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Best Practices for PostgreSQL Database Operations

When working with a database system, database operations are the primary way users and applications interact with data. Database operations are the commands and processes that allow for manipulating and retrieving data stored within the database. They serve as the fundamental interface between the user (or application) and the data, enabling operations such as querying, updating, inserting, and deleting data.

In the context of PostgreSQL, a robust open-source object-relational database system, database operations are built around SQL (Structured Query Language) commands. These operations, the main objects in PostgreSQL code, facilitate the retrieval, modification, and management of data stored in the database.

While working with database operations, the challenge often lies in the design and execution of queries. Queries must not only produce accurate results but also execute efficiently. This is especially important when dealing with large databases, where repeated queries can significantly impact performance. The efficiency of database operations is not just about getting the correct result; it's about getting it quickly and in the most resource-effective way possible.

In this article, we'll cover different types of commonly used operations, such as SELECT, ORDER, and JOIN, and discuss best practices for optimizing the performance of these operations.

What Are Database Operations in PostgreSQL?

In PostgreSQL, like any relational database system, database operations form the backbone of data interaction. They can create, read, update, and delete data—often called CRUD operations. Let's explore some essential operations: SELECT, ORDER, and JOIN.

SELECT

The SELECT command is one of the most commonly used SQL operations, allowing you to specify precisely what data you want your query to return. It can be as simple as retrieving a single column from a table or as complex as combining data from multiple tables using various conditions and functions.

Example:

 postgres=# SELECT name, city FROM users WHERE city='New York'; ​

  name  |   city
 -------+----------
  Alice | New York
 (1 row)

This query selects the names of all users from New York City.

ORDER

The ORDER BY clause is used in conjunction with SELECT to sort the results returned by your query. Ordering is used to sort the data returned by a query in a specific sequence, either ascending (ASC) or descending (DESC). This operation is crucial for organizing query results in a meaningful way, especially when dealing with large datasets.

Example:

 postgres=# SELECT name, city FROM users ORDER BY city DESC;
 ​
   name   |     city
 ---------+---------------
  Bob     | San Francisco
  Ian     | San Diego
  Hannah  | San Antonio
  Fiona   | Phoenix
  George  | Philadelphia
  Alice   | New York
  Charlie | Los Angeles
  Evan    | Houston
  Julia   | Dallas
  Diana   | Chicago
 (10 rows)
This query retrieves the names and cities of users, sorting them in descending order.

JOIN

Joins are crucial for working with relational databases, where data is often distributed across multiple tables. The INNER JOIN clause is used to merge multiple rows from two or more tables based on a shared column, creating a combined dataset.

PostgreSQL also supports other types of joins like LEFT JOIN, RIGHT JOIN, and FULL OUTER JOIN, each serving different purposes to include or exclude rows based on the presence of matching data in the joined tables.

Example:

 postgres=# SELECT users.name, orders.amount
 FROM users
 INNER JOIN orders ON users.id = orders.user_id;
 ​
   name   | amount
 ---------+--------
  Alice   | 150.00
  Bob     | 200.50
  Charlie |  99.99
  Diana   | 125.75
  Evan    | 300.20
  Fiona   | 180.00
  George  |  50.50
  Hannah  | 220.00
  Ian     | 110.00
  Julia   | 199.99
 (10 rows)
This query joins the users table with the orders table based on the user ID, selecting the user's name and order amount. It effectively combines related data across two tables, providing a cohesive information view.

Dos and Don’ts of PostgreSQL Operations

Optimization becomes increasingly essential as queries grow in complexity. In this section, understanding the best practices and common pitfalls can significantly improve the performance of your database operations.

Best practices for operation performance

1. Monitor performance with EXPLAIN

One of the best practices for optimizing PostgreSQL operation performance is monitoring and analyzing your SQL queries' performance actively. PostgreSQL's EXPLAIN command is instrumental in this process, as it allows you to understand how PostgreSQL plans to execute your queries.

