The hash join has two inputs: the build input and probe input. The query optimizer assigns these roles so that the smaller of the two inputs is the build input.
Hash joins are used for many types of set-matching operations: inner join; left, right, and full outer join; left and right semi-join; intersection; union; and difference. Moreover, a variant of the hash join can do duplicate removal and grouping (such as SUM(salary) GROUP BY department). These modifications use only one input for both the build and probe roles.
Similar to a merge join, a hash join can be used only if there is at least one equality (WHERE) clause in the join predicate. However, because joins are typically used to reassemble relationships, expressed with an equality predicate between a primary key and a foreign key, most joins have at least one equality clause. The set of columns in the equality predicate is called the hash key, because these are the columns that contribute to the hash function. Additional predicates are possible and are evaluated as residual predicates separate from the comparison of hash values. The hash key can be an expression, as long as it can be computed exclusively from columns in a single row. In grouping operations, the columns of the group by list are the hash key. In set operations such as intersection, as well as in the removal of duplicates, the hash key consists of all columns.
In-Memory Hash Join
The hash join first scans or computes the entire build input and then builds a hash table in memory. Each row is inserted into a hash bucket depending on the hash value computed for the hash key. If the entire build input is smaller than the available memory, all rows can be inserted into the hash table. This build phase is followed by the probe phase. The entire probe input is scanned or computed one row at a time, and for each probe row, the hash key's value is computed, the corresponding hash bucket is scanned, and the matches are produced.
Grace Hash Join
If the build input does not fit in memory, a hash join proceeds in several steps. Each step has a build phase and probe phase. Initially, the entire build and probe inputs are consumed and partitioned (using a hash function on the hash keys) into multiple files. The number of such files is called the partitioning fan-out. Using the hash function on the hash keys guarantees that any two joining records must be in the same pair of files. Therefore, the task of joining two large inputs has been reduced to multiple, but smaller, instances of the same tasks. The hash join is then applied to each pair of partitioned files.
Recursive Hash Join
If the build input is so large that inputs for a standard external merge sorts would require multiple merge levels, multiple partitioning steps and multiple partitioning levels are required. If only some of the partitions are large, additional partitioning steps are used for only those specific partitions. In order to make all partitioning steps as fast as possible, large, asynchronous I/O operations are used so that a single thread can keep multiple disk drives busy.
Note If the build input is larger but not a lot larger than the available memory, elements of in-memory hash join and grace hash join are combined in a single step, producing a hybrid hash join.
It is not always possible during optimization to determine which hash join will be used. Therefore, Microsoft® SQL Server™ 2000 starts using an in-memory hash join and gradually transitions to grace hash join, and recursive hash join, depending on the size of the build input.
If the optimizer anticipates wrongly which of the two inputs is smaller and, therefore, should have been the build input, the build and probe roles are reversed dynamically. The hash join makes sure that it uses the smaller overflow file as build input. This technique is called role reversal.