PostgreSQL, Technical

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…

  • This article from BrainTree is my favorite of what I saw this morning. Concise yet clear list of green-light and red-light scenarios, with workaround for all the red lights.  [**Update available from Braintree – see link at the bottom of this article**]
    • Add a new column, Drop a column, Add an index concurrently, Drop a constraint (for example, non-nullable), Add a default value to an existing column, Add an index, Change the type of a column, Add a column with a default, Add a column that is non-nullable, Add a column with a unique constraint, VACUUM FULL
  • Citus has a practical tips article that’s linked pretty widely.
    • adding a column with a default value, using lock timeouts, Create indexes, Taking aggressive locks, Adding a primary key, VACUUM FULL, ordering commands
  • Alexey Vasiliev assembled a list in 2016 which is worth reviewing.
    • Add a new column, Add a column with a default, Add a column that is non-nullable, Drop a column, Change the type of a column, Add a default value to an existing column, Add an index, Add a column with a unique constraint, Drop a constraint, VACUUM FULL, ALTER TABLE SET TABLESPACE
  • Joshua Kehn put together a good article in late 2017 that especially illustrates the importance of using lock_timeout (though he doesn’t mention it in the article)
    • Default values for new columns, Adding a default value on an existing column, Concurrent index creation, ALTER TABLE, importance of typical transaction length

For fun and posterity, here’s the original chat (which has a little more detail) where they gave me these silly ideas:

[11/08/18 09:01] Colleague1: I have a question with regard to APG. How can we make DDL modifications to a table with minimalistic locking (downtime)?
[11/08/18 09:31] Jim N: It depends on the modification you're trying to make. Many forms of ALTER TABLE are very fast. Some don't even require an exclusive lock.
[11/08/18 09:32] Jim N: What you have to be careful of are alters that will force a rewrite of the entire table. Common examples of that are adding a new column that has a default value, or altering the type of an existing column.
[11/08/18 09:33] Jim N: What I've done in the past for those scenarios is to create a new field (that's null), put a before insert or update trigger on the table to maintain that field.
[11/08/18 09:33] Jim N: Then run a "backfill" that processes a few hundred / thousand rows per transaction, with a delay between each batch.
[11/08/18 09:34] Jim N: Once I know that all rows in the table have been properly updated, drop the old row, and maybe mark the new row as NOT NULL.
[11/08/18 09:43] Jim N: btw, I know there's been a talk about this at a conference in the last year or two...
[11/08/18 09:49] Jim F: What happens at the page level if the default value of an ALTER TABLE ADD COLUMN is null? Once upon a time when I worked at [a commercialized fork of PostgreSQL], which was built on a version of PostgreSQL circa 2000, I recall that the table would be versioned. This was a pure metadata change, but the added columns would be created for older-version rows on read, and probably updated on write. Is that how it currently works?
[11/08/18 09:55] Jim N: Jim F in essence, yes.
[11/08/18 09:56] Jim N: Though I wouldn't describe it as being "versioned"
[11/08/18 09:57] Jim N: But because columns are always added to the end of the tuple (and we never delete from pg_attribute), heap_deform_tuple can detect if a tuple is "missing" columns at the end of the tuple and just treat them as being null.
[11/08/18 09:57] Jim N: At least I'm pretty sure that's what's going on, without actually re-reading the code right now. 😉
[11/08/18 10:08] Jim F: does it work that way for non-null defaults as well? that would create a need for versioning, if the defaults changed at different points in time
[11/08/18 10:08] Robins: While at that topic.... Postgres v11 now has the feature to do what Jim F was talking about (even for non-NULLs). Although as Jim Nasby said, you still need to be careful about which (other) kind of ALTERs force a rewrite and use the Trigger workaround. "Many other useful performance improvements, including the ability to avoid a table rewrite for ALTER TABLE ... ADD COLUMN with a non-null column default"
[11/08/18 10:08] Jim F: exactly...

Did we get anything wrong here? Do you disagree? Feel free to comment. :)

Aug 30, 2020: Colton Shephard from Microsoft (formerly Citus) put out a great related article after I published this; it’s worth a mention. Postgres Tips: How to convert 2 Billion Rows to Bigint with Citus

July 22, 2021: James Coleman at Braintree (a PayPal service since 2013) published an updated article shortly after I published this. Very good, as long as you have enough article views left on medium! PostgreSQL at Scale: Database Schema Changes Without Downtime

About Jeremy

Building and running reliable data platforms that scale and perform. about.me/jeremy_schneider


One thought on “Column And Table Redefinition With Minimal Locking

  1. Hi Jeremy,

    Couple of options suggested to run vacuum full. As for vacuum full – it rewrites the table and takes an exclusive lock in the process- you won’t be able to access your table and its same as altering the table (ALTER TABLE … ADD COLUMN with a non-null column default).



    Posted by Vinodh | November 26, 2018, 10:49 am


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