Home Business & Other Mastering PostgreSQL 15 - Fifth Edition

Mastering PostgreSQL 15 - Fifth Edition

By Hans-Jürgen Schönig
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  1. Free Chapter
    Chapter 2: Understanding Transactions and Locking
About this book
Starting with an introduction to the newly released features of PostgreSQL 15, this updated fifth edition will help you get to grips with PostgreSQL administration and how to build dynamic database solutions for enterprise apps, including designing both physical and technical aspects of the system. You'll explore advanced PostgreSQL features, such as logical replication, database clusters, advanced indexing, and user management to manage and maintain your database. You'll then work with the PostgreSQL optimizer, configure PostgreSQL for high speed, and move from Oracle to PostgreSQL. Among the other skills that the book will help you build, you’ll cover transactions, handling recursions, working with JSON and JSONB data, and setting up a Patroni cluster. It will show you how to improve performance with query optimization. You'll also focus on managing network security and work with backups and replication while exploring useful PostgreSQL extensions that optimize the performance of large databases. By the end of this PostgreSQL book, you’ll be able to use your database to its utmost capacity by implementing advanced administrative tasks with ease.
Publication date:
January 2023
Publisher
Packt
Pages
522
ISBN
9781803248349

 

Understanding Transactions and Locking

Now that we’ve been introduced to PostgreSQL 15, we want to focus our attention on the next important topic. Locking is a vital concept for any kind of database. It is not enough to understand just how locking works to write proper or better applications – it is also essential from a performance point of view. Without handling locks properly, your applications might not only be slow; they might also behave in very unexpected ways. In my opinion, locking is the key to performance, and having a good overview of this will certainly help. Therefore, understanding locking and transactions is important for administrators and developers alike.

In this chapter, you will learn about the following topics:

  • Working with PostgreSQL transactions
  • Understanding basic locking
  • Making use of FOR SHARE and FOR UPDATE
  • Understanding transaction isolation levels
  • Observing deadlocks and similar issues
  • Utilizing advisory locks
  • Optimizing storage and managing cleanups

By the end of this chapter, you will be able to understand and utilize PostgreSQL transactions in the most efficient way possible. You will see that many applications can benefit from improved performance.

 

Working with PostgreSQL transactions

PostgreSQL provides you with highly advanced transaction machinery that offers countless features to developers and administrators alike. In this section, we will look at the basic concept of transactions. The first important thing to know is that, in PostgreSQL, everything is a transaction. If you send a simple query to the server, it is already a transaction. Here is an example:

test=# SELECT now(), now();
              now              |              now
-------------------------------+-------------------------------
 2022-09-27 08:29:14.597731+02 | 2022-09-27 08:29:14.597731+02
(1 row)

In this case, the SELECT statement will be a separate transaction. If the same command is executed again, different timestamps will be returned.

Tip

Keep in mind that the now() function will return the transaction time. The SELECT statement will, therefore, always return two identical timestamps. If you want the real time, consider using clock_timestamp() instead of now().

If more than one statement has to be a part of the same transaction, the BEGIN statement must be used, as follows:

test=# \h BEGIN
Command: BEGIN
Description: start a transaction block
Syntax:
 BEGIN [ WORK | TRANSACTION ] [ transaction_mode [, ...] ]
 where transaction_mode is one of:
  ISOLATION LEVEL { SERIALIZABLE | REPEATABLE READ | READ COMMITTED | READ UNCOMMITTED }
    READ WRITE | READ ONLY
    [ NOT ] DEFERRABLE
URL: https://www.postgresql.org/docs/15/sql-begin.html

The BEGIN statement will ensure that more than one command is packed into a transaction. Here is how it works:

test=# BEGIN;
BEGIN
test=*# SELECT now();
             now
------------------------------
 2022-09-27 08:30:19.83352+02
(1 row)
test=*# SELECT now();
             now
------------------------------
 2022-09-27 08:30:19.83352+02
(1 row)
test=*# COMMIT;
COMMIT

The important point here is that both timestamps will be identical. As we mentioned earlier, we are talking about transaction time.

To end the transaction, COMMIT can be used:

test=# \h COMMIT
Command: COMMIT
Description: commit the current transaction
Syntax:
 COMMIT [ WORK | TRANSACTION ] [ AND [ NO ] CHAIN ]
 URL: https://www.postgresql.org/docs/15/sql-commit.html

There are a few syntax elements here. You can just use COMMIT, COMMIT WORK, or COMMIT TRANSACTION. All three commands have the same meaning. If this is not enough, there’s more:

test=# \h END
Command: END
Description: commit the current transaction
Syntax:
 END [ WORK | TRANSACTION ] [ AND [ NO ] CHAIN ]
 URL: https://www.postgresql.org/docs/15/sql-end.html

The END clause is the same as the COMMIT clause.

ROLLBACK is the counterpart of COMMIT. Instead of successfully ending a transaction, it will simply stop the transaction without ever making things visible to other transactions, as shown in the following code:

test=# \h ROLLBACK
Command: ROLLBACK
Description: abort the current transaction
Syntax:
 ROLLBACK [ WORK | TRANSACTION ] [ AND [ NO ] CHAIN ]
 URL: https://www.postgresql.org/docs/15/sql-rollback.html

Some applications use ABORT instead of ROLLBACK. The meaning is the same. What was new in PostgreSQL 12 was the concept of a chained transaction. What is the point of all this? The following listing shows an example:

test=# SHOW transaction_read_only;
 transaction_read_only
-----------------------
 Off
 (1 row)
test=# BEGIN TRANSACTION READ ONLY ;
 BEGIN
test=*# SELECT 1;
 ?column?
----------
        1
 (1 row)
 test=*# COMMIT AND CHAIN;
 COMMIT
test=*# SHOW transaction_read_only;
 transaction_read_only
-----------------------
 On
 (1 row)
 test=*# SELECT 1;
 ?column?
----------
        1
 (1 row)
 test=*# COMMIT AND NO CHAIN;
 COMMIT
test=# SHOW transaction_read_only;
 transaction_read_only
-----------------------
 Of
(1 row)
 test=# COMMIT;
 WARNING: there is no transaction in progress
COMMIT

Let’s go through this example step by step:

  1. Display the content of the transaction_read_only setting. It is off because, by default, we are in read/write mode.
  2. Start a read-only transaction using BEGIN. This will automatically adjust the transaction_read_only variable.
  3. Commit the transaction using AND CHAIN, and then PostgreSQL will automatically start a new transaction featuring the same properties as the previous transaction.

