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What is the N+1 Query Problem?

Do your database-driven applications suffer from poor performance and long response times? Does slow performance after making multiple queries of your application’s database frustrate you? If so, you're probably a victim of the N+1 query problem nightmare. 

The N+1 query problem arises when an application makes repeated database queries to retrieve related data, resulting in excessive database round trips and poor performance. This inefficient approach impacts your application's responsiveness and puts an unnecessary strain on your database server, leading to degraded performance and scalability issues. As your dataset grows, the problem exacerbates, making a seamless user experience increasingly challenging to deliver. 

This post will explore the N+1 query problem, its causes, how to identify it, and how to prevent it. 

What Is the N+1 Query Problem?

N+1 query problem occurs when an application fetches a collection of objects from the database and then an additional query for each object’s related data. Here, the first query is N, and the additional query is N+1. 

An N+1 query problem is common with object-relational mapping (ORM) frameworks. ORMs provide an abstraction layer between programming languages and relational database management systems (RDBMS) where developers interact with the database using their programming language objects and concepts and the ORM auto-generates the queries. ORMs can introduce overheads, especially when dealing with complex database schemas.

Think of an application that manages students and their classes. An example of an N+1 query would be fetching all students and their classes using separate queries. You first query all students, and then, for each student, you make an additional query to fetch their classes. 

What Causes the N+1 Query Problem?

The basis of the N+1 query problem is ineffective data retrieval patterns aggravated by ORM frameworks. Below are some of the common causes. 

Lazy Loading

Lazy loading is a popular technique in ORM. It loads associated data from the database only when accessed. For instance, think of the student and class list retrieval. Lazy loading makes the application execute the queries for each class of every student, resulting in the N+1 query problem. 

Complex Object Graphs

If your application has a complicated object graph structure with multiple levels of relationships, it's more vulnerable to the N+1 query problem. The more complicated and deep the relationships, the higher the probability that the related query will trigger all other queries for each related entity. 

Unoptimized Queries

Unoptimized or inefficient SQL/NoSQL queries can cause the N+1 query problem. This is because they can create too many unnecessary queries. Unoptimized queries include unindexed queries or queries that use inefficient joins. Such queries pull redundant data, leading to unnecessary overhead, thus causing an N+1 query problem. 

Failing to Use Database Features

Modern databases have a set of features for effective data access. These include joins, sub-queries, and batch processing. Not using the database features results in N+1 query issues. Developers may create simple or naïve data access patterns. These patterns can cause lots of querying and poor performance. 

How Does the N+1 Query Affect Database and Application Performance?

The N+1 query problem can significantly impact application and database performance in several ways. 

  • Network overhead: Each additional request sent to the database through the network introduces overhead. The overhead includes connection establishment and teardown time, query execution, and result retrieval time.
  • Higher latency: The subsequent query adds another round-trip time between the application and the database server. This contributes to the query execution time. With the number of queries increasing linearly with the data set's size, users' response times will be slower as the latency almost grows proportionally.
  • Decreased throughput: Because N+1 queries lead to additional queries, your application will consume more resources, resulting in a bottleneck and increased latency.
  • High resource usage: Additional queries can increase resource usage, such as CPU, memory, or I/O, which may lead to performance degradation.
  • Impact on connection pool: Additional queries (N+1 queries) can strain the database connection pool. Each query uses a new connection from the pool. The constant opening and closing of connections adds overhead. Higher churn in the connection pool can deplete available connections, causing connection timeouts or database server crashes, thus affecting the app's performance and scalability. 
  • Increased vulnerability: An N+1 query problem can expose your application to a potential denial-of-service attack. An attacker can send an influx of requests that may exhaust your server resources and render your application unresponsive. 

How Can I Know If My Application Has the N+1 Query Problem?

To determine whether you have the N+1 query problem, you must use monitoring and database profiling tools to analyze query patterns. Some of the common signs to expect include the following: 

  • High database load: If you see an excessive number of database queries for what appears to be a simple operation, this is a likely signal for the N+1 query problem.
  • Uneven performance: When some parts of your application perform more slowly than others, especially when performing data retrieval operations, this may indicate inefficient query patterns.
  • Increased network activity: Observe the network traffic between the application and database servers. A large network traffic boost could be evidence of the N+1 query problem, especially in retrieval activities.
  • Repeated similar queries: Look for a pattern of identical query execution. For example, fetching each student's classes in a loop format rather than a single query could signal an N+1 query problem.

What Are Efficient Ways to Solve or Prevent the N+1 Query Problem?

You can use different strategies to solve and prevent the N+1 query problem by optimizing data retrieval and eliminating unnecessary database queries. Here are some approaches you can take: 

Efficient Query Writing

Sometimes, it's better to write custom SQL or NoSQL queries to address your specific data retrieval needs than to rely on ORM-generated queries. By writing optimized queries that retrieve required data in a single operation, you can eliminate the overhead associated with multiple queries and minimize the chances of suffering the N+1 query problem. 

A black and orange textDescription automatically generated

Look at the Python code example using the SQLAlchemy ORM. 

# Inefficient query writing without eager loading
from models import Student

# Fetch all students
students = Student.query.all()

# Iterate over students and access related classes
for student in students:
    classes = student.classes  # N queries executed, where N is the number of classes
    # Process classes for each student

# Efficient query writing with eager loading
from sqlalchemy.orm import joinedload
from models import Student

# Fetch all students along with related classes in a single query
students = Student.query.options(joinedload(Student.classes)).all()

# Iterate over students without triggering additional queries
for student in students:
    classes = student.classes  # No additional queries executed

Eager Loading vs Lazy Loading

Instead of letting the related data get lazy loaded one entity at a time, use eager loading to fetch all required related data in a single query. Most ORM frameworks come with eager loading facilities, where you explicitly specify which related entities should be fetched up front along with the root query. 

Batch Loading

Batch loading can help reduce the number of queries when dealing with collections of entities by fetching the related data in batches instead of individually. This method is excellent for one-to-many or many-to-many relationships. 

Optimized Use of Joins

When processing derived data from several tables in a relational database, use SQL joins to concatenate data from multiple tables into a single result set. This enables the single query to fetch all the required data without further queries to fetch the related entities. 

Here's an example of the optimized use of joins: 

-- without proper optimization

SELECT * FROM classes c, students s WHERE c.class_id =;‍

-- optimized join

SELECT * FROM classes c JOIN students s ON c.class_id =;

Cache Data

Think of caching data that's frequently accessed or static to eliminate the need for numerous database requests. By placing data in a cache (like a memory cache or distributed cache), you can serve subsequent requests without going to the database, which improves performance and eliminates the N+1 query problem. 

Use Neurelo to Help Fix Your N+1 Query Problem

Neurelo plays a critical role for several good reasons when dealing with the N+1 query issue. The eager loading employed by its innovative query strategies allows the related data to be fetched into a single query, reducing the overhead of excessive database calls. Neurelo’s customized API query generation will also enable you to fine-tune data retrieval according to your changing application needs, improving performance and ensuring long-term scalability. 

Get started with Neurelo to optimize the data retrieval process and maximize your application's performance.   

This post was written by Mercy Kibet. Mercy is a full-stack developer with a knack for learning and writing about new and intriguing tech stacks.