Creating an Index with DROP_EXISTING = ON in SQL Server

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Creating an index in SQL Server is a moderately simple task that improves the query performance. We can create a clustered as well as a non-clustered index which can be either unique or non-unique as per requirement.

If we have already created an index on a table, however, due to a requirement change, we need to add/remove one or more columns to an existing index. In this case, we can use the DROP_EXISTING option without writing the extra line of code to drop the existing index first and then re-create it. (This is an old fashioned coding style: Drop if Exists and Create a New.)

With DROP_EXISTING = ON, SQL Server will drop and rebuild the existing clustered/non-clustered index with modified index specifications, keeping the index name same as it exists. We can add/remove columns, modify the sort order, or change a filegroup as well.

DROP_EXISTING is by default OFF, and it does not work if you are including this option while creating a new index for the first time. DROP_EXISTING = ON in SQL Server only works if you already have an index with the specified name on a table.

With DROP_EXISTING, we can do the following:

1. Changing a Non-Clustered index to a Clustered index is permitted.

With DROP_EXISTING, we cannot do the following:

1. Changing a Clustered index to any other type of index is not permitted.

Advantages of Using DROP_EXISTING = ON

If we are re-creating a clustered index on a table, which already has a non-clustered index, using DROP_EXISTING = ON in SQL Server while re-creating a clustered index has the following benefits:

• Non-clustered indexes are not re-built again. If we are re-creating a clustered index with DROP_EXISTING = ON in SQL Server, it knows the clustering key has not been changed in the Non-clustered index. This saves a significant amount of time. Every Non-clustered index has a clustering key which refers to the Clustered index. If a clustered index is rebuilt, then SQL Server has to modify the Non-Clustered index as well. However, using DROP_EXISTING = ON is beneficial because we do not need to rebuild the Non-clustered indexes again.

• If we use the old method to drop and re-create a clustered index, it causes all non-clustered index on that table to be rebuilt again to match the clustering key. This can be saved using DROP_EXISTING = ON with clustered index.

Syntax for Index Creation with DROP_EXISTING

CREATE [Unique] [Clustered | NonClustered ] INDEX Index_Name
ON  <TableName> (Column Name/s)


Create a sample table, Employee.

DROP TABLE Employee;

Id              INT PRIMARY KEY,
Name            VARCHAR(50),
Telephone       VARCHAR(10),
Gender          CHAR(1),
Country		VARCHAR(100),
Salary          DECIMAL (18,2)

1. DROP_EXISTING = ON fails while creating a New Index

In the following example, the DROP_EXISTING = ON option tries to find an existing index with NCI_Employee_TelphoneGender name, as it does not exit, index creation fails with the following error message.

ON Employee (Telephone, Gender)

Msg 7999, Level 16, State 9, Line 1
Could not find any index named ‘NCI_Employee_TelphoneGender’ for table ‘Employee’.


Creating an Index

ON Employee (Telephone, Gender);


Query to See List of Columns in an Index

The query below shows the Telephone and Gender columns have been included in the created Non-clustered index.

select name as ColumnListInIndex
from sys.index_columns as ic inner join sys.columns c 
on ic.column_id = c.column_id and ic.object_id = c.object_id 
where ic.object_id = 
(select object_id from sys.indexes 
where name = 'NCI_Employee_TelphoneGender' and type_desc = 'NONCLUSTERED')
and ic.index_id = 2;


2. DROP_EXISTING = ON in SQL Server Works on the Existing Index

In the above example, we have created an INDEX, NCI_Employee_TelphoneGender on the Telephone and gender column. Now due to a change in the requirement, we need to include a Country column as well in the existing non-clustered index. We can achieve this using the DROP_EXISTING = ON option.

In the example below, with DROP_EXISTING = ON, SQL Server will first drop the specified index and will re-create an index with same name and Country column included.

ON Employee (Telephone, Gender, Country)


Old Method for Writing the Code Above

The code above with DROP_EXISTING = ON is a replacement of an old method of dropping and re-creating an index. If we use the code below to drop/re-create clustered index, it will re-build all non-clustered indexes as well which could be a big performance hit.

           FROM sys.indexes AS si 
           WHERE = 'NCI_Employee_TelphoneGender')
DROP INDEX NCI_Employee_TelphoneGender ON Employee;

CREATE INDEX NCI_Employee_TelphoneGender
ON Employee
        Telephone, Gender, Country


We have seen how DROP_EXISTING = ON in SQL Server helps us with clustered index to improve performance with few examples, and DROP_EXISTING = ON can only be used with existing created index in order to modify their specifications.


About Vishwanath Dalvi

Vishwanath Dalvi is a gifted engineer and tech enthusiast. He enjoys music, magic, movies, and gaming. When not hacking around or supporting the open source community, he is trying to overcome his phobia of dogs.
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