OWL-Empowered SPARQL Query Optimization

by Irini Fundulaki, Giorgos Flouris / on 18 Feb 2015

The Linked Data paradigm has become the prominent enabler for sharing
huge volumes of data using Semantic Web technologies, and has created
novel challenges for non-relational data management systems, such as RDF
and graph engines. Efficient data access through queries is perhaps the
most important data management task, and is enabled through query
optimization techniques, which amount to the discovery of optimal or
close to optimal execution plans for a given query.

In this post, we propose a different approach to query optimization,
which is meant to complement (rather than replace) the standard
optimization methodologies for SPARQL queries. Our approach is based on
the use of schema information, encoded using OWL constructs, which often
accompany Linked Data.

OWL adopts the Open World Assumption and hence OWL axioms are perceived
primarily to infer new knowledge. Nevertheless, ontology designers
consider OWL as an expressive schema language used to express
constraints for validating the datasets, hence following the Closed
World Assumption when interpreting OWL ontologies. Such constraints
include disjointness/equivalence of classes/properties, cardinality
constraints, domain and range restrictions for properties and others.

This richness of information carried over by OWL axioms can be the basis
for the development of schema-aware techniques that will allow
significant improvements in the performance of existing RDF query
engines when used in tandem with data statistics or even other
heuristics based on patterns found in SPARQL queries. As a simple
example, a cardinality constraint at the schema level can provide a hint
on the proper join ordering, even if data statistics are missing or

The aim of this post is to show that the richness of information carried
over by OWL axioms under the Close World Assumption can be the basis for
the development of schema-aware optimization techniques that will allow
considerable improvement for query processing. To attain this objective,
we discuss a small set of interesting cases of OWL axioms; a full list
can be found

Schema-Based Optimization Techniques

Here we provide some examples of queries, which, when combined with
specific schema constraints expressed in OWL, can help the optimizer in
formulating the (near to) optimal query plans.

A simple first case is the case of constraint violation. Consider the
query below, which returns all instances of class <A> which are fillers
of a specific property <P>. If the underlying schema contains the
information that the range of <P> is class <B>, and that class <B> is
disjoint from class <A>, then this query should return the empty result,
with no further evaluation (assuming that the constraints associated
with the schema are satisfied by the data). An optimizer that takes into
account schema information should return an empty result in constant
time instead of trying to optimize or evaluate the large star join.

WHERE { ?v rdf : type <A> .   
        ?u <P> ?v . ?u <P> ?v1 .   
        ?u <P1 > ?v2 . ?u <P2 > ?v3 .   
        ?u <P3 > ?v4 . ?u <P4 > ?v5}

Schema-aware optimizers could also prune the search space by eliminating
results that are known a priori not to be in the answer set of a query.
The query above is an extreme such example (where all potential results
are pruned), but other cases are possible, such as the case of the query
below, where all subclasses of class <A1> can immediately be identified
as not being in the answer set.

WHERE { ?x rdf: type ?c . ?x <P> ?y . 
        FILTER NOT EXISTS \{ ?x rdf: type <A1 > }}

Another category of schema-empowered optimizations has to do with
improved selectivity estimation. In this respect, knowledge about the
cardinality (minimum cardinality, maximum cardinality, exact
cardinality, functionality) of a property can be exploited to formulate
better query plans, even if data statistics are incomplete, missing or

Similarly, taking into account class hierarchies, or the definition of
classes/properties via set theoretic constructs (union, intersection) at
the schema level, can provide valuable information on the selectivity of
certain triple patterns, thus facilitating the process of query
optimization. Similar effects can be achieved using information about
properties (functionality, transitivity, symmetry etc).

As an example of these patterns, consider the query below, where class
<C> is defined as the intersection of classes <C1>, <C2>. Thus, the
triple pattern (?x rdf:type <C>) is more selective than (?y rdf:type <C1>) and (?z rdf:type <C2>) and this should be immediately recognizable
by the optimizer, without having to resort to cost estimations. This
example shows also how unnecessary triple patterns can be pruned from a
query to reduce the number of necessary joins. Figure 1 illustrates the
query plan obtained when the OWL intersectionOf construct is used.

WHERE { ?x rdf: type <C> . ?x <P1 > ?y . 
        ?y rdf : type <C1 > . ?y <P2 > ?z . ?z rdf : type <C2 > }


Schema information can also be used by the query optimizer to rewrite
SPARQL queries to equivalent ones that are found in a form for which
already known optimization techniques are easily applicable. For
example, the query below could easily be transformed into a classical
star-join query if we know (from the schema) that property P4 is a
symmetric property.

SELECT ?y ?y1 ?y2 ?y3 
WHERE { ?x <P1 > ?y . ?x <P2 > ?y1 . 
        ?x <P3 > ?y2 . ?y3 <P4 > ?x }


In this post we argued that OWL-empowered optimization techniques can be
beneficial for SPARQL query optimization when used in tandem with
standard heuristics based on statistics. We provided some examples which
showed the power of such optimizations in various cases, namely:

  • Cases where the search space can be pruned due to the schema and the
    associated constraints; an extreme special sub-case is the
    identification of queries that violate schema constraints and thus
    produce no results.
  • Cases where the schema can help in the estimation of triple pattern
    selectivity, even if statistics are incomplete or missing.
  • Cases where the schema can identify redundant triple patterns that do
    not affect the result and can be safely eliminated from the query.
  • Cases where the schema can be used for rewriting a query in an
    equivalent form that would facilitate optimization using well-known
    optimization techniques.

This list is by no means complete, as further cases can be identified by
optimizers. Our aim in this post was not to provide a complete listing,
but to demonstrate the potential of the idea in various directions.