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Best practices for data layout and access patterns

Certain patterns of data access, and especially data updates, can exacerbate strain on the database. Avoid them if possible.

This document lists some patterns to avoid, with recommendations for alternatives.

High-frequency updates, especially to the same row

Avoid single database rows that are updated by many transactions at the same time.

  • If many processes attempt to update the same row simultaneously, they queue up as each transaction locks the row for writing. As this can significantly increase transaction timings, the Rails connection pools can saturate, leading to application-wide downtime.
  • For each row update, PostgreSQL inserts a new row version and deletes the old one. In high-traffic scenarios, this approach can cause vacuum and WAL (write-ahead log) pressure, reducing database performance.

This pattern often happens when an aggregate is too expensive to compute for each request, so a running tally is kept in the database. If you need such an aggregate, consider keeping a running total in a single row, plus a small working set of recently added data, such as individual increments:

  • When introducing new data, add it to the working set. These inserts do not cause lock contention.
  • When calculating the aggregate, combine the running total with a live aggregate from the working set, providing an up-to-date result.
  • Add a periodic job that incorporates the working set into the running total and clears it in a transaction, bounding the amount of work needed by a reader.

Wide tables

PostgreSQL organizes rows into 8 KB pages, and operates on one page at a time. By minimizing the width of rows in a table, we improve the following:

  • Sequential and bitmap index scan performance, because fewer pages must be scanned if each contains more rows.
  • Vacuum performance, because vacuum can process more rows in each page.
  • Update performance, because during a (non-HOT) update, each index must be updated for every row update.

Mitigating wide tables is one part of the database team's 100 GB table initiative, as wider tables can fit fewer rows in 100 GB.

When adding columns to a table, consider if you intend to access the data in the new columns by itself, in a one-to-one relationship with the other columns of the table. If so, the new columns could be a good candidate for splitting to a new table.

Several tables have already been split in this way. For example:

  • search_data is split from issues.
  • project_pages_metadata is split from projects.
  • merge_request_diff_details is split from merge_request_diffs

Data model trade-offs

Certain tables, like users, namespaces, and projects, can get very wide. These tables are usually central to the application, and used very often.

Why is this a problem?

  • Many of these columns are included in indexes, which leads to index write amplifcation. When the number of indexes on the table is more than 16, it affects query planning, and may lead to light-weight lock (LWLock) contention.
  • Updates in PostgreSQL are implemented as a combination of delete and insert. This means that each column, even if rarely used, is copied over and over again, on each update. This affects the amount of generated write ahead log (WAL).
  • When there is a column that is frequently updated, each update results in all table columns being copied. Again, this results in increase of generated WAL, and creates more work for auto-vacuum.
  • PostgreSQL stores data as rows, or tuples in a page. Wide rows reduce the number of tuples per page, and this affects read performance.

A possible solution to this problem is to keep only the most important columns on the main table, and extract the rest into different tables, having one-to-one relationship with the main table. Good candidates are columns that are either very frequently updated, for example last_activity_at, or columns that are rarely updated and/or used, like activation tokens.

The trade-off that comes with such extraction is that index-only scans are no longer possible. Instead, the application must either join to the new table or execute an additional query. The performance impacts of this should be weighed against the benefits of the vertical table split.

There is a very good episode on this topic on the PostgresFM podcast, where @NikolayS of PostgresAI and @michristofides of PgMustard discuss this topic in more depth -


Lets look at the users table, which at of the time of writing has 75 columns. We can see a few groups of columns that match the above criteria, and are good candidates for extraction:

  • OTP related columns, like encrypted_otp_secret, otp_secret_expires_at, etc. There are few of these columns, and once populated they should not be updated often (if at all).
  • Columns related to email confirmation - confirmation_token, confirmation_sent_at, and confirmed_at. Once populated these are most likely never updated.
  • Timestamps like password_expires_at, last_credential_check_at, and admin_email_unsubscribed_at. Such columns are either updated very often, or not at all. It will be better if they are in a separate table.
  • Various tokens (and columns related to them), like unlock_token, incoming_email_token, and feed_token.

Let's focus on users.incoming_email_token - every user on has one set, and this token is rarely updated.

In order to extract it from users into a new table, we'll have to do the following:

  1. Release M example
    • Create table (release M)
    • Update the application to read from the new table, and fallback to the original column when there is no data yet.
    • Start to back-fill the new table
  2. Release N example
    • Finalize the background migration doing the back-fill. This should be done in the next release after a required stop.
  3. Release N + 1 example
    • Update the application to read and write from the new table only.
    • Ignore the original column. This starts the process of safely removing database columns, as described in our guides.
  4. Release N + 2 example
    • Drop the original column.
  5. Release N + 3 example
    • Remove the ignore rule for the original column.

While this is a lenghty process, it's needed in order to do the extraction without disrupting the application. Once completed, the original column and the related index will no longer exists on the users table, which will result in improved performance.