates: Regularly update statistics to ensure the optimizer has accurate information for query planning.

Best Practices

  • Regular Monitoring: Keep an eye on how cardinality changes over time.
  • Optimize Indexes: Adjust indexes based on cardinality to improve performance.
  • Update Statistics: Ensure database statistics are up-to-date for accurate query optimization.


Understanding what is cardinality in databases is crucial for designing efficient databases and optimizing query performance. By knowing the types of cardinality and their impact on database operations, you can make informed decisions about indexing, query optimization, and overall data management.

For further insights and tools, explore additional resources on database performance and optimization to enhance your database management skills. By mastering the concept of cardinality, you’ll be better equipped to manage and optimize your databases effectively