In the world of data engineering, the performance of your data warehouse is often a make-or-break factor for successful analytics. One powerful tool at your disposal for optimizing query performance is the use of sort keys. In this blog post, we’ll explore what sort keys are, why they matter, and how to effectively use them to supercharge your data warehouse.

What Are Sort Keys?

Sort keys are a critical component of data warehousing, particularly in columnar databases like Amazon Redshift, Google BigQuery, or Snowflake. A sort key is a column or set of columns within a table that defines the physical order in which data is stored on disk. When data is sorted according to the sort key, it becomes easier and faster to retrieve specific rows and execute range-based queries.

Why Do Sort Keys Matter?

Sort keys have a significant impact on query performance for several reasons:

  1. Data Compression: When data is sorted according to a sort key, it tends to have similar values grouped together. This enables better data compression, reducing storage requirements and improving I/O performance.
  2. Minimized I/O: Sorting data according to a sort key allows the database engine to skip unnecessary rows when executing queries. This minimizes the amount of data that needs to be read from disk, leading to faster query execution.
  3. Enhanced Query Optimization: Query planners can leverage the information provided by sort keys to generate more efficient query plans. This can result in a substantial reduction in query execution time.

Types of Sort Keys

In most data warehouses, you have two types of sort keys to choose from: compound sort keys and interleaved sort keys.

1. Compound Sort Keys

A compound sort key is composed of multiple columns, and data is first sorted by the first column in the key. Within each grouping of identical values in the first column, data is further sorted by the second column, and so on. Compound sort keys are effective when your queries often filter and join data on the same set of columns.

2. Interleaved Sort Keys

An interleaved sort key, on the other hand, doesn’t prioritize one column over the others. Instead, it evenly distributes rows across the entire dataset based on all the columns in the key. This can be more flexible and efficient when your queries involve different combinations of filter and join conditions.

Choosing the Right Sort Key Strategy

Selecting the right sort key strategy depends on your specific use case:

  • Compound Sort Keys: Use them when most queries involve the same set of columns for filtering and joining. They provide a performance boost for queries aligned with the key columns.
  • Interleaved Sort Keys: Choose them when your queries are diverse and involve various combinations of columns. They offer more flexibility but might not be as performant for specific queries as compound sort keys.

Best Practices for Sort Keys

To make the most of sort keys, consider these best practices:

  1. Analyze Query Patterns: Understand your query workload and choose sort keys that align with the most common filtering and joining conditions.
  2. Regularly Vacuum Tables: Periodically run a vacuum operation on your tables to reclaim space and improve query performance.
  3. Monitor and Optimize: Continuously monitor query performance and adjust your sort key strategy as your data and query patterns evolve.


Sort keys are a potent tool for optimizing data warehousing performance in data engineering. By intelligently selecting and managing sort keys, you can significantly enhance query performance, reduce storage costs, and ensure your data warehouse meets the demands of your analytics workload. Understanding the nuances of compound and interleaved sort keys is key to mastering this essential aspect of data engineering.

If you’re ready to take your data warehousing game to the next level, start by analyzing your query patterns and experimenting with sort keys that suit your specific needs. Your data warehouse and your data analysts will thank you for it.

By Abhishek K.

Author is a Architect by profession. This blog is to share his experience and give back to the community what he learned throughout his career.