Using EXPLAIN to understand query performance 

The EXPLAIN command in PostgreSQL shows the execution plan of a SQL query, detailing the steps the database takes to execute the query. This includes information on how tables are scanned, whether indexes are used, how joins are performed, and estimates of the cost and time of various operations. By analyzing the output of EXPLAIN, you can identify and optimize inefficiencies in your queries.

Example of using EXPLAIN 

Consider a simple query on a users table where you want to find all users in a particular city:

 postgres=# EXPLAIN SELECT * FROM users WHERE city = 'New York';
 ​
                        QUERY PLAN
 ---------------------------------------------------------
  Seq Scan on users  (cost=0.00..10.88 rows=1 width=1036)
    Filter: ((city)::text = 'New York'::text)
 (2 rows)

2. Adjust configuration parameters

Adjusting database configuration parameters based on performance needs is crucial for optimizing PostgreSQL. PostgreSQL offers a variety of configuration parameters that can be adjusted to tune the database environment.

Standard settings include shared_buffers, which defines the memory allocated for caching data, and work_mem, dictating the amount of memory used for sorting and queries. Proper tuning of these parameters can significantly impact database performance, enhancing efficiency and response times.

3. Creating table partitions

Partitioning in PostgreSQL is a strategy to enhance performance and manage large datasets by dividing a table into smaller, more manageable pieces called partitions. This technique improves query response times and operational efficiency by allowing operations to target smaller subsets of data.

PostgreSQL supports several partitioning strategies, including range, list, and hash partitioning, allowing for flexible data organization. By partitioning, database administrators can significantly reduce query execution times, optimize maintenance operations, and scale databases effectively.

4. Creating materialized views

Materialized views in PostgreSQL provide a way to speed up complex queries by storing the result of a query physically and allowing you to refresh it periodically. This is especially useful for data that stays mostly the same and for expensive aggregation operations.

Using materialized views, you can pre-compute and store complex queries' results, thus significantly reducing the time it takes to retrieve the data for subsequent executions of the same query.

 postgres=# CREATE MATERIALIZED VIEW user_summary AS
 SELECT city, COUNT(*)
 FROM users
 GROUP BY city;
 SELECT 10
postgres=# select * from user_summary;
      city      | count
 ---------------+-------
  New York      |     1
  Phoenix       |     1
  San Francisco |     1
  Dallas        |     1
  Chicago       |     1
  Houston       |     1
  Philadelphia  |     1
  San Diego     |     1
  San Antonio   |     1
  Los Angeles   |     1
 (10 rows)

The above example materialized view user_summary will store the count of users by city, making retrieving this aggregated data faster without recomputing the count every time.

PostgreSQL Database Operation Pitfalls

1. Using wildcards 

Wildcards, especially with the SELECT * syntax, can lead to performance issues because they force the database to scan entire tables to retrieve all columns. This can be particularly slow for tables with many columns or extensive data.

Example: 

Instead of using

SELECT * FROM users; specify the columns you need, like 

SELECT id, name FROM users;

2. Table scanning

Table scans occur when a query searches through every row in a table to find matches. This can be inefficient and slow, especially for large tables. For an example of optimizing to avoid table scanning:

Before optimization (table scan):

SELECT * FROM users WHERE city = 'New York'; This query might cause a full table scan if the city is not indexed, which can be slow for large tables.

After optimization (using index): 

First, create an index on the city column if it doesn't exist:

CREATE INDEX idx_users_city ON users(city);

Then, run the query:

SELECT id, name FROM users WHERE city = 'New York'; By specifying only the needed columns (id, name) and ensuring an index on the city column, PostgreSQL can use the index to quickly locate the rows, significantly reducing the need for a full table scan and improving query performance.

3. Too many temporary tables

Temporary tables are useful for intermediate query results, but too many can consume a significant amount of memory, impacting performance. Use temporary tables judiciously and ensure they are necessary for the operation. Consider other methods like Common Table Expressions (CTEs) for better performance.

Using temporary tables:

CREATE TEMP TABLE temp_users AS
SELECT * FROM users WHERE city = 'New York';
SELECT * FROM temp_users WHERE age > 30;
DROP TABLE temp_users;

This approach uses a temporary table to store intermediate results, which can be inefficient if used excessively.