In our example, we will also be in read-only mode, just like the transaction before. There is no need to explicitly open a new transaction and set whatever values again, which can dramatically reduce the number of roundtrips between the application and the server. If a transaction is committed normally (= NO CHAIN), the read-only attribute of the transaction will be gone.

Handling errors inside a transaction

It is not always the case that transactions are correct from beginning to end. Things might just go wrong for whatever reason. However, in PostgreSQL, only error-free transactions can be committed. The following listing shows a failing transaction, which errors out due to a division-by-zero error:

test=# BEGIN;
 BEGIN
test=*# SELECT 1;
 ?column?
----------
        1
 (1 row)
 test=*# SELECT 1 / 0;
 ERROR: division by zero
test=!# SELECT 1;
 ERROR: current transaction is aborted, commands ignored until end of transaction block
test=!# SELECT 1;
 ERROR: current transaction is aborted, commands ignored until end of transaction block
test=!# COMMIT;
 ROLLBACK

Note that division by zero did not work out.

Note

In any proper database, an instruction similar to this will instantly error out and make the statement fail.

It is important to point out that PostgreSQL will error out. After an error has occurred, no more instructions will be accepted, even if those instructions are semantically and syntactically correct. It is still possible to issue COMMIT. However, PostgreSQL will roll back the transaction because it is the only correct thing to be done at that point.

Making use of SAVEPOINT

In professional applications, it can be pretty hard to write reasonably long transactions without ever encountering a single error. To solve this problem, users can utilize something called SAVEPOINT. As the name indicates, a savepoint is a safe place inside a transaction that the application can return to if things go terribly wrong. Here is an example:

test=# BEGIN;
 BEGIN
test=*# SELECT 1;
 ?column?
----------
        1
 (1 row)
 test=*# SAVEPOINT a;
 SAVEPOINT
test=*# SELECT 2 / 0;
 ERROR: division by zero
test=!# SELECT 2;
 ERROR: current transaction is aborted, commands ignored until end of transaction block
test=!# ROLLBACK TO SAVEPOINT a;
 ROLLBACK
test=*# SELECT 3;
 ?column?
----------
        3
 (1 row)
 test=*# COMMIT;
 COMMIT

After the first SELECT clause, I decided to create a savepoint to make sure that the application can always return to this point inside the transaction. As you can see, the savepoint has a name, which is referred to later.

After returning to the savepoint called a, the transaction can proceed normally. The code has jumped back to before the error, so everything is fine.

The number of savepoints inside a transaction is practically unlimited. We have seen customers with over 250,000 savepoints in a single operation. PostgreSQL can easily handle this.

If you want to remove a savepoint from inside a transaction, there’s the RELEASE SAVEPOINT command:

test=# \h RELEASE
Command: RELEASE SAVEPOINT
Description: destroy a previously defined savepoin
Syntax:
 RELEASE [ SAVEPOINT ] savepoint_name
URL: https://www.postgresql.org/docs/15/sql-release-savepoint.html

Many people ask what will happen if you try to reach a savepoint after a transaction has ended. The answer is that the life of a savepoint ends as soon as the transaction ends. In other words, there is no way to return to a certain point in time after the transactions have been completed.

Transactional DDLs

PostgreSQL has a very nice feature that is unfortunately not present in many commercial database systems. In PostgreSQL, it is possible to run DDLs (commands that change the data’s structure) inside a transaction block. In a typical commercial system, a DDL will implicitly commit the current transaction. This does not occur in PostgreSQL.

Apart from some minor exceptions (DROP DATABASE, CREATE TABLESPACE, DROP TABLESPACE, and so on), all DDLs in PostgreSQL are transactional, which is a huge advantage and a real benefit to end users.

Here is an example:

test=# BEGIN;
 BEGI
test=*# CREATE TABLE t_test (id int);
 CREATE TABLE
test=*# ALTER TABLE t_test ALTER COLUMN id TYPE int8;
ALTER TABLE
test=*# \d t_test
              Table "public.t_test"
 Column |  Type  | Collation | Nullable | Default
--------+--------+-----------+----------+---------
 id     | bigint |           |          |
test=*# ROLLBACK;
 ROLLBACK
test=# \d t_test
Did not find any relation named "t_test".

In this example, a table has been created and modified, and the entire transaction has been aborted. As you can see, there is no implicit COMMIT command or any other strange behavior. PostgreSQL simply acts as expected.

Transactional DDLs are especially important if you want to deploy software. Just imagine running a content management system (CMS). If a new version is released, you’ll want to upgrade. Running the old version would still be okay; running the new version would also be okay, but you really don’t want a mixture of old and new. Therefore, deploying an upgrade in a single transaction is highly beneficial, as it upgrades an atomic operation.

Note

To facilitate good software practices, we can include several separately coded modules from our source control system into a single deployment transaction.

 

Understanding basic locking

In this section, you will learn about basic locking mechanisms. The goal is to understand how locking works in general and how to get simple applications right.

To show you how things work, we will create a simple table. For demonstrative purposes, I will add one row to the table using a simple INSERT command:

test=# CREATE TABLE  t_test (id int);
CREATE TABLE
test=# INSERT INTO t_test VALUES (0);
INSERT 0 1

The first important thing is that tables can be read concurrently. Many users reading the same data at the same time won’t block each other. This allows PostgreSQL to handle thousands of users without any problems.

The question now is what happens if reads and writes occur at the same time? Here is an example. Let’s assume that the table contains one row and its id = 0:

Transaction 1

Transaction 2

BEGIN;

BEGIN;

UPDATE t_test SET id = id + 1 RETURNING *;

User will see 1

SELECT * FROM t_test;

User will see 0

COMMIT;

COMMIT;

Table 2.1 – Transaction isolation

Two transactions are opened. The first one will change a row. However, this is not a problem, as the second transaction can proceed. It will return to the old row as it was before UPDATE. This behavior is called Multi-Version Concurrency Control (MVCC).

Note

A transaction will only see data if it has been committed by the write transaction before the initiation of the read transaction. One transaction cannot inspect the changes that have been made by another active connection. A transaction can see only those changes that have already been committed.

