Everyday Postgres: INSERT with SELECT

This is a continuation of a series of posts about how I use Postgres everyday.

One of the most pleasant aspects of working with Postgres is coming across features that save me lots of typing. Whenever I see repetitive SQL queries, I now tend to assume there is a feature available that will help me out.

One such feature is INSERT using a SELECT, and beyond that, using the output of a SELECT statement in place of VALUES.

Take for example:

INSERT into foo_bar (foo_id, bar_id) VALUES ((select id from foo where name = 'selena'), (select id from bar where type = 'name'));    
INSERT into foo_bar (foo_id, bar_id) VALUES ((select id from foo where name = 'funny'), (select id from bar where type = 'name'));
INSERT into foo_bar (foo_id, bar_id) VALUES ((select id from foo where name = 'chip'), (select id from bar where type = 'name'));

I think a lot of people know that this is possible. There are a few problems with it – like if the result of the WHERE clause isn’t unique in both cases, you’d get an error. In this case, id in both tables were surrogate keys, with both name and type being unique.

What some people don’t realize is that you can SELECT, and then directly insert that into a table:

INSERT into foo_bar (foo_id, bar_id) ( 
  SELECT foo.id, bar.id FROM foo CROSS JOIN bar 
    WHERE type = 'name' AND name IN ('selena', 'funny', 'chip') 

If the values you wanted to take from the table bar were not all the same, the query would be considerably more complex. Given that I only am interested in a single value from bar, and I want it joined with a series of explicitly selected values from foo, this version of the query saves me a lot of typing.

The bigger picture, however, was pointed out in the comments by Marko:

VALUES is just a special type of SELECT and that INSERT writes the
result of an arbitrary SELECT statement into the table. Consider:

SELECT 1; vs. VALUES (1);



The reason VALUES is often used with INSERT is that many RDMBSs don’t
support SELECT without a FROM clause, so using VALUES is more
convenient. It’s also handy if you have a list of data you want to
SELECT, e.g. VALUES (..), (..), (..);

I may have referenced this feature a few times when breaking down functions used for reports in Socorro. It’s super convenient and saves quite a bit of typing! You can put any valid SQL query in there, including CTEs. The documentation for INSERT provides a few more examples.

Everyday Postgres: Tuning a brand-new server (the 10-minute edition)

Server tuning is a topic that consumes many books, blog posts and wiki pages.

Below is some practical advice for getting low-hanging fruit out of the way if you’re new to tuning Postgres and just want something that will likely work well-enough on low volume systems. I’d say looking at this list and making changes on a new system should take 10 minutes or less.

Run pgtune

Greg Smith open sourced a utility for making a first pass at tuning Postgres for a local system with pgtune. This tool is easy to run – just copy it to a target system and then point it at your existing Postgres config. It puts its changes into a new file at the very bottom.


Filesystem choice matters. Greg Smith goes into some detail on why ext3 is a terrible performance choice for a database filesystem in his talk Righting Your Writes. At this point, XFS is the filesystem that should be your default choice. If you want to explore ext4 or zfs (if that’s an option for you), that may be worth looking at. It is “safe” however to choose XFS. Depending on your disk situation, recreating your filesystem might take a bit longer than 10 minutes, but hopefully this will save you time and bad performance in the future!

Increase your readahead buffer

On Linux, the readahead buffer (brief explanation) is set way to small for most database systems. Increase this to about 1 MB with blockdev -setra 2048 [device].

For further performance analysis

I wrote this performance checklist a while back for assessing a system’s health. I’d say a review of all the things on that list would take probably half a day. Following up and making the changes could take a day or more. These kinds of analysis are worth exploring periodically to ensure you haven’t missed important changes in your environment or your application over time.

Everyday Postgres: How I write queries using psql: Common Table Expressions

This this series of posts about using Postgres every day. The last post was about \ commands in psql.

I’m now going to share in a series of posts my workflow for writing queries, and some of the things about working with Postgres that I take for granted in writing queries.

Shortcuts I can’t live without

Three important shortcuts you should learn are:

  • \e: Pulls the last query you executed into a buffer in your favorite editor
  • \df+ [function]: This displays [function] information, and the + dumps the function itself to STDOUT
  • \ef [function]: This pulls [function] into a buffer in your favorite editor. This is the most convenient way to grab a copy of an individual function for me.
  • \ef: This opens your favorite editor and puts a template for a function (in any supported procedural language) in a buffer

I’ll talk about writing functions in a future post.

