MySQL Explain rows column really IS an estimate

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Here is an interesting proof of concept that the ‘rows’ column of the explain output is actually an estimate, and not the real amount. I KNEW it to be true, but somehow I didn’t feel like it was right. I always thought “the closer the rows # gets to the exact amount of retrieved data, the better. Exact is what you strive for.” Turns out, that’s not true. The closer the number, the better, but its still just an estimation. Sometimes its estimated accurately, other times its not. See this example:

mysql> select * from city;
+----+-------------+
| id | name        |
+----+-------------+
|  1 | chicago     |
|  2 | springfield |
+----+-------------+
2 rows in set (0.00 sec)

mysql> select * from state;
+----+------+
| id | name |
+----+------+
|  1 | IL   |
|  2 | WI   |
|  3 | MO   |
|  4 | WA   |
+----+------+
4 rows in set (0.00 sec)

mysql> select * from citystate;
+--------+---------+
| idcity | idstate |
+--------+---------+
|      1 |       1 |
|      1 |       2 |
|      1 |       3 |
|      2 |       1 |
|      2 |       2 |
|      2 |       3 |
|      2 |       4 |
+--------+---------+
7 rows in set (0.00 sec)

mysql> select city.name, state.name from citystate 
    -> join city on city.id=citystate.idcity  
    -> join state on state.id=citystate.idstate 
    -> where state.name='IL';
+-------------+------+
| name        | name |
+-------------+------+
| chicago     | IL   |
| springfield | IL   |
+-------------+------+
2 rows in set (0.00 sec)

mysql> explain select city.name, state.name from citystate
    -> join city on city.id=citystate.idcity
    -> join state on state.id=citystate.idstate
    -> where state.name='IL'\G;
*************************** 1. row ***************************
           id: 1
  select_type: SIMPLE
        table: city
         type: ALL
possible_keys: PRIMARY
          key: NULL
      key_len: NULL
          ref: NULL
         rows: 3
        Extra: 
*************************** 2. row ***************************
           id: 1
  select_type: SIMPLE
        table: citystate
         type: ALL
possible_keys: NULL
          key: NULL
      key_len: NULL
          ref: NULL
         rows: 7
        Extra: Using where; Using join buffer
*************************** 3. row ***************************
           id: 1
  select_type: SIMPLE
        table: state
         type: eq_ref
possible_keys: PRIMARY
          key: PRIMARY
      key_len: 4
          ref: foxone.citystate.idstate
         rows: 1
        Extra: Using where
3 rows in set (0.00 sec)

Hahah! 3 rows in city is what it estimates…

Interestingly enough, however, if you add an index…

ALTER TABLE `city` ADD INDEX `name_idx` (`name` ASC);

It is reflected accurately now.

*************************** 1. row ***************************
           id: 1
  select_type: SIMPLE
        table: city
         type: index
possible_keys: PRIMARY
          key: name_idx
      key_len: 48
          ref: NULL
         rows: 2
        Extra: Using index

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