As a Support Engineer at Timescale, one of the topics I get asked most about is how to design a database schema: essentially, the database skeleton that defines how data is stored in your relational database. Optimizing your schema design is fundamental to scaling PostgreSQL databases. A good schema will help you achieve optimal query performance, minimize I/O operations, ensure efficient CPU and memory utilization for backend processes—and even reduce storage requirements.
We’ve already discussed common design choices for your PostgreSQL tables (narrow vs. medium vs. wide table) and considerations for your overall database design (single-table vs. multiple-table) in some of our previous articles. One of the most significant takeaways we shared is that to decide between narrow/medium/wide or single/multiple tables, you’ll have to determine what’s most important for you (e.g., ease-of-use, cost of up-front design, extensibility, the need for multi-tenancy) and pick the design that has the most potential according to your priorities.
Today, we’ll keep building on the topic of schema design by presenting concrete implementation considerations to optimize query performance and storage efficiency while scaling PostgreSQL.
A scaling database is like a living product: before concluding your schema and sending it to the manufacturing floor, you must have a conversation on how your data is collected, how it will be ingested, and ultimately, how it will be accessed by any downstream consumers. This will ensure that your product (a.k.a. your database) will be up to task with the expected workload, avoiding failures and unexpected bottlenecks that may be hard to resolve once you are up and running in production.
Let’s dive straight into it.
Best Practices for Designing Your Database Schema
If you can, avoid too many backfills or updates
At Timescale, we’re experts on time-series data (or data indexed by time) so we’re very familiar with what is traditionally described as append-only workloads. For example, in the case of time-series data, common types of time series include metrics, events, IoT data, and stock prices. Each piece of data captures information about something useful at a given point in time; therefore, it is not updated often.
Ingesting append-only data will give you optimal performance, especially if you’re adding data chronologically (or to the most recently created partitions). Append-only ingestion involves adding new records to the end of a table without updating or deleting existing rows. This pattern minimizes the overhead associated with updating existing data and maintaining indexes: since no existing data is modified, there's less contention and less work for the system.
What happens when not all your data is not ingested chronologically (e.g., if you’re migrating an existing dataset) and backfilling is necessary? Ingestion with backfill usually implies a performance hit, depending on the range covered by the incoming data and the number of partitions targeted by these inserts.
The likely problem in backfill scenarios is memory eviction: if your data does not fit in memory or its data access pattern targets many different partitions, you will encounter frequent memory eviction that can lead to significant ingest degradation of your data ingestion.
To mitigate this issue with backfilling, consider the following best practices:
Try to backfill data during periods when the database load is lowest. This ensures that normal operations are least affected by the intensive backfilling process.
Instead of inserting one record at a time, batch the data together. This is, with hundreds or thousands of rows per INSERT, which helps reduce the transactional overhead and can increase the efficiency of data ingestion.
If the data to be backfilled can be processed in parallel, consider using parallel insert processes, targeting different partitions. This helps in utilizing system resources more efficiently. If you’re using Timescale, you can do this via timescaledb_parallel_copy().
Another thing you could look into is write-ahead log (WAL). During any modification to the data, PostgreSQL first writes those changes to the WAL, ensuring that you can recover the database using this log even in the event of a crash. However, when you're backfilling large volumes of data, the default WAL configurations might not be optimal and become a bottleneck. You could consider increasing wal_buffers, allocating more memory for buffering WAL data so that more transactional changes can be held in memory before a flush is needed. commit_delay is another interesting parameter to adjust, enabling more transactions to be grouped together.
Lastly, let’s briefly cover another scenario: ingestion with updates. This is often accompanied by the ON CONFLICT clause and requires a uniqueness constraint that must be checked on every insert. Just like backfill, the window of time and the order in which your data is inserted will determine whether you have aggressive memory eviction of more recent data or more desirable memory eviction of old data that has already been synced to disk.
Query patterns have a profound influence on schema design in PostgreSQL. When designing your schema, it's essential to understand the most common and critical operations your database will perform. I have many years of experience querying data from very large PostgreSQL databases, and I have always relied on the following guidelines:
Leverage highly selective indexes. As we covered in the previous article of this series, indexing is an efficient way to speed up data retrieval operations in a database. A highly selective index is one that filters out a large portion of a table's rows, drastically reducing the search space for a query and allowing PostgreSQL to quickly locate and access the relevant rows.
Return a reasonable resultset (generally below 10,000 records). The volume of data returned by a query not only impacts the time it takes to retrieve the data but also affects the bandwidth, memory, and processing resources on both the server and client side. By limiting the resultset to a reasonable number, you ensure that the database isn't overburdened. You can put this into practice by using the ‘LIMIT’ clause or by implementing pagination using LIMIT and OFFSET. This might be worth optimizing from your application layer as well, for example, by encouraging users to provide specific filtering criteria when running a query (e.g., prompting them to a specific date range when fetching a metric).