Thinking in CTEs

In searching through my recent psql history, I found quite a few WITH queries. These are Common Table Expressions, a useful feature supported by many databases that allows you to embed subqueries in your SQL in a very readable format. CTEs have a lot more interesting features and properties, like RECURSIVE.

However, I tend to just use CTEs as a more convenient form of a subquery. This allows me to break apart long queries into smaller, testable chunks. I usually will write a subquery so that it’s in my command history, generate some fake data for testing, and go back to that query in my history to test edge cases.

I iterate on the smaller tables until I have a set of understandable “paragraphs” of SQL. This makes it easier for me to explain the logic of the query with others, and makes testing each piece easier in the event that something breaks. Usually, when a CTE breaks, I’ve made an assumption about incoming data that’s incorrect.

The composability of SQL is often terrible. CTEs help break apart the complexity visually. There’s some warnings about CTEs not performing well under certain circumstances. My approach is to design with CTEs and optimize for performance only if needed.

Other advantages of CTEs

In case you’re not yet convinced CTEs are worth learning, I made a bullet list of advantages from some useful comments about how others are using CTEs:

  • Alternative to throwaway VIEWs and temporary tables when querying replicas (comment from bma)
  • Variable declaration – to emulate DECLARE in SQL Server, for example
  • Easier to understand queries and faster development time (ME)

An example of the kinds of queries I write

Something you’d see a lot in my command history are queries that look like this:

WITH crashes AS (                                                               
    SELECT uptime_string AS category                                                      
        , sum(report_count) AS report_count                                     
    FROM signature_summary_uptime                                               
        JOIN signatures USING (signature_id)                                       
        signatures.signature = 'Fake Signature #1'                                             
        AND report_date >= '2013-08-05T00:00:00+00:00'::timestamptz             
        AND report_date < '2013-08-12T00:00:00+00:00'::timestamptz              
        AND product_name IN ('Firefox')  AND version_string IN ('1')            
    GROUP BY category                                                           
totals AS (                                                                     
        , report_count                                                          
        , sum(report_count) OVER () as total_count                              
    FROM crashes                                                                
SELECT category                                                                 
    , report_count                                                              
    , round((report_count * 100::numeric)/total_count,3)::TEXT                  
as percentage                                                                   
FROM totals                                                                     
ORDER BY report_count DESC                                                      

You’ll see that I have one or more WITH clauses, and then a query that performs a final summary query using the data from the CTEs.

This query probably was asked for something like this:

Please provide counts of crashes with the same uptime, for Firefox version 1, and the signature ‘Fake Signature #1’ for the last week, including a percentage of all of the sampled crashes.

While I’m sure there are better ways to write the query above, I wanted to show how I have made a pattern for myself to speed up query writing. I’m not always interested in the best possible query. Hopefully, the Postgres planner makes up for many of my sins as a developer!

What I am interested in is finding answers to problems quickly for my coworkers.

In answering the question I was asked, I first dig out an appropriate summary table (we have quite a few in Socorro). I found the signature_summary_uptime table, and fortunately it has product_name and version_string available in the table. I only need to join signatures to fulfill the request. (Yay for denormalized data that supports the kinds of queries we often run!)

Next, I see that I’m being asked for a total percentage, so I need to calculate a sum across all the rows that I retrieve. That can be very slow, so I create a second CTE that uses data from the first CTE (rather than doing two full table scans to calculate the total). I use a window function instead of SUM() here because I’ve done experiments to see which tends to be faster.

And, finally once I have all the data together, I run my final query using my two CTE tables.

How CTEs and breaking down this process have helped me

So, I’ve had about a year to practice. A query like this today takes me 10-15 minutes to assemble and test. They are typically slightly more complex — with more dependencies, and maybe 2-3 more tables involved in JOINs. But they follow the same basic pattern.

Most queries on my data sets conform to recognizable patterns.

After a few months, we recognized that moving JSON for crash data into Postgres also would be a win, and was easy to process using very similar queries.

That’s all helped make finding answers about Firefox crashes easier and faster!

Everyday Postgres: Top 10 psql ‘\’ commands I use

I have been thinking about the kinds of questions people have about Postgres if they’re mostly users of MySQL. One thing that comes up a lot is how to use the psql command-line.