There is also a second important aspect – many commercial or open source databases are still unable to handle concurrent reads and writes. In PostgreSQL, this is absolutely not a problem – reads and writes can coexist.

Note

Write transactions won’t block read transactions.

After the transaction has been committed, the table will contain 1. What will happen if two people change data at the same time? Here is an example:

Transaction 1

Transaction 2

BEGIN;

BEGIN;

UPDATE t_test SET id = id + 1 RETURNING *;

It will return 2

UPDATE t_test SET id = id + 1 RETURNING *;

It will wait for transaction 1

COMMIT;

It will wait for transaction 1

It will reread the row, find 2, set the value, and return 3

COMMIT;

Table 2.2 – Handling concurrent updates

Suppose you want to count the number of hits on a website. If you run the preceding code, no hits will be lost because PostgreSQL guarantees that one UPDATE statement is performed after another.

Note

PostgreSQL will only lock rows affected by UPDATE. So, if you have 1,000 rows, you can theoretically run 1,000 concurrent changes on the same table.

It is also worth noting that you can always run concurrent reads. Our two writes will not block reads.

Avoiding typical mistakes and explicit locking

In my life as a professional PostgreSQL consultant (https://www.cybertec-postgresql.com), I have seen a couple of mistakes that are repeated frequently. If there are constants in life, these typical mistakes are definitely among them.

Here is my favorite:

Transaction 1

Transaction 2

BEGIN;

BEGIN;

SELECT max(id) FROM product;

SELECT max(id) FROM product;

The user will see 17

The user will see 17

The user will decide to use 18

The user will decide to use 18

INSERT INTO product ... VALUES (18, ...)

INSERT INTO product ... VALUES (18, ...)

COMMIT;

COMMIT;

Table 2.3 – Potential locking related problems

In this case, there will be either a duplicate key violation or two identical entries. Neither variation of the problem is all that appealing.

One way to fix this problem is to use explicit table locking. The following code shows us the syntax definition of LOCK:

test=# \h LOCK
Command: LOCK
Description: lock a table
Syntax:
 LOCK [ TABLE ] [ ONLY ] name [ * ] [, ...] [ IN lockmode MODE ] [ NOWAIT ]
 where lockmode is one of:
    ACCESS SHARE | ROW SHARE | ROW EXCLUSIVE | SHARE UPDATE EXCLUSIVE
    | SHARE | SHARE ROW EXCLUSIVE | EXCLUSIVE | ACCESS EXCLUSIVE
URL: https://www.postgresql.org/docs/15/sql-lock.html

As you can see, PostgreSQL offers eight types of locks to lock an entire table. In PostgreSQL, a lock can be as light as an ACCESS SHARE lock or as heavy as an ACCESS EXCLUSIVE lock. The following list shows what these locks do:

  • ACCESS SHARE: This type of lock is taken by reads and conflicts only with ACCESS EXCLUSIVE, which is set by DROP TABLE and so on. Practically, this means that SELECT cannot start if a table is about to be dropped. This also implies that DROP TABLE has to wait until a reading transaction is complete.
  • ROW SHARE: PostgreSQL takes this kind of lock in the case of SELECT FOR UPDATE/SELECT FOR SHARE. It conflicts with EXCLUSIVE and ACCESS EXCLUSIVE.
  • ROW EXCLUSIVE: This lock is taken by INSERT, UPDATE, and DELETE. It conflicts with SHARE, SHARE ROW EXCLUSIVE, EXCLUSIVE, and ACCESS EXCLUSIVE.
  • SHARE UPDATE EXCLUSIVE: This kind of lock is taken by CREATE INDEX CONCURRENTLY, ANALYZE, ALTER TABLE, VALIDATE, and some other flavors of ALTER TABLE, as well as by VACUUM (not VACUUM FULL). It conflicts with the SHARE UPDATE EXCLUSIVE, SHARE, SHARE ROW EXCLUSIVE, EXCLUSIVE, and ACCESS EXCLUSIVE lock modes.
  • SHARE: When an index is created, SHARE locks will be set. It conflicts with ROW EXCLUSIVE, SHARE UPDATE EXCLUSIVE, SHARE ROW EXCLUSIVE, EXCLUSIVE, and ACCESS EXCLUSIVE.
  • SHARE ROW EXCLUSIVE: This one is set by CREATE TRIGGER and some forms of ALTER TABLE and conflicts with everything except ACCESS SHARE.
  • EXCLUSIVE: This type of lock is by far the most restrictive one. It protects against reads and writes alike. If this lock is taken by a transaction, nobody else can read or write to the table that’s been affected.
  • ACCESS EXCLUSIVE: This lock prevents concurrent transactions from reading and writing.

Given the PostgreSQL locking infrastructure, one solution to the max problem we outlined previously would be as follows. The example in the following code shows how to lock a table:

BEGIN;
LOCK  TABLE  product IN ACCESS EXCLUSIVE MODE;
INSERT INTO  product SELECT max(id) + 1, ... FROM product;
COMMIT;

Keep in mind that this is a pretty nasty way of doing this kind of operation because nobody else can read or write to the table during your operation. Therefore, ACCESS EXCLUSIVE should be avoided at all costs.

Checking for locks

Checking for locks is not a trivial matter. There are various options. The first one is to see whether a lock is causing an issue at all:

test=# SELECT pid, wait_event_type, wait_event, query
FROM pg_stat_activity
WHERE datname = 'test';
...
-[ RECORD 3 ]---+---------------------------------------------------------
pid             | 23068
wait_event_type | Client
wait_event      | ClientRead
query           | lock table t_test in access exclusive mode ;
-[ RECORD 4 ]---+---------------------------------------------------------
pid             | 23071
wait_event_type | Lock
wait_event      | relation
query           | SELECT count(*) FROM t_test;

What we can see here is the query causing the lock, as well as the query waiting on the lock (as shown in the wait event).

