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Visualizing MySQL Performance: A Deep Dive Into EXPLAIN Output Formats

In database management, optimizing MySQL queries is not just a best practice—it's necessary for achieving high performance and resource efficiency.

The MySQL EXPLAIN statement is one of the most powerful tools for this purpose. This command-line utility provides a window into the query execution plan, revealing how the database engine interprets your SQL queries. While the EXPLAIN statement itself is invaluable, understanding its various output formats can elevate your optimization efforts to a new level. This article aims to take a deep dive into these different output formats, such as TRADITIONAL, JSON, and TREE, to provide a comprehensive guide for visualizing and interpreting MySQL performance metrics. With this knowledge, you'll be better equipped to fine-tune your queries for optimal performance.


The EXPLAIN statement in MySQL serves as a cornerstone for query optimization, offering a behind-the-scenes look at how your SQL queries are processed. It generates an execution plan that outlines the steps taken by the MySQL engine to retrieve the data you've requested. This is crucial for identifying bottlenecks, inefficient operations, or unnecessary scans that could slow down your queries.

Regarding performance metrics, EXPLAIN is a treasure trove of information. It can reveal critical metrics such as:

  1. Type of Scan: Whether the query uses a full table scan, index scan, or some other type of scan.
  2. Possible Keys: The indexes that MySQL considers using for the query.
  3. Key Used: The actual index used for the query, if any.
  4. Rows Examined: The number of rows scanned to execute the query.
  5. Filter Efficiency: The percentage of rows that were filtered out during the query execution.
  6. Cost Metrics: Estimated costs associated with query execution, including read and evaluation costs.
  7. Timing Information: When used with the ANALYZE option, it provides the actual time taken for query execution.

Understanding these metrics is essential for fine-tuning your queries, reducing resource consumption, and improving overall database performance.

Standard EXPLAIN Output

The default output format of the MySQL EXPLAIN statement is tabular, presenting the query execution plan in a structured table. Each row in this table corresponds to a step or operation in the query execution, and each column provides specific details about that operation. This tabular format is easy to read and offers a quick way to grasp how MySQL plans to execute a given query.

Here are some of the key columns you'll encounter in the standard EXPLAIN output and what they signify:

  1. id: A unique identifier for each SELECT operation in the query.
  2. select_type: Indicates the type of SELECT query, such as SIMPLE, SUBQUERY, or UNION.
  3. table: The table involved in the step.
  4. partitions: Specifies which partitions are being accessed, if any.
  5. type: Describes the join type, like ALL for a full table scan or INDEX for an index scan.
  6. possible_keys: Lists the indexes that MySQL considers using for the query.
  7. key: The actual index chosen for the query.
  8. key_len: The length of the key used, in bytes.
  9. ref: The columns or constants that are compared to the key.
  10. rows: Estimates the number of rows that will be examined during the query.
  11. filtered: The percentage of rows that will be filtered by the query condition.
  12. Extra: Additional information such as whether an index is used, if filesort is involved, or other special operations.

Understanding these columns is crucial for interpreting the EXPLAIN output and thereby optimizing your MySQL queries for better performance.


When used in conjunction with the ANALYZE keyword, the EXPLAIN statement provides an even more detailed and insightful view into query performance. The ANALYZE option actually executes the query, thereby offering real-time statistics that go beyond the estimates provided by a standard EXPLAIN. This is particularly useful for understanding the actual behavior of complex queries and identifying bottlenecks.

Enhanced Insights

The ANALYZE option adds several new columns and metrics to the output, including:

  1. Estimated Execution Cost: Provides a cost metric that helps in understanding the computational effort required to execute the query.
  2. Estimated Number of Returned Rows: Offers an estimate of the number of rows the query will return, allowing you to gauge the query's efficiency.
  3. Actual Number of Rows: Shows the actual number of rows returned by the query, which can be compared with the estimate for accuracy.
  4. Number of Loops: Indicates how many times a nested loop is executed within the query, which can be a performance indicator.

Timing Metrics and Execution Costs

One of the most valuable aspects of using EXPLAIN with ANALYZE is the inclusion of timing metrics:

  1. Time to Return First Row: Measures the time taken to return the first row of the result set.
  2. Time to Return All Rows: Indicates the total time taken to execute the query and return all rows, measured in milliseconds.

These timing metrics, along with the estimated and actual execution costs, provide a comprehensive view of query performance. They are instrumental in fine-tuning queries for optimal speed and resource utilization.

Output Formats

The EXPLAIN statement in MySQL is not limited to a single output format. Understanding the performance of your queries can be made easier by leveraging different output formats that cater to various needs and preferences. The three primary output formats available are TRADITIONAL, JSON, and TREE.


The TRADITIONAL format is the default and most commonly used. It presents the query execution plan in a tabular form, making it easy to read and interpret. This format is particularly useful for quick assessments and is widely supported across various MySQL tools.


JSON Format

The JSON format provides a structured and detailed view of the query execution plan. It includes additional information that is not available in the TRADITIONAL format, such as cost metrics and used columns. This format is ideal for automated parsing and in-depth analysis, as it can be easily integrated into performance monitoring tools.


TREE Format

The TREE format offers a hierarchical view of the query execution plan, visually representing the relationships between different components of the query. This format is particularly useful for understanding complex queries with multiple joins, subqueries, or nested loops. It provides a more intuitive way to visualize the sequence and dependencies involved in query execution.


Each of these formats has its own set of advantages and use-cases, and the choice of format can be dictated by the specific requirements of your performance analysis tasks.


While the native output formats like TRADITIONAL, JSON, and TREE offer valuable insights into query performance, graphical user interface (GUI) tools can further enhance your understanding and simplify the optimization process. One such tool is the Query Profiler built into dbForge Studio for MySQL.

Query Profiler in dbForge Studio for MySQL

dbForge Studio's Query Profiler offers a comprehensive solution for query performance tuning. It not only allows you to optimize and improve query performance but also provides a visual representation of the MySQL EXPLAIN plan. The tool features an intuitive interface where you can easily switch to the EXPLAIN Plan in the Query Profiler tree to get a detailed analysis of your queries. This includes metrics like the number of rows processed, the indexes used, and the time spent on query execution.

Complementing Native Output Formats

The Query Profiler goes beyond the native output formats by offering additional features like SHOW PROFILE results grid and session statistics. These features provide a more rounded view of query performance, making it easier to identify bottlenecks and optimize your queries effectively. Moreover, the tool allows you to compare query execution times with and without specific keys, aiding in more nuanced performance tuning.

By using GUI tools like dbForge Studio's Query Profiler in conjunction with MySQL's native EXPLAIN output formats, you can achieve a more thorough and user-friendly approach to query optimization.


Understanding the various output formats of the MySQL EXPLAIN statement is crucial for anyone serious about optimizing database performance. The depth of insights offered by different formats like the default tabular, JSON, and TREE can be instrumental in identifying performance bottlenecks and opportunities for optimization. Coupled with advanced GUI tools like dbForge Studio's Query Profiler, you have a comprehensive toolkit for dissecting query behavior and making informed decisions. In summary, mastering the nuances of EXPLAIN output formats is not just a good-to-know skill; it's a fundamental competency for achieving optimal MySQL performance. This knowledge empowers you to make data-driven decisions, ensuring that your queries are both effective and efficient, thereby contributing to the overall robustness and reliability of your database systems.

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