I’m going to do a series of posts based on what I actually do every day with Postgres. This isn’t going to be an exhaustive look at all the features, but just the kinds of things I find useful.

Here’s a look at the kinds of commands I regularly use on a production system:

selena@wuzetian:~ #1642 15:13: awk '{print $1}' /tmp/cmds   | uniq -c | sort -n -r
     47 \e
     22 \d
     13 \x
     12 \df+
     10 \q
      9 \df
      6 \ef
      6 \d+
      5 \o
      5 \h

Here’s the kinds of commands I use on my local system:

selena@wuzetian:~ #1645 15:15: awk '{print $1}' /tmp/local_cmds  | uniq -c | sort -n -r
     89 \d
     43 \e
     28 \df+
     14 \x
     14 \d+
     13 \df
     11 \c
     10 \h
      4 \a
      3 \ef+

There’s not a whole lot of difference between the two. I pretty clearly use the database locally to look at schema definitions over and over again!

Here’s what each of these commands do:

  • \d+: Examine a table, by default in 9.2 prints the table name, followed by the columns, their types, keys, indexes and constraints. The plus will cause all child tables that inherit from a parent to be listed.
  • \e: Opens an editor defined by your EDITOR environment variable, and put the most recent command entered in psql into the buffer. You can define a non-command line editor here!
  • \df+: Prints information about a User Defined Function, including the function’s whole definition (that’s what the + does), best when combined with \x and probably \a as well
  • \q: Quits psql. You can also quit with ^D
  • \ef [function]: Opens up your editor, and puts the function into the buffer. Without a function, it provides a convenient template for creating a new function.
  • \o [filename]: Open a local file for writing the output of whatever commands you run next. Stop writing to the file with another \o
  • \h: Help for SQL commands
  • \c [databasename]: Connect to [databasename] on local database cluster
  • \a: Print output “unaligned”, or without adding whitespace to make columns align. Good when trying to print machine-readable output to the terminal.
  • \x: Print output “expanded”. This causes output to be printed out like: “Column: Value”, rather than the normal tabular/spreadsheet style. Useful in lots of contexts, especially when you’ve got some columns that have a very large text field.

And here’s a few useful commands that didn’t make the top 10 lists:

  • \?: Help for \ commands
  • \timing: Turn timing of all commands on, reports in ms.
  • \s: print out your psql history to STDOUT.
  • \i [filename]: execute the contents of [filename]
  • \! [command]: execute a command in the local shell

Finally, when you start up psql, you have a few options. My favorite combination when generating machine-readable output is to add -AX -qt (axe cutie! hat tip to Greg Sabino Mullane for that mneumonic). Another very useful psql extension is -e, which causes the SQL commands used to produce output to also be printed out. This will help you learn about information_schema items and all the internal tables used to provide system information.

The shortcuts really worth spending a bit of time exploring are \e* and \d*. Both provide quite a bit of useful functionality, with relatively easy to remember letter combinations.

Eliminating duplicate code: our backfill functions for Socorro

Last Friday, I spent some time refactoring a user defined function in Socorro that was taking a little too long to run each day.

This meant splitting up one function into about 8 separate functions. Our functions are designed to backfill themselves when a failure occurs. However, if we need to remove an incorrect daily report and re-run the functions from scratch, we’ve typically written a special function for every report called backfill_REPORTNAME that handles the cleanup work.

This means we’ve got a lot of boilerplate code, that it would really be nice to replace. So, I took this opportunity to create a utility function and hopefully never have to write another backfill_REPORTNAME function again!

Here it is:

CREATE OR REPLACE FUNCTION backfill_named_table(tablename text, updateday date) 
    RETURNS boolean
    LANGUAGE plpgsql
AS $function$
    update_proc_name TEXT := 'update_' || tablename;

-- Check if requested table for backfilling exists
PERFORM 1 FROM information_schema.tables WHERE table_name=tablename;
    RAISE INFO 'table: % not found', tablename;

-- Check that requested function for update exists
PERFORM 1 FROM pg_proc WHERE proname = update_proc_name;
    RAISE INFO 'proc: % not found', update_proc_name;

EXECUTE format('DELETE FROM %I WHERE report_date = %L', tablename, updateday);

EXECUTE format('SELECT %I(%L, FALSE)', update_proc_name, updateday);



Here’s the file with the code.