Considering alternative solutions

There is an alternative solution to this problem. Consider an example where you are asked to write an application to generate invoice numbers. The tax office might require you to create invoice numbers without gaps and without duplicates. How would you do this? Of course, one solution would be a table lock. However, you can really do better. Here is what you can do to handle the numbering problem we are trying to solve:

test=# CREATE TABLE t_invoice (id int PRIMARY KEY);
CREATE TABLE
test=# CREATE TABLE  t_watermark (id int);
CREATE TABLE
test=# INSERT INTO  t_watermark VALUES (0);
INSERT 0
test=# WITH  x AS (UPDATE t_watermark SET id = id + 1 RETURNING *)
         INSERT INTO  t_invoice
         SELECT * FROM x RETURNING *;
id
----
  1
 (1 row)

In this case, we introduced a table called t_watermark. It contains just one row. The WITH command will be executed first. The row will be locked and incremented, and the new value will be returned. Only one person can do this at a time. The value returned by the CTE is then used in the invoice table. It is guaranteed to be unique. The beauty is that there is only a simple row lock on the watermark table, which leads to no reads being blocked in the invoice table. Overall, this way is more scalable.

 

Making use of FOR SHARE and FOR UPDATE

Sometimes, data is selected from the database, then some processing happens in the application, and finally, some changes are made back on the database side. This is a classic example of SELECT FOR UPDATE.

Here is an example that shows the way SELECT is often executed in the wrong way:

BEGIN;
 SELECT * FROM  invoice WHERE  processed = false;
** application magic  will  happen here  **
UPDATE invoice SET processed = true  ...
COMMIT;

The problem here is that two people might select the same unprocessed data. Changes that are made to these processed rows will then be overwritten. In short, a race condition will occur.

To solve this problem, developers can make use of SELECT FOR UPDATE. Here’s how it can be used. The following example will show a typical scenario:

BEGIN;
SELECT * FROM invoice WHERE processed = false FOR UPDATE;
** application magic  will  happen here  **
UPDATE invoice SET processed = true ...
COMMIT;

SELECT FOR UPDATE will lock rows just like UPDATE would. This means that no changes can happen concurrently. All locks will be released on COMMIT as usual.

If one SELECT FOR UPDATE command is waiting for another SELECT FOR UPDATE command, you will have to wait until the other one completes (COMMIT or ROLLBACK). If the first transaction doesn’t want to end, for whatever reason, the second transaction may potentially wait forever. To avoid this, it is possible to use SELECT FOR UPDATE NOWAIT:

Transaction 1

Transaction 2

BEGIN;

BEGIN;

SELECT ... FROM tab WHERE ... FOR UPDATE NOWAIT;

Some processing

SELECT ... FROM tab WHERE ... FOR UPDATE NOWAIT;

Some processing

ERROR: could not obtain lock on row in relation tab

Table 2.4 – Managing NOWAIT

If NOWAIT is not flexible enough for you, consider using lock_timeout. It will contain the amount of time you want to wait on locks. You can set this on a per-session level:

test=# SET lock_timeout TO 5000;
SET

In this case, the value is set to 5 seconds.

While SELECT does basically no locking, SELECT FOR UPDATE can be pretty harsh. Just imagine the following business process – we want to fill up an airplane that has 200 seats. Many people want to book seats concurrently. In this case, the following might happen:

Transaction 1

Transaction 2

BEGIN;

BEGIN;

SELECT ... FROM flight LIMIT 1 FOR UPDATE;

Waiting for user input

SELECT ... FROM flight LIMIT 1 FOR UPDATE;

Waiting for user input

It has to wait

Table 2.5 – Concurrent FOR UPDATE operations

The trouble is that only one seat can be booked at a time. There are potentially 200 seats available, but everybody has to wait for the first person. While the first seat is blocked, nobody else can book a seat, even if people don’t care which seat they get in the end.

SELECT FOR UPDATE SKIP LOCKED will fix the problem. Let’s create some sample data first:

test=# CREATE TABLE t_flight AS
          SELECT * FROM generate_series(1, 200) AS id;
SELECT 200

Now comes the magic:

Transaction 1

Transaction 2

BEGIN;

BEGIN;

SELECT * FROM t_flight LIMIT 2 FOR UPDATE SKIP LOCKED;

SELECT * FROM t_flight LIMIT 2 FOR UPDATE SKIP LOCKED;

It will return 1 and 2

It will return 3 and 4

Table 2.6 – Concurrent SKIP LOCKED operations

If everybody wants to fetch two rows, we can serve 100 concurrent transactions at a time without having to worry about blocking transactions.

Note

Keep in mind that waiting is the slowest form of execution. If only one transaction can be active at a time, it is pointless to buy ever more expensive servers if your real problems are caused by locking and conflicting transactions in general.

However, there’s more. In some cases, FOR UPDATE can have unintended consequences. Most people are not aware of the fact that FOR UPDATE will have an impact on foreign keys. Let’s assume that we have two tables – one to store currencies and the other to store accounts. The following code shows an example of this:

CREATE TABLE t_currency (id int, name text, PRIMARY KEY (id));
INSERT INTO t_currency VALUES (1, 'EUR');
INSERT INTO t_currency VALUES (2, 'USD');
CREATE TABLE t_account (
        id int,
        currency_id int REFERENCES t_currency (id)
        ON UPDATE CASCADE
        ON DELETE CASCADE,
         balance numeric);
INSERT INTO t_account VALUES (1, 1, 100);
INSERT INTO t_account VALUES (2, 1, 200);

Now, we want to run SELECT FOR UPDATE on the account table:

Transaction 1

Transaction 2

BEGIN;

SELECT * FROM t_account FOR UPDATE;

BEGIN;

Waiting for the user to proceed

UPDATE t_currency SET id = id * 10;

Waiting for the user to proceed

It will wait on transaction 1

Table 2.7 – Handling FOR UPDATE

Although there is a SELECT FOR UPDATE command on accounts, the UPDATE command on the currency table will be blocked. This is necessary because, otherwise, there is a chance of breaking the foreign key constraint altogether. In a fairly complex data structure, you can therefore easily end up with contentions in an area where they are least expected (some highly important lookup tables).

As well as FOR UPDATE, there’s also FOR SHARE, FOR NO KEY UPDATE, and FOR KEY SHARE. The following list describes what these modes actually mean:

  • FOR NO KEY UPDATE: This one is pretty similar to FOR UPDATE. However, the lock is weaker, and therefore, it can coexist with SELECT FOR SHARE.
  • FOR SHARE: FOR UPDATE is pretty strong and works on the assumption that you are definitely going to change rows. FOR SHARE is different because more than one transaction can hold a FOR SHARE lock at the same time.
  • FOR KEY SHARE: This behaves similarly to FOR SHARE, except that the lock is weaker. It will block FOR UPDATE but will not block FOR NO KEY UPDATE.

