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Options Affecting SQL Server Locking Behavior

Sometimes, you might have a need to alter SQL Server's default locking behavior. There are multiple ways to achieve that objective. This article explores the query hints and SET options that can also be used to alter the way SQL Server locks resources.
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Another article in this series, "Details of Locking," discussed the SQL Server locking behavior. We also showed you how to override the default behavior through changing the default TRANSACTION ISOLATION LEVEL. In this article, we discuss a few other options that let you change the default behavior if needed. Please keep in mind, though, that SQL Server is a great product, and it usually makes the best locking decisions on its own. If you experience problems that you think are due to locking, try rewriting your stored procedures, re-evaluate your indexing strategy, and consider changing your data model first. Then, if you have used all other resources to no avail, you might try to use the locking hints and SET options discussed in this article as a last resort.

Tuning Queries Through Locking Hints

The query hints instruct the SQL Server engine to acquire and release locks in a fashion different from the default behavior. In fact, the term query hint is a great understatement. One usually thinks of a "hint" as a friendly suggestion that can be accepted or rejected, and is supposed to be helpful. Query hints, on the other hand, are more of a directive rather than a suggestion. SQL Server has no choice—after I instruct the query optimizer to use a hint, it will adhere to my order as a faithful servant. SQL Server won't debate my suggestion or call me a "bonehead," even if executing the query with my hint is a horrible idea. Therefore, I recommend testing your queries thoroughly with and without using the hints prior to deploying your application in the production environment.

After such a "glowing" introduction, you might think that the locking hints are available just to cause you major headaches. That is not entirely true. Occasionally, you can see a great improvement in your application performance due to using the locking hints, so please don't get discouraged just yet! After all, it never hurts to know and test various alternatives, and go with the best option.

The majority of the locking hints are used with the SELECT statements. A good example of when you might want to use a NOLOCK hint is when you run a report that doesn't have to be 100% accurate. If such a report affects the tables that are being modified, chances are your SELECT statement will have to wait until the other transactions complete. If you use NOLOCK, your query won't have to wait; it will read the uncommitted records. Therefore, your report will be generated much more quickly.

Occasionally, you might find the locking hints useful with the INSERT, UPDATE, and DELETE statements. For instance, if you want to be absolutely sure that no one can modify records while your UDPATE statement is running, you can use the UPDLOCK hint. By default, SQL Server takes shared locks first and then escalates them to UPDLOCK when it's ready to commit an UPDATE transaction. Using UPDLOCK will override such behavior to guarantee that data will be exclusively locked for the duration of the transaction.

Recall from the previous article that locking is a tradeoff between concurrency and the resources used. I've seen an application that used the ROWLOCK hint with every INSERT, UPDATE, and DELETE statement. The idea was to convince SQL Server to lock individual rows each time, thereby reducing locking contingency. Keep in mind that if SQL Server doesn't have enough resources to satisfy your query, it will have to wait until such resources become available. If your query hogs every byte of memory available to SQL Server, then the server will not have enough memory for other tasks. Therefore, consider the pros and cons of using the ROWLOCK hint carefully.

Table 1 lists each available locking hint, discusses its functionality, and tells you which statements support this hint. Keep in mind that using a locking hint that is not supported with a particular statement doesn't generate an error; rather, it has no effect. For instance, you can use NOLOCK with an UPDATE, but SQL Server will ignore that hint—locks will still be acquired. In a similar manner, you can use XLOCK hint with UPDATE, but it won't make any difference.

Table 1 Locking hints available in SQL Server 2000.

Locking Hint


Allowed with


Holds the shared locks on the range read, or modified for the duration of the transaction or statement. Overrides the default behavior, which is to release the locks as soon as the data page has been read. HOLDLOCK is equivalent to the SERIALIZABLE transaction isolation level.



Does not honor shared or exclusive locks. NOLOCK is equivalent to the READ UNCOMMITED transaction isolation level.



Forces the transaction to use page-level locks instead of escalating to table-level locks.



Equivalent to the READ COMMITTED transaction isolation level, which is the default behavior of SQL Server.



Same as NOLOCK. Equivalent to the READ UNCOMMITTED transaction isolation level.



Equivalent to the REPEATABLE READ transaction isolation level, which disallows dirty reads, but allows phantoms.



Forces the transaction to use row-level locking instead of the page- or table-level locking that would otherwise be used.



Equivalent to the SERIALIZABLE transaction isolation level and the HOLDLOCK hint. Holds the shared locks for the duration of the transaction or statement.



Forces SQL Server to use a table-level lock instead of row- or page-level locks. If used with HOLDLOCK, then the lock will be held until the transaction completes. Otherwise, the lock is released as soon as the data is read. For SELECT statements, this hint forces shared table locks. Using this hint with other statements (such as INSERT, UPDATE, or DELETE) will initiate exclusive table lock.



Places an exclusive lock on the entire table, thereby disabling any other users from reading or writing to the table.



Places an update lock for the duration of the statement or transaction. This guarantees that data is not changed since it was read.



Places an exclusive lock until the end of the transaction. If specified with TABLOCK or PAGLOCK, it will lock the appropriate level.


The syntax for using the locking hints is very simple. You add the WITH keyword to the FROM clause, and include a locking hint in the parentheses that follow. For example, the following statement returns a few columns from the sales table in the pubs database without honoring any shared or exclusive locks.

SELECT    stor_id, 
FROM  sales 		
WHERE payterms = 'Net 30'

The following statement gives all employees who started before the first of the year a 20% raise, and forces SQL Server to use the page-level locks instead of escalating to a single table-level lock:

UPDATE    employee 
SET      salary = salary * 1.20
FROM  employee 
WHERE start_date < '1/1/2002'

Please note that the locking hints and the transaction isolation levels might conflict with each other. When this happens, SQL Server honors the more restrictive of the two. For instance, the following query holds the locks on the employee table, even though the isolation level instructs SQL Server to ignore the locks:




Also, note that you can specify multiple locking hints in the same query. For instance, the following group of statements instructs SQL Server to hold a table-level lock for the duration of the transaction:


    SELECT fname AS first_name, 
       minit AS middle_initial, 
          lname AS last_name
    FROM  employee

The conflicting locking hints generates an error, as shown in the following statement:

FROM Employee 

Server: Msg 1047, Level 15, State 1, Line 10
Conflicting locking hints specified.

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