Consider the following update statement:
update /*+ index(t1 t1_n1) */ t1 set n1 = 0, n2 = n2 + 1, status = 'X' where n1 > 100 and status = 'A' ;
Did you realise that the access method that Oracle uses for an update can make a difference to the type of work done by your system ? And if the type of work is different, this could make a big difference to the amount of work done by your system ?
In recent tests on 8i, 9i, and 10g, the work done by an update depends on whether the update operates through a tablescan or an index. [Edit: the same is also true of a delete - see note 15 below]
If Oracle uses a (B-tree) index to find the data to be updated, it postpones any (B-tree) index updates needed until the end of the update, then sorts the index keys (with their rowids) for the before and after values before applying bulk updates to the indexes. This bulk update strategy may reduce undo and redo generation – along with logical I/O and latch activity - but will expend extra resources on sorting. For example, if your update affects three indexes, and you update 100 rows, you will see sorts = 3, rows sorted = 600 (3 * 2 * 100) in your session statistics (v$mystat).
If Oracle uses a tablescan to acquire the data to be updated, then it updates each index entry as it goes. This eliminates the need for sorting but doesn’t get any benefits of the undo and redo optimisations that pack multiple changes into a single record. I’ve also noticed in 10g (and possibly it’s a bug since it doesn’t seem to happen in 8i or 9i) that a large tablescan update can generate a surprising number of redundant block cleanout records for the table blocks.
In general it seems that an indexed mechanism is likely to be more efficient than the tablescan – even when a tablescan would be more efficient for the equivalent query.
As always, though, you ought to test the impact a change in access method might have on your more interesting updates. Depending on your bottleneck, either option might be the more appropriate for your particular circumstances, notwithstanding any abstract argument about which is theoretically “more efficient”.
Footnote: I’ve included specific references to B-tree indexes in the above. I haven’t yet checked what might happen with bitmap indexes – but normally you wouldn’t expect to be doing this type of update with bitmap indexes enabled anyway.
Footnote 2: See comments 12 – 15, the same index-driven optimisation applies to delete statements.