The important thing here is to simply try things out and observe what happens. Improving locking behavior is really important, as it can dramatically improve the scalability of your application.

 

Understanding transaction isolation levels

Up until now, you have seen how to handle locking, as well as some basic concurrency. In this section, you will learn about transaction isolation. To me, this is one of the most neglected topics in modern software development. Only a small fraction of software developers is actually aware of this issue, which in turn leads to mind-boggling bugs.

Here is an example of what can happen:

Transaction 1

Transaction 2

BEGIN;

SELECT sum(balance) FROM t_account;

The user will see 300

BEGIN;

INSERT INTO t_account (balance) VALUES (100);

COMMIT;

SELECT sum(balance) FROM t_account;

The user will see 400

COMMIT;

Table 2.8 – Transactional visibility

Most users would actually expect the first transaction to always return 300, regardless of the second transaction. However, this isn’t true. By default, PostgreSQL runs in the READ COMMITTED transaction isolation mode. This means that every statement inside a transaction will get a new snapshot of the data, which will be constant throughout the query.

Note

A SQL statement will operate on the same snapshot and will ignore changes by concurrent transactions while it is running.

If you want to avoid this, you can use TRANSACTION ISOLATION LEVEL REPEATABLE READ. In this transaction isolation level, a transaction will use the same snapshot throughout the entire transaction. Here’s what will happen:

Transaction 1

Transaction 2

BEGIN TRANSACTION ISOLATION LEVEL

REPEATABLE READ;

SELECT sum(balance) FROM t_account;

User will see 300

BEGIN;

INSERT INTO t_account (balance) VALUES (100);

COMMIT;

SELECT sum(balance) FROM t_account;

SELECT sum(balance) FROM t_account;

User will see 300

The user will see 400

COMMIT;

Table 2.9 – Managing REPEATABLE READ transactions

As we’ve outlined, the first transaction will freeze its snapshot of the data and provide us with constant results throughout the entire transaction. This feature is especially important if you want to run reports. The first and last pages of a report should always be consistent and operate on the same data. Therefore, the repeatable read is key to consistent reports.

Note that isolation-related errors won’t always pop up instantly. Sometimes, trouble is noticed years after an application has been moved to production.

Note

Repeatable read is not more expensive than read committed. There is no need to worry about performance penalties. For normal online transaction processing (OLTP), read committed has various advantages because changes can be seen much earlier and the odds of unexpected errors are usually lower.

Considering serializable snapshot isolation transactions

On top of read committed and repeatable read, PostgreSQL offers Serializable Snapshot Isolation (SSI) transactions. So, overall, PostgreSQL supports three isolation levels (read committed, repeatable read, and serializable). Note that Read Uncommitted (which still happens to be the default in some commercial databases) is not supported; if you try to start a read uncommitted transaction, PostgreSQL will silently map to read committed. Let’s get back to the serializable isolation level.

Note

If you want to know more about this isolation level, consider checking out https://wiki.postgresql.org/wiki/Serializable.

The idea behind serializable isolation is simple; if a transaction is known to work correctly when there is only a single user, it will also work in the case of concurrency when this isolation level is chosen. However, users have to be prepared; transactions may fail (by design) and error out. In addition to this, a performance penalty has to be paid.

Note

Consider using serializable isolation only when you have a decent understanding of what is going on inside the database engine.

 

Observing deadlocks and similar issues

Deadlocks are an important issue and can happen in every database. Basically, a deadlock will happen if two transactions have to wait on each other.

In this section, you will see how this can happen. Let’s suppose we have a table containing two rows:

CREATE TABLE t_deadlock (id int);
INSERT INTO t_deadlock VALUES (1), (2);

The following example shows what can happen:

Transaction 1

Transaction 2

BEGIN;

BEGIN;

UPDATE t_deadlock

SET id = id * 10

WHERE id = 1;

UPDATE t_deadlock

SET id = id * 10

WHERE id = 2;

UPDATE t_deadlock

SET id = id * 10

WHERE id = 2;

Waiting on transaction 2

UPDATE t_deadlock

SET id = id * 10

WHERE id = 1;

Waiting on transaction 2

Waiting on transaction 1

Deadlock will be resolved after 1 second

(deadlock_timeout)

COMMIT;

ROLLBACK;

Table 2.10 – Understanding deadlocks

As soon as the deadlock is detected, the following error message will show up:

psql: ERROR: deadlock detected
DETAIL: Process 91521 waits for ShareLock on transaction 903;
   blocked by process 77185.
 Process 77185 waits for ShareLock on transaction 905;
 blocked by process 91521.
 HINT: See server log for query details.
 CONTEXT: while updating tuple (0,1) in relation "t_deadlock"

PostgreSQL is even kind enough to tell us which row has caused the conflict. In my example, the root of all evil is a tuple, (0, 1). What you can see here is ctid, which is a unique identifier of a row in a table. It tells us about the physical position of a row inside a table. In this example, it is the first row in the first block (0).

It is even possible to query this row if it is still visible in your transaction. Here’s how it works:

test=# SELECT ctid, * FROM t_deadlock WHERE ctid = '(0, 1)';
ctid   | id
-------+-----
(0,1)  |  10
 (1 row)

Keep in mind that this query might not return a row if it has already been deleted or modified.

However, this isn’t the only case where deadlocks can lead to potentially failing transactions. Transactions also cannot be serialized for various reasons. The following example shows what can happen. To make this example work, I assume that you’ve still got the two rows, id = 1 and id = 2:

Transaction 1

Transaction 2

BEGIN ISOLATION LEVEL REPEATABLE READ;

SELECT * FROM t_deadlock;

Two rows will be returned

DELETE FROM t_deadlock;

SELECT * FROM t_deadlock;

Two rows will be returned

DELETE FROM t_deadlock;

The transaction will error out

ROLLBACK; - we cannot COMMIT anymore

Table 2.11 – Transaction isolation and DELETE

In this example, two concurrent transactions are at work. As long as the first transaction is just selecting data, everything is fine because PostgreSQL can easily preserve the illusion of static data. But what happens if the second transaction commits a DELETE command? As long as there are only reads, there is still no problem. The trouble begins when the first transaction tries to delete or modify data that is already dead at this point. The only solution for PostgreSQL is to error out due to a conflict caused by our transactions:

test=# DELETE FROM t_deadlock;
psql: ERROR: could not serialize access due to concurrent update

Practically, this means that end users have to be prepared to handle erroneous transactions. If something goes wrong, properly written applications must be able to try again.

