After an interesting discussion on SQLServerCentral last week, I realised that the terms ‘estimated execution plan’ and ‘actual execution plan’ are perhaps a little bit misleading.
The only thing estimated about the estimated execution plan is the rowcounts, costs and row size. The plan itself isn’t an estimate. It’s not as if the optimiser, when asked for an estimated plan, does a less thorough job than when asked to compile a plan for a query’s execution.
The two forms of execution plan are better described as ‘execution plan with run-time information’ and ‘execution plan without run-time information’
When, in Management Studio, someone clicks the ‘display estimated execution plan’ button, the query is submitted to SQL Server, parsed and bound, algebratised and optimised just as if it was going to be executed. But the query is not executed, and as such, the plan when returned contains no run time information.
If there is a matching cached query plan, that cached plan is what’s returned and no optimisation is done. This can be seen by using profiler with the Cache hit, cache miss and cache insert events being traced.
When, in Management Studio, the query is run with the execution plan option enabled, the query is submitted to SQL Server, parsed and bound, algebratised, optimised and executed. The returned plan does contain the run-time for that specific execution, hence the plan contains things like ‘actual row count, actual IO cost’, etc
If there’s a matching query plan in cache then that cached plan will be used for the query’s execution and will be the one returned, though with the run-time information added
When a plan is cached, only the compile-time information is cached. The detailed run-time information on the actual number of rows, costs and the like is (I believe) discarded after updating the aggregated query stats. Hence, when you retrieve a query from the plan cache, it will not contain the run-time information. Consider a plan that’s been used 20 times. Which execution’s run-time information would it contain? Remember that there’s only one plan in cache per procedure.
Hence, a plan fetched from will be identical to the plan returned by requesting the estimated execution plan for a specific query (Providing there’s nothing happening to invalidate the cached plan)
Profiler can capture (depending on event) the plan without the run-time information or the plan with the run-time information. There’s a nice table in chapter 2 of one of Itzik’s books that shows the various profiler events, when they fire and what they return.