Optimized Using CTEs:

WITH filtered_users AS (
     SELECT * FROM users
     WHERE city = 'New York'
     )
     SELECT * FROM filtered_users
     WHERE age > 30;

This CTE approach operates without creating a temporary table, thus potentially reducing memory usage and improving performance.

4. Overly complex query structure 

Complex queries, especially those with multiple nested subqueries or excessive joins, can slow down database operations. Break down complex queries into smaller, simpler queries or use CTEs to improve readability and performance.

Example of overly complex query structure:

SELECT *
 FROM users
 WHERE id IN (
     SELECT user_id
     FROM orders
     WHERE amount > 100 AND order_date > '2021-01-01'
     AND user_id IN (
         SELECT id FROM users WHERE signup_date < '2020-01-01'
     )
 );

This nested subquery example may lead to inefficient execution due to its complexity.

How Timescale Improves Database Operations

Timescale is PostgreSQL but faster and optimized for time-series data or time-series-like data. It enhances PostgreSQL's capabilities with features like automatic partitioning, efficient indexing, and advanced aggregation functions. These improvements enable faster query execution, significant data compression, and more efficient storage, making Timescale particularly well-suited for handling large-scale time-series datasets across various industries, such as IoT, financial services, and more.

Let’s look at them in more detail.

Metrics dashboard and Insights

The Timescale metrics dashboard significantly enhances monitoring capabilities for your database services by providing detailed, service-level insights such as CPU, memory, and query-level statistics. It supports various time ranges for viewing metrics, including the last hour, 24 hours, seven days, and 30 days, with specific granularity for each range.

Additionally, you can continuously monitor the health and resource consumption of your database services, allowing for proactive management and optimization of database performance. This feature helps identify trends, diagnose issues, and optimize configurations to maintain optimal service health.

To monitor your queries at a deeper level, you can use Insights, a tool we developed in 2023 that allows you better insights into the performance of your database queries over time, including a drill-down view. 

The drill-down view in Insights, in the Timescale console with graphs showing query latency

To build Insights, we had to scale PostgreSQL—the foundation of Timescale—to the best of our ability. And it didn’t disappoint. Read how a single Timescale instance is ingesting more than 10 billion records per day (and growing every day).

Hypertables

Hypertables automatically partition time-series data by time, simplifying management while improving insert and query performance. You interact with hypertables like regular PostgreSQL tables, but they offer enhanced features for efficiently handling time-series data.

A regular Postgres table vs. a hypertable.

By automatically creating partitions (or "chunks") based on time (and, optionally, space), hypertables ensure data is organized in an optimal structure for time-series operations. This structure facilitates faster data access, making scaling and managing large datasets easier.

Continuous aggregates

Continuous aggregates efficiently handle time-series data aggregation by automatically refreshing the aggregated data in the background. This feature fastens data aggregation and reduces the maintenance burden compared to regular PostgreSQL materialized views. Continuous aggregates track changes in the dataset and update the hypertable accordingly without manual refreshes. They support real-time queries by combining pre-aggregated data with recent data that hasn't been aggregated yet, ensuring up-to-date results.

Hyperfunctions

Timescale hyperfunctions are specialized functions designed for efficient time-series data analysis in TimescaleDB. They enable rapid execution of critical time-series queries, allowing for advanced analysis and extraction of meaningful information from time-series datasets.

Hyperfunctions are optimized for operations on hypertables and help in tasks such as approximating count distinct values, analyzing counters and gauges, downsampling, frequency analysis, gap filling, and time-weighted calculations.

Improve Your DBOps

In this article, we have covered various PostgreSQL operations, emphasizing practices that improve performance. While Timescale introduces enhancements for time-series data handling, the core principles we've explored apply broadly across database management systems. These include efficient monitoring, strategic data partitioning, and the utilization of advanced analytical functions. Each practice is crucial in optimizing database operations and ensuring efficient and effective data management.

For those interested in further exploration, Timescale offers a suite of features designed to augment PostgreSQL's capabilities that are well worth exploring within the broader context of database performance optimization.

Get started for free at Timescale and simplify your database operations so you can focus on your application development.

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