 

Utilizing advisory locks

PostgreSQL has highly efficient and sophisticated transaction machinery that is capable of handling locks in a really fine-grained and efficient way. A few years ago, people came up with the idea of using this code to synchronize applications with each other. Thus, advisory locks were born.

When using advisory locks, it is important to mention that they won’t go away on COMMIT as normal locks do. Therefore, it is really important to make sure that unlocking is done properly and in a totally reliable way.

If you decide to use an advisory lock, what you really lock is a number. So, this isn’t about rows or data; it is really just a number. Here’s how it works:

Session 1

Session 2

BEGIN;

SELECT pg_advisory_lock(15);

SELECT pg_advisory_lock(15);

It has to wait

COMMIT;

It still has to wait

SELECT pg_advisory_unlock(15);

It is still waiting

Lock is taken

Table 2.12 – Sessions 1 and 2 on an advisory lock

The first transaction will lock 15. The second transaction has to wait until this number has been unlocked again. The second session will even wait until after the first one has committed. This is highly important, as you cannot rely on the fact that the end of the transaction nicely and miraculously solving things for you.

If you want to unlock all locked numbers, PostgreSQL offers the pg_advisory_unlock_all() function to do exactly this:

test=# SELECT pg_advisory_unlock_all();
pg_advisory_unlock_all
------------------------
 (1 row)

Sometimes, you might want to see whether you can get a lock and error out if this isn’t possible. To achieve this, PostgreSQL offers a couple of functions; to see a list of all such available functions, enter \df *try*advisory* at the command line.

 

Optimizing storage and managing cleanup

Transactions are an integral part of the PostgreSQL system. However, transactions come with a small price tag attached. As we’ve already shown in this chapter, sometimes, concurrent users will be presented with different data. Not everybody will get the same data returned by a query. In addition to this, DELETE and UPDATE are not allowed to actually overwrite data, since ROLLBACK would not work. If you happen to be in the middle of a large DELETE operation, you cannot be sure whether you will be able to use COMMIT or not. In addition to this, data is still visible while you perform the DELETE operation, and sometimes, data is even visible once your modification has long since finished.

Consequently, this means that cleanup has to happen asynchronously. A transaction cannot clean up its own mess, and any COMMIT/ROLLBACK might be too early to take care of dead rows.

The solution to this problem is VACUUM. The following code block provides you with a syntax overview:

test=# \h VACUUM
Command:     VACUUM
Description: garbage-collect and optionally analyze a database
Syntax:
VACUUM [ ( option [, ...] ) ] [ table_and_columns [, ...] ]
VACUUM [ FULL ] [ FREEZE ] [ VERBOSE ] [ ANALYZE ] [ table_and_columns [, ...] ]
where option can be one of:
    FULL [ boolean ]
    FREEZE [ boolean ]
    VERBOSE [ boolean ]
    ANALYZE [ boolean ]
    DISABLE_PAGE_SKIPPING [ boolean ]
    SKIP_LOCKED [ boolean ]
    INDEX_CLEANUP { AUTO | ON | OFF }
    PROCESS_TOAST [ boolean ]
    TRUNCATE [ boolean ]
    PARALLEL integer
and table_and_columns is:
    table_name [ ( column_name [, ...] ) ]
URL: https://www.postgresql.org/docs/15/sql-vacuum.html

VACUUM will visit all of the pages that potentially contain modifications and find all the dead space. The free space that’s found is then tracked by the free space map (FSM) of the relation.

Note that VACUUM will, in most cases, not shrink the size of a table. Instead, it will track and find free space inside existing storage files.

Note

Tables will usually have the same size after VACUUM. If there are no valid rows at the end of a table, file sizes can go down, although this is rare. This is not the rule, but rather the exception.

What this means to end users will be outlined in the Watching VACUUM at work subsection of this chapter.

Configuring VACUUM and autovacuum

Back in the early days of PostgreSQL projects, people had to run VACUUM manually. Fortunately, those days are long gone. Nowadays, administrators can rely on a tool called autovacuum, which is part of the PostgreSQL server infrastructure. It automatically takes care of cleanup and works in the background. It wakes up once per minute (see autovacuum_naptime = 1 in postgresql.conf) and checks whether there is work to do. If there is work, autovacuum will fork up to three worker processes (see autovacuum_max_workers in postgresql.conf).

The main question is, when does autovacuum trigger the creation of a worker process?

Note

Actually, the autovacuum process doesn’t fork processes itself. Instead, it tells the main process to do so. This is done to avoid zombie processes in the event of failure and to improve robustness.

The answer to this question can, again, be found in postgresql.conf, as shown in the following code:

autovacuum_vacuum_threshold = 50
autovacuum_analyze_threshold = 50
autovacuum_vacuum_scale_factor = 0.2
autovacuum_analyze_scale_factor = 0.1
autovacuum_vacuum_insert_threshold = 1000

The autovacuum_vacuum_scale_factor command tells PostgreSQL that a table is worth vacuuming if 20% of its data has been changed. The trouble is that if a table consists of one row, one change is already 100%. It makes absolutely no sense to fork a complete process to clean up just one row. Therefore, autovacuum_vacuuum_threshold says that we need 20%, and this 20% must be at least 50 rows. Otherwise, VACUUM won’t kick in. The same mechanism is used when it comes to the creation of optimizer statistics. We need 10% and at least 50 rows to justify new optimizer statistics. Ideally, autovacuum creates new statistics during a normal VACUUM to avoid unnecessary trips to the table.

However, there is more – in the past, autovacuum was not triggered by workloads consisting of only INSERT statements, which could be a major issue. The new autovacuum_vacuum_insert_threshold parameter was added to fix exactly this kind of problem. From PostgreSQL 13 onward, autovacuum activity will happen even if only INSERT statements are occuring in the database.