I’ve been trying to switch over to using format() instead of || in my queries, because it tends to be much more readable.

You’ll see that I’ve got a check for the existence of the table, and that the user defined function for the update exists. The type checking in the function handles ensuring that updateday is a valid date. If you think there’s any improvements I could make on this, definitely let me know in the comments.

JOINing against VIEWs can be harmful

I had a recent code review problem that was very curious at first glance, but came down to the use of complex VIEW in an even more complicated and frequently used reporting query.

I’ll just paste a edited version of the review below.

tl;dr: Don’t use product_info (a view, not a table) in this query, move WHERE clauses for product_name and version_string into the infos CTE, strictly limit the number of columns in tables being joined

This query is unfortunately doomed because it is using product_info — a view which already contains data from product_versions. There are four other tables which we don’t care about for the query that are included in the view.

As a result, you get a self-join many times over. A hint at the horrors of what Postgres decides to do with this is here:

Unique  (cost=10248.32..10248.35 rows=1 width=294)
   CTE infos
     ->  Hash Right Join  (cost=301.82..1683.83 rows=40195 width=96)
           Hash Cond: (pvb.product_version_id = pv.product_version_id)
           ->  Seq Scan on product_version_builds pvb  (cost=0.00..768.71 rows=42271 width=16)
           ->  Hash  (cost=282.46..282.46 rows=1549 width=84)
                 ->  Hash Right Join  (cost=218.53..282.46 rows=1549 width=84)
                       Hash Cond: (pv.product_version_id = pi.product_version_id)
                       ->  Seq Scan on product_versions pv  (cost=0.00..40.29 rows=1629 width=35)
                       ->  Hash  (cost=199.17..199.17 rows=1549 width=53)
                             ->  Subquery Scan on pi  (cost=179.81..199.17 rows=1549 width=53)
                                   ->  Sort  (cost=179.81..183.68 rows=1549 width=62)
                                         Sort Key: product_versions.product_name, product_versions.version_string
                                         ->  Hash Join  (cost=5.70..97.73 rows=1549 width=62)
                                               Hash Cond: ((product_versions.product_name = product_release_channels.product_name) AND (product_versions.build_type = product_release_channels.release_channel))
                                               ->  Seq Scan on product_versions  (cost=0.00..40.29 rows=1629 width=52)
                                               ->  Hash  (cost=5.03..5.03 rows=45 width=42)
                                                     ->  Hash Join  (cost=2.34..5.03 rows=45 width=42)
                                                           Hash Cond: (product_release_channels.release_channel = release_channels.release_channel)
                                                           ->  Hash Join  (cost=1.23..3.29 rows=45 width=34)
                                                                 Hash Cond: (product_release_channels.product_name = products.product_name)
                                                                 ->  Seq Scan on product_release_channels  (cost=0.00..1.45 rows=45 width=22)
                                                                 ->  Hash  (cost=1.10..1.10 rows=10 width=12)
                                                                       ->  Seq Scan on products  (cost=0.00..1.10 rows=10 width=12)
                                                           ->  Hash  (cost=1.05..1.05 rows=5 width=8)
                                                                 ->  Seq Scan on release_channels  (cost=0.00..1.05 rows=5 width=8)

Whenever you see so many nested joins, subquery sorts and sequence scans mushed together in a staircase, that’s a signal that we should investigate whether the query we’re running is really what we thought it was.

While @peterbe dug through code with me, he mentioned that product_info was a view! Now all the self-JOINs made sense and I started refactoring.

The product_info view was being deconstructed into it’s component parts, which already included product_versions (resulting in a self-join) and including a bunch of junk that for the purposes of this query, we don’t really care about. So, as the first step, I just made a copy of the SELECT query from the view (you can get that by running \d+ product_info in psql or you can dig it out of the socorro/external/postgresql/procs/views section of our code.

