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Column And Table Redefinition With Minimal Locking

TLDR: Note to future self… (1) Read this before you modify a table on a live PostgreSQL database. If you do it wrong then your app might totally hang. There is a right way to do it which avoids that. (2) Especially remember the lock_timeout step. Many blog posts around the ‘net are missing this and it’s very important.

Recently I was chatting with some PostgreSQL users (who, BTW, were doing rather large-scale cool stuff in PG) and they asked a question about making schema changes with minimal impact to the running application. They were specifically curious about changing a primary key from INT to BIGINT.  (Oh, you are making all your new PK fields BIGINT right?)

And then, lo and behold, I discovered a chat today on the very same topic. Seemed useful enough to file away on my blog so that I can find it later. BTW I got permission from Jim Nasby, Jim F and Robins Tharakan to blame them for this…  ;)

Most useful part of the chat was how to think about doing table definition changes in PostgreSQL with minimal application impact due to locking:

  1. Use lock_timeout.
    1. Can be set at the session level.
  2. For changes that do more than just a quick metadata update, work with copies.
    1. Create a new column & drop old column instead of modifying.
    2. Or create a new table & drop old table.
    3. Use triggers to keep data in sync.
    4. Carefully leverage transactional DDL (PostgreSQL rocks here!) to make changes with no windows for missing data.

We can follow this line of thought even for a primary key – creating a unique index on the new column, using existing index to update table constraints, then dropping old column.

One of the important points here is making sure that operations which require locks are metadata-only. That is, they don’t need to actually modify any data (while holding said lock) for example rewriting or scanning the table. We want these ops to run very very fast, and even time out if they still can’t run fast enough.

A few minutes on google yields proof that Jim Nasby was right: lots of people have already written up some really good advice about this topic.  Note that (as always) you should be careful about dates and versions in stuff you find yourself.  Anything pre-2014 should be scrutinized very carefully (PostgreSQL has changed a lot since then); and for the record, PostgreSQL 11 changes this specific list again (and none of these articles seem to be updated for pg11 yet). And should go without saying, but test test test…

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