8.4.4 Internal Temporary Table Use in MySQL

In some cases, the server creates internal temporary tables while processing statements. Users have no direct control over when this occurs.

The server creates temporary tables under conditions such as these:

To determine whether a statement requires a temporary table, use EXPLAIN and check the Extra column to see whether it says Using temporary (see Section 8.8.1, “Optimizing Queries with EXPLAIN”).

Storage Engines Used for Temporary Tables

An internal temporary table can be held in memory and processed by the MEMORY storage engine, or stored on disk and processed by the MyISAM storage engine.

If an internal temporary table is created as an in-memory table but becomes too large, MySQL automatically converts it to an on-disk table. The maximum size for in-memory temporary tables is the minimum of the tmp_table_size and max_heap_table_size values. This differs from MEMORY tables explicitly created with CREATE TABLE: For such tables, only the max_heap_table_size system variable determines how large the table is permitted to grow and there is no conversion to on-disk format.

Some conditions prevent the use of an in-memory temporary table, in which case the server uses an on-disk table instead:

  • Presence of a BLOB or TEXT column in the table

  • Presence of any string column in a GROUP BY or DISTINCT clause larger than 512 bytes

  • Presence of any string column with a maximum length larger than 512 (bytes for binary strings, characters for nonbinary strings) in the SELECT list, if UNION or UNION ALL is used

  • The SHOW COLUMNS and DESCRIBE statements use BLOB as the type for some columns, thus the temporary table used for the results is an on-disk table.

When the server creates an internal temporary table (either in memory or on disk), it increments the Created_tmp_tables status variable. If the server creates the table on disk (either initially or by converting an in-memory table) it increments the Created_tmp_disk_tables status variable.

Temporary Table Storage Format

In-memory temporary tables are managed by the MEMORY storage engine, which uses fixed-length row format. VARCHAR and VARBINARY column values are padded to the maximum column length, in effect storing them as CHAR and BINARY columns.

On-disk temporary tables are managed by the MyISAM storage engine using dynamic-width row format. Columns take only as much storage as needed, which reduces disk I/O and space requirements, and processing time compared to on-disk tables that use fixed-length rows. The exception to dynamic-length row format is that on-disk temporary tables for derived tables are stored using fixed-length rows.

Prior to MySQL 5.5.47, on-disk temporary table storage uses fixed-length rows.

For statements that initially create an internal temporary table in memory, then convert it to an on-disk table, better performance might be achieved by skipping the conversion step and creating the table on disk to begin with. The big_tables system variable can be used to force disk storage of internal temporary tables.