Digging into transaction wraparound-related issues

There are two more settings in postgresql.conf that are quite important to understand to really make use of PostgreSQL. As we have stated already, understanding VACUUM is key to performance:

autovacuum_freeze_max_age = 200000000
autovacuum_multixact_freeze_max_age = 400000000

To understand the overall problem, it is important to understand how PostgreSQL handles concurrency. The PostgreSQL transaction machinery is based on the comparison of transaction IDs and the states that transactions are in.

Let’s look at an example. If I am transaction ID 4711 and you happen to be 4712, I won’t see you because you are still running. If I am transaction ID 4711 but you are transaction ID 3900, I will see you. If your transaction has failed, I can safely ignore all of the rows that are produced by your failing transaction.

The trouble is as follows – transaction IDs are finite, not unlimited. At some point, they will start to wrap around. In reality, this means that transaction number 5 might actually be after transaction number 800 million. How does PostgreSQL know what was first? It does so by storing a watermark. At some point, those watermarks will be adjusted, and this is exactly when VACUUM starts to be relevant. By running VACUUM (or autovacuum), you can ensure that the watermark is adjusted in such a way that there are always enough future transaction IDs left to work with.

Note

Not every transaction will increase the transaction ID counter. As long as a transaction is still reading, it will only have a virtual transaction ID. This ensures that transaction IDs are not burned too quickly.

The autovacuum_freeze_max_age command defines the maximum number of transactions (age) that a table’s pg_class.relfrozenxid field can attain before a VACUUM operation is forced to prevent transaction ID wraparound within the table. This value is fairly low because it also has an impact on clog cleanup (the clog or commit log is a data structure that stores two bits per transaction, which indicates whether a transaction is running, aborted, committed, or still in a subtransaction).

The autovacuum_multixact_freeze_max_age command configures the maximum age that a table’s pg_class.relminmxid field can attain before a VACUUM operation is forced to prevent the multixact ID wraparound within the table. Freezing tuples is an important performance issue, and there will be more on this process in Chapter 6, Optimizing Queries for Good Performance, where we will discuss query optimization.

In general, trying to reduce the VACUUM load while maintaining operational security is a good idea. A VACUUM operation on large tables can be expensive, and therefore, keeping an eye on these settings makes perfect sense.

A word on VACUUM FULL

Instead of the normal VACUUM, you can also use VACUUM FULL. However, I really want to point out that VACUUM FULL actually locks the table and rewrites the entire relationship. In the case of a small table, this might not be an issue. However, if your tables are large, the table lock can really kill you in minutes! VACUUM FULL blocks upcoming writes, and therefore, some people talking to your database might get the impression that it is actually down. Hence, a lot of caution is advised.

Note

To get rid of VACUUM FULL, I recommend that you check out pg_squeeze (https://www.cybertec-postgresql.com/en/introducing-pg_squeeze-a-postgresql-extension-to-auto-rebuild-bloated-tables/), which can rewrite a table without blocking writes.

Watching VACUUM at work

Now, it is time to see VACUUM in action. I have included this section here because my practical work as a PostgreSQL consultant and supporter (http://www.postgresql-support.com/) indicates that most people only have a very vague understanding of what happens on the storage side.

To stress this point again, in most cases, VACUUM will not shrink your tables; space is usually not returned to the filesystem.

Here is my example, which shows you how to create a small table with customized autovacuum settings. The table is filled with 100000 rows:

CREATE TABLE t_test (id int) WITH (autovacuum_enabled = off);
INSERT INTO t_test
   SELECT * FROM generate_series(1, 100000);

The idea is to create a simple table containing 100000 rows. Note that it is possible to turn autovacuum off for specific tables. Usually, this is not a good idea for most applications. However, there is a corner case, where autovacuum_enabled = off makes sense. Just consider a table whose life cycle is very short. It doesn’t make sense to clean out tuples if the developer already knows that the entire table will be dropped within seconds. In data warehousing, this can be the case if you use tables as staging areas. VACUUM is turned off in this example to ensure that nothing happens in the background. Everything you see is triggered by me and not by some process.

First of all, consider checking the size of the table by using the following command:

test=# SELECT pg_size_pretty(pg_relation_size('t_test'));
pg_size_pretty
----------------
 3544 kB
 (1 row)

The pg_relation_size command returns the size of a table in bytes. The pg_size_pretty command will take this number and turn it into something human-readable.

Then, all of the rows in the table will be updated using a simple UPDATE statement, as shown in the following code:

test=# UPDATE t_test SET id = id + 1;
UPDATE 100000

What happens is highly important to understand PostgreSQL. The database engine has to copy all the rows. Why? First of all, we don’t know whether the transaction will be successful, so the data cannot be overwritten. The second important aspect is that a concurrent transaction might still be seeing the old version of the data.

The UPDATE operation will copy rows.

Logically, the size of the table will be larger after the change has been made:

test=# SELECT pg_size_pretty(pg_relation_size('t_test'));
 pg_size_pretty
----------------
 7080 kB
 (1 row)

After UPDATE, people might try to return space to the filesystem:

test=# VACUUM t_test;
VACUUM

As we stated previously, VACUUM does not return space to the filesystem in most cases. Instead, it will allow space to be reused. The table, therefore, doesn’t shrink at all:

test=# SELECT pg_size_pretty(pg_relation_size('t_test'));
pg_size_pretty
----------------
 7080 kB
 (1 row)

However, the next UPDATE will not make the table grow because it will eat the free space inside the table. Only a second UPDATE would make the table grow again because all the space is gone and so additional storage is needed:

test=# UPDATE t_test SET id = id + 1;
UPDATE 100000
test=# SELECT pg_size_pretty(pg_relation_size('t_test'));
pg_size_pretty
----------------
 7080 kB
 (1 row)
 test=# UPDATE t_test SET id = id + 1;
UPDATE 100000
test=# SELECT pg_size_pretty(pg_relation_size('t_test'));
 pg_size_pretty
----------------
 10 MB
 (1 row)

If I had to decide on a single thing you should remember after reading this book, this is it. Understanding storage is the key to performance and administration in general.

