SQL Server System and Database Administration : System Tables & System Stored Procedures

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System Tables

System tables contain data about objects in the SQL Server databases (that is, metadata) as well as information that SQL Server components use to do their job. Many of the system tables are now hidden (in the resource database) and are no longer available for direct access by end users. In SQL Server 2008, compatibility views, have the same names as the system tables available in SQL Server 2000. For example, if you had a query in SQL Server 2000 that selected from syscolumns, this query continues to work in SQL Server 2008, but the results come from a view instead of a system table.

The system tables that you can view are now found in some of the system databases, such as msdb or master. You can use the Object Explorer in SSMS to view the system tables in these databases. Figure 1 shows the system tables listed for the master database in the Object Explorer.

Figure 1. System tables listed in Object Explorer.

The most significant number of viewable system tables is found in the msdb system database. The system tables there support backup and restore, log shipping, maintenance plans, Notification Services, the SQL Server Agent, and more. You can retrieve a tremendous amount of information from these system tables if you know what you are looking for. The following query selects from the system tables in msdb to report on recent restores for the AdventureWorks2008R2 database:

select destination_database_name 'database', h.restore_date, restore_type,
cast((backup_size/1024)/1024 as numeric(8,0)) 'backup_size MB',
from msdb..restorehistory h (NOLOCK)
LEFT JOIN msdb..backupset b (NOLOCK)
ON h.backup_set_id = b.backup_set_id
LEFT JOIN msdb..backupmediafamily f (NOLOCK)
ON b.media_set_id = f.media_set_id
where h.restore_date > getdate() - 5
and UPPER(h.destination_database_name) = 'AdventureWorks2008R2'
order by UPPER(h.destination_database_name), h.restore_date desc

One of the challenges with using system tables is determining the relationships between them. Some vendors offer diagrams of these tables, and you can also determine the relationships by reviewing the foreign keys on these tables and by referring to SQL Server 2008 Books Online, which describes the use for each column in the system table.


Microsoft does not recommend querying system tables directly. It does not guarantee the consistency of system tables across versions and warns that queries that may have worked against system tables in past versions may no longer work. Catalog views or information schema views should be used instead, especially in production code.

Queries against system tables are best used for ad hoc queries. The values in system tables should never be updated, and an object’s structure should not be altered, either. Making changes to the data or structure could cause problems and cause SQL Server or one of its components to fail.

System Stored Procedures

System stored procedures have been a favorite of SQL Server DBAs since the inception of SQL Server. They provide a rich set of information that covers many different aspects of SQL Server. They can return some of the same types of information as system views, but they generally return a fixed set of information that cannot be modified as you can when using a SELECT statement against the system views. That is not to say that they are not valuable; they are valuable, and they are particularly useful for people who have been using SQL Server for a long time. System stored procedures such as sp_who, sp_lock, and sp_help are tools for a database professional that are as basic as a hammer is to a carpenter.

System stored procedures have names that start with sp_, and they are found in the sys schema. They are global in scope, which allows you to execute them from any database, without qualifying the stored procedure name. They also run in the context of the database where you are working. In other words, if you execute sp_helpfile in the AdventureWorks2008R2 database, the database files for the AdventureWorks2008R2 database are returned. This same type of behavior exists for any stored procedure that is created in the master database with a name that starts with sp_. For example, if you create a procedure named sp_helpme in the masterAdventureWorks2008R2 database, SQL Server ultimately looks for and finds the procedure in the master database. database and execute that procedure in the


It is often useful to create your own system stored procedures to make it easier to execute complex queries against the system views (or to provide information not provided by the built-in system procedures).

System stored procedures are listed in the Object Explorer, in the Programmability node within Stored Procedures and then System Stored Procedures. There are far too many system stored procedures to list or discuss them all here. A quick check of the master database lists more than 1,000 procedures. SQL Server Books Online provides detailed help on these procedures, which it groups into 18 different categories.

Useful System Stored Procedures

You are likely to use only a handful of system stored procedures on a regular basis. What procedures you use depends on the type of work you do with SQL Server and your capacity to remember their names. Table 1 contains a sample set of system stored procedures that you may find useful.

Table 1. Useful System Stored Procedures
System Stored ProcedureDescription
sp_configureDisplays or changes server-wide configuration settings.
sp_createstatsCreates statistics that are used by the Query Optimizer for all tables in a database.
sp_helpProvides details about the object that is passed to it. If a table name is passed to this procedure, it returns information on the columns, constraints, indexes, and more.
sp_helpdbIf no parameters are supplied, returns relevant database information (including the space used) for all the databases on an instance of SQL Server.
sp_helpfileLists the database files associated with the database you are connected to.
sp_lockDisplays current locking information for the entire SQL Server instance.
sp_spaceusedProvides the number of rows and disk space used by the table, indexed view, or queue passed to it.
sp_whoLists current processes that are connected to an instance of SQL Server.

Many of the administrative functions performed by SSMS can also be accomplished with system stored procedures. Examples include procedures that start with sp_add and sp_delete, which can be used to add and delete database objects. In addition, more than 90 system stored procedures start with sp_help, which return help information on database objects.


You can use the sys.all_objects catalog view to search for available system stored procedures. This catalog view lists objects that are schema scoped as well as system objects. For example, the query SELECT * FROM sys.all_objects WHERE name LIKE 'sp_help%' returns all the system stored procedures that start with sp_help. You can turn to Books Online for detailed help on any of the system stored procedures. Just enter sp_ in the index search, and you see a list of them all.

Becoming familiar with some of the system stored procedures is well worth your while. Using them is a very fast and effective means for gathering information from SQL Server. They do not require the formation of a SELECT statement, and using them is often the easiest way to get information via a query window.

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