Here’s my proposal for what should go into infos:

                , product_versions.version_string
                , 'new'::text AS which_table
                , product_versions.product_name
                , product_versions.release_version
                , product_versions.build_type
                , product_version_builds.build_id
                , product_versions.is_rapid_beta
                , product_versions.rapid_beta_id
                , product_versions.version_sort
        FROM product_versions
                LEFT JOIN product_version_builds USING (product_version_id)
        WHERE  %(product name and versions)s

We really need to move the product name and version filtering to this portion of the query because otherwise we end up doing a horrible self join on a 42,000 row table! :watch:

Here’s what the self-join looks like in the EXPLAIN:

   ->  Sort  (cost=8564.48..8564.49 rows=1 width=294)
         Sort Key: i1.version_sort, i1.product_version_id, i1.product_name, i1.version_string, i1.which_table, i1.release_version, i1.build_type, i1.build_id, i1.is_rapid_beta, i2.is_rapid_beta, ((((i2.product_nam
e)::text || ':'::text) || (i2.version_string)::text))
         ->  Merge Join  (cost=7755.52..8564.47 rows=1 width=294)
               Merge Cond: ((i1.product_name = i2.product_name) AND (i1.release_version = i2.release_version) AND (i1.build_type = i2.build_type))
               Join Filter: (((i1.product_name = 'Firefox'::citext) AND (i1.version_string = '26.0a2'::citext) AND (i1.version_string = i2.version_string)) OR ((i1.rapid_beta_id = i2.product_version_id) AND (i2.pr
oduct_name = 'Firefox'::citext) AND (i2.version_string = '26.0a2'::citext) AND (i2.is_rapid_beta IS TRUE)))
               ->  Sort  (cost=3877.76..3978.25 rows=40195 width=233)
                     Sort Key: i1.product_name, i1.release_version, i1.build_type
                     ->  CTE Scan on infos i1  (cost=0.00..803.90 rows=40195 width=233)
               ->  Sort  (cost=3877.76..3978.25 rows=40195 width=133)
                     Sort Key: i2.product_name, i2.release_version, i2.build_type
                     ->  CTE Scan on infos i2  (cost=0.00..803.90 rows=40195 width=133)


This is pretty sad. The Sort at the top of Mt. Sadness. There are a series of sorts further down that are just HUGE because we’re tossing 45k records that must be joined to each other, and the width of the query is 294 — 294 columns in addition to our 45k rows.

The obvious (but sadly not always effective) thing to try is to see if we can filter our rows out earlier. Because we’re using infos, conveniently, that looks possible without too much trouble.

That just leaves sorting out the rapid beta self-join, which based on my tests should be pretty easy to continue to do in the body of the main SELECT, at line 125.

With the changes I proposed, the estimated duration of this query is ~200 ms in stage and the query plan looks like:

                                                                                QUERY PLAN                                                                                 
 HashAggregate  (cost=37.07..37.08 rows=1 width=294) (actual time=221.131..221.149 rows=31 loops=1)
   CTE infos
     ->  Nested Loop Left Join  (cost=0.00..35.18 rows=26 width=64) (actual time=0.136..0.459 rows=150 loops=1)
           ->  Index Scan using product_version_version_key on product_versions  (cost=0.00..7.27 rows=1 width=52) (actual time=0.111..0.112 rows=1 loops=1)
                 Index Cond: ((product_name = 'Firefox'::citext) AND (version_string = '26.0a2'::citext))
           ->  Index Only Scan using product_version_builds_key on product_version_builds  (cost=0.00..27.58 rows=33 width=16) (actual time=0.019..0.268 rows=150 loops=1)
                 Index Cond: (product_version_id = product_versions.product_version_id)
                 Heap Fetches: 150
   ->  Hash Join  (cost=0.84..1.86 rows=1 width=294) (actual time=0.943..47.334 rows=22500 loops=1)
         Hash Cond: (i1.product_version_id = i2.product_version_id)
         Join Filter: ((i1.version_string = i2.version_string) OR ((i1.rapid_beta_id = i2.product_version_id) AND (i2.is_rapid_beta IS TRUE)))
         ->  CTE Scan on infos i1  (cost=0.00..0.52 rows=26 width=233) (actual time=0.141..0.236 rows=150 loops=1)
         ->  Hash  (cost=0.52..0.52 rows=26 width=69) (actual time=0.778..0.778 rows=150 loops=1)
               Buckets: 1024  Batches: 1  Memory Usage: 8kB
               ->  CTE Scan on infos i2  (cost=0.00..0.52 rows=26 width=69) (actual time=0.002..0.664 rows=150 loops=1)
 Total runtime: 221.321 ms
(16 rows)