Someone asked a question on StackOverflow today about why null values slow down certain queries. This is roughly what I answered.
The main issue with null values and performance is to do with forward lookups.
If you insert a row into a table, with null values, it’s placed in the natural page that it belongs to. Any query looking for that record will find it in the appropriate place. Easy so far….
…but let’s say the page fills up, and now that row is cuddled in amongst the other rows. Still going well…
…until the row is updated, and the null value now contains something. The row’s size has increased beyond the space available to it, so the DB engine has to do something about it.
The fastest thing for the server to do is to move the row off that page into another, and to replace the row’s entry with a forward pointer. Unfortunately, this requires an extra lookup when a query is performed: one to find the natural location of the row, and one to find its current location.
So, the short answer to the question of performance is yes, making those fields non-nullable will help search performance. This is especially true if it often happens that the null fields in records you search on are updated to non-null.
Of course, there are other penalties (notably I/O, although to a tiny extent index depth) associated with larger datasets, and then you have application issues with disallowing nulls in fields that conceptually require them, but hey, that’s another problem!