Let’s run some more queries:

VACUUM t_test;
UPDATE t_test SET id = id + 1;
VACUUM t_test;

Again, the size is unchanged. Let’s see what’s inside the table:

test=# SELECT ctid, * FROM t_test ORDER BY ctid DESC;
 ctid      | id
-----------+--------
...
 (1327, 46) | 112
 (1327, 45) | 111
 (1327, 44) | 110
...
 (884, 20)  | 99798
 (884, 19)  | 99797
...

The ctid command is the physical position of a row on a disk. By using ORDER BY ctid DESC, you will basically read the table backward in physical order. Why should you care? Because there are some very small values and some very big values at the end of the table. The following code shows how the size of the table changes when data is deleted:

test=# DELETE FROM t_test
              WHERE id > 99000
                    OR id < 1000;
DELETE 1999
test=# VACUUM t_test;
VACUUM
test=# SELECT pg_size_pretty(pg_relation_size('t_test'));
 pg_size_pretty
----------------
 3504 kB
 (1 row)

Although only 2% of the data has been deleted, the size of the table has gone down by two-thirds. The reason for this is that if VACUUM only finds dead rows after a certain position in the table, it can return space to the filesystem. This is the only case in which you will actually see the table size go down. Of course, normal users have no control over the physical position of data on the disk. Therefore, storage consumption will most likely stay somewhat the same unless all rows are deleted.

Important note

Why are there so many small and big values at the end of the table anyway? After the table is initially populated with 100,000 rows, the last block is not completely full, so the first UPDATE will fill up the last block with changes. This shuffles the end of the table a bit. In this carefully crafted example, this is the reason for the strange layout at the end of the table.

In real-world applications, the impact of this observation cannot be stressed enough. There is no performance tuning without really understanding storage.

Limiting transactions by making use of snapshot too old

VACUUM does a good job, and it will reclaim free space as needed. However, when can VACUUM actually clean out rows and turn them into free space? The rule is this – if a row cannot be seen by anybody anymore, it can be reclaimed. In reality, this means that everything that is no longer seen, even by the oldest active transaction, can be considered to be really dead.

This also implies that really long transactions can postpone cleanup for quite some time. The logical consequence is table bloat. Tables will grow beyond proportion, and performance will tend to go downhill. Fortunately, starting with PostgreSQL 9.6, the database has a nice feature that allows an administrator to intelligently limit the duration of a transaction. Oracle administrators will be familiar with the snapshot too old error. Since PostgreSQL 9.6, this error message is also available. However, it is more of a feature than an unintended side effect of bad configuration (which it actually is in Oracle).

To limit the lifetime of snapshots, you can make use of a setting in PostgreSQL’s config file, postgresql.conf, which has all of the configuration parameters that are needed for this:

old_snapshot_threshold = -1
         # 1min-60d; -1 disables; 0 is immediate

If this variable is set, transactions will fail after a certain amount of time. Note that this setting is on an instance level and cannot be set inside a session. By limiting the age of a transaction, the risk of insanely long transactions will decrease drastically.

Making use of more VACUUM features

VACUUM has steadily improved over the years. In this section, you will learn about some of the more recent improvements.

In many cases, VACUUM can skip pages. This is especially true when the visibility map suggests that a block is visible to everyone. VACUUM may also skip a page that is heavily used by some other transaction. DISABLE_PAGE_SKIPPING disables this kind of behavior and ensures that all pages are cleaned during this run.

One more way to improve on VACUUM is to use SKIP_LOCKED; the idea here is to make sure that VACUUM does not harm concurrency. If SKIP_LOCKED is used, VACUUM will automatically skip over relations, which cannot instantly be locked, thus avoiding conflict resolution. This kind of feature can be very useful in the event of heavy concurrency. One of the important and sometimes overlooked aspects of VACUUM is the need to clean up indexes. After VACUUM has successfully processed a heap, indexes are taken care of. If you want to prevent this from happening, you can make use of INDEX_CLEANUP. By default, INDEX_CLEANUP is true, but depending on your workload, you might decide to skip index cleanup in some rare cases. So, what are those rare cases? Why might anybody not want to clean up indexes? The answer is simple – if your database may potentially soon shut down due to transaction wraparound, it makes sense to run VACUUM as quickly as possible. If you’ve got a choice between downtime and some kind of postponed cleanup, you should opt for VACUUM quickly to keep your database alive.

In recent versions of PostgreSQL, the PROCESS_TOAST option has been added. The idea is to give users a chance to skip TOAST altogether. In real life, there are not too many cases when this is actually desirable.

The next option that has been added is TRUNCATE, either true or false. As we have mentioned already, it can happen that VACUUM cuts off a file at the end if only dead tuples are found. This behavior can now be controlled. The default value is, of course, true. However, you can disable file truncation if it is necessary.

VACUUM used to work using a single CPU core for a long time. However, those times have changed for good. It is now possible for VACUUM to make full use of your system and utilize more than one CPU core. Usually, the number of cores is determined by the size of the table, similar to how it is with normal SELECT statements. By using the PARALLEL option, you can decide how many cores VACUUM is supposed to use.

 

Summary

In this chapter, you learned about transactions, locking and its logical implications, and the general architecture the PostgreSQL transaction machinery can have for storage, concurrency, and administration. You saw how rows are locked and some of the features that are available in PostgreSQL.

In Chapter 3, Making Use of Indexes, you will learn about one of the most important topics in database work – indexing. You will also learn about the PostgreSQL query optimizer, as well as various types of indexes and their behavior.

 

Questions

As in most of the chapters in this book, we will take a look at some of the key questions that will have arisen from what has just been covered:

  1. What is the purpose of a transaction?
  2. How long can a transaction in PostgreSQL be?
  3. What is transaction isolation?
  4. Should we avoid table locks?
  5. What do transactions have to do with VACUUM?

The answers to these questions can be found in the GitHub repository (https://github.com/PacktPublishing/Mastering-PostgreSQL-15-).

About the Author
  • Hans-Jürgen Schönig

    Hans-Jürgen Schönig has 20 years’ experience with PostgreSQL. He is the CEO of a PostgreSQL consulting and support company called CYBERTEC PostgreSQL International GmbH. It has successfully served countless customers around the globe. Before founding CYBERTEC PostgreSQL International GmbH in 2000, he worked as a database developer at a private research company that focused on the Austrian labor market, where he primarily worked on data mining and forecast models. He has also written several books about PostgreSQL.

    Browse publications by this author
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