Bring the amount of intermediate data during query processing as close as possible to the amount of records in the final resultset. Every SQL query goes through multiple processing phases before arriving at the final result. If intermediate stages handle a lot of data, it can lead to increased I/O operations, higher memory usage, and prolonged processing times. Strive to design queries in such a way that the intermediate data volume aligns closely with the size of the final resultset. This can be achieved by filtering data early in the query or by judiciously using joins and subqueries.
Cache computed data where necessary. Recomputing data repeatedly can be resource-intensive, especially for complex calculations or aggregations. Instead of performing these calculations every time data is queried, consider caching the computed results.
If you are using Timescale, the guidelines above translate into these very concrete best practices:
Query hypertables for recent data or specific time windows. Queries accessing the most recent data or specific short-time windows will perform optimally in hypertables—you can query them directly.
In terms of how to implement partitioning for your large PostgreSQL tables without complicating your life, hypertables are the answer. When you create a hypertable (which looks just like a regular PostgreSQL table), partitions will be automatically created as you insert data and transparently deleted after some time if you set up a retention policy.
Hypertables can help you boost your ingest and query performance significantly (especially if you’re dealing with large tables and/or high ingest rates), and they can also save you tons of time in data management.
Design your schemas to minimize storage cost
In PostgreSQL, the efficient use of storage space is influenced by column ordering due to alignment padding, which is determined by the size of column types. For instance, an eight-byte bigint type will begin its storage at an address that's a multiple of eight. Similarly, a four-byte integer type will start at an address that's a multiple of four. This pattern is consistent with the two-byte smallint and the one-byte char types.
Consider a scenario where a smallint (two bytes) is placed right before a bigint (eight bytes), starting at address zero. The smallint occupies addresses zero and one. The subsequent bigint, however, won't begin at address two since it's not an eight-byte alignment. Instead, it starts at address eight, spanning to address 15, leaving addresses two through seven unutilized. These vacant addresses could have accommodated types like integer, smallint, or char.
To optimize storage and minimize wasted space due to alignment padding, it's advisable to arrange columns in the table definition from largest to smallest data type.
In the example below, the ‘bad_column_order’ hypertable uses eight additional bytes per row of data. If compared to the ‘good_column_order’ hypertable, it could potentially translate into roughly 14 percent space savings.
createtable bad_column_order (
val_c smallintnotnull,timetimestampwithtime zone notnull);createindex bad_column_order_time_idx on bad_column_order(timedesc);select create_hypertable('bad_column_order','time', chunk_time_interval =>INTERVAL'1 day');
When Your Use Case Demands Multiple Tables: Extra Considerations
A single table is often sufficient to deal with multi-tenant scenarios; we often recommend that the separation of data be handled at the application level. However, there can be operational requirements and regulations that may demand such separation of data to be pushed down to database objects (or even different databases entirely) and thus the separation of data into many tables.
If you have a large number of update/delete against multiple tables or hypertables, then you might need to pay close attention to optimizing your vacuum strategy. Vacuuming hundreds if not thousands of hypertables is often associated with sustained increased CPU utilization, which may severely impair your overall database performance. You don’t want this to happen.
If you are a Timescale user leveraging most of the features that Timescale has to offer, each hypertable will be accompanied by a number of continuous aggregates and retention policies. Running each one of these processes consumes one of your allocated worker processes, configured under ‘timescaledb.max_background_workers’, which is, in turn, a subset of ‘max_worker_processes’ (a parameter we covered in part II of this series).
If you have many hypertables and, therefore, more policies/jobs, the likelihood that multiple policies will run at the same time increases, potentially exhausting your background workers and leading some of the policies to fail. To address this problem, we released a feature in TimescaleDB 2.9.0 that allows you to create policies with fixed schedules and stagger them enough to guarantee that the number of jobs running simultaneously will never exceed timescaledb.max_background_workers config value.
That said, you may be limited based on the amount of time it takes to run a job and the job schedule interval. For instance, assume that you have multiple policies where each one takes five seconds to complete and is scheduled to run every minute. If you can only consume two background workers or two jobs running at any given time, then you can only have at most 24 policies defined. Completion time for jobs may vary, but the straightforward staggering implementation will be based on each job’s expected longest time to complete.
From all the things you can do to fine-tune your PostgreSQL performance, adequately designing your database schema is one of the most impactful but also the one that raises more doubts. As a support engineer, I hope to have shed some light on the best practices you should follow, including tips to leverage the Timescale functionality if you’re a Timescale user.