Database nightmares: Tales from the Postgres crypt

Explore some of the challenges and terrors that can negatively impact your PostgreSQL database project

Written by

J Edwards

Published on

October 30, 2023

Halloween brings to mind ghosts and goblins, but for developers, the true frights can often lie hidden in their tech stack. Beneath the surface of applications, databases hold their own unsettling tales.

In this post, we are looking at some of the terrors that can adversely impact your database project, including:

  • The dread of failed backups
  • Spooky schema migrations
  • Vampiric vacuums that suck the life out of you and your database


Boogeyman backups: Nightmares of lost data

Database backups are essential lifelines for any data-driven operation. At their core, they involve the creation and storage of database copies at specific moments, acting as snapshots of data at those points in time. These snapshots become invaluable when faced with adversities like system crashes, unexpected data corruption, or even simple human errors leading to data deletions. Backups offer a reliable mechanism to restore the database to its prior state, ensuring data remains intact and operations continue seamlessly.

However, as straightforward as this may sound, backups come with their own set of challenges. There's the dread of silent failures where backups simply don't run as intended, with no significant alarms being raised. This can lead to startling gaps in backup history. Then there's the potential for data corruption. Imagine the horror of finding out that the backup, while seemingly successful, is corrupted and unusable. Further, not all backups capture the entirety of the database, sometimes leaving out chunks of data and causing partial restorations. A particularly tricky challenge arises post system upgrades, where older backups might not mesh well with the newer system versions. And when the clock's ticking during emergencies, long restoration times can add to the chaos, causing unwanted downtimes.

Backups are very important but come with their own set of potential pitfalls. Addressing these proactively is usually the best course of action. You can look into the following techniques:

  • Review logs regularly: You can check PostgreSQL logs and any error messages from your backup tool, such as pg_dump or pg_basebackup. The logs can provide vital clues to the root cause of the failure. Ensure you're using a compatible version of pg_dump or pg_basebackup with your PostgreSQL server. The logs can be found in the directory specified by the log_directory configuration parameter (usually found in the postgresql.conf file). The logs will contain entries for various events, and any errors related to backups will usually be evident with messages from tools like pg_dump or pg_basebackup.
  • Try daily backups or point-in-time recovery (PITR): Daily backups can add a layer of protection against data loss. By taking consistent snapshots of the database, it's possible to recover data if mishaps occur, ensuring that the history and versioning of records is preserved. Similarly, point-in-time recovery (PITR) allows for database recovery to a specific moment, helping restore data to a precise moment in time and to its exact state at that time. This can be particularly useful when there's a need to revert unintended changes or in the event of data corruption.
  • Stay vigilant: Inspect error messages and logs from your backup tools to pinpoint issues and remember to keep your backup tools updated to avoid compatibility problems. Also, ensure there's adequate storage space for backups and double-check the specified paths to make sure backups are being saved to the correct and accessible locations.

Schema migrations can be intricate, especially when replication is involved.

Start a migration, and there's always the risk it might stall. When that happens, the database can find itself in a twilight zone, neither in its previous state nor fully migrated. This in-between state can lead to unpredictable behaviors when applications interact with it. Think you can just reverse a migration that went wrong? It's trickier than it sounds. Attempting to roll back a problematic change can sometimes introduce more inconsistencies than the original issue.

The order of deploying these changes is of paramount importance. Some updates hinge on the successful implementation of others. Misordering them might not only disrupt data access but can also bring entire operations to a standstill. There's another layer of complexity when the development environment doesn't mirror the live production setup. Pushing a change meant for testing into the live environment can result in unexpected complications.

Migrations not only change the structure of a database but can also modify the actual data. A seemingly simple task, like dividing a data column, can misrepresent or even lose data if done incorrectly.

Now, factor in database replication. In systems with replicas, any schema change must be accurately mirrored across every single replica. Failure to ensure uniformity risks divergence between the primary database and its replicas, a situation that can lead to data integrity issues. Let’s break this down a bit further - The primary and the replica now have different data. The primary contains records in the new table that the replica doesn't have. This discrepancy is a major issue in replicated database setups, as they rely on consistent data across all instances for backup, load distribution, and failover scenarios.

Misconfigured schema migrations and replication issues in databases, can lead to serious problems, such as data loss, data inconsistencies, and downtime. Addressing these challenges requires a combination of preventive, detective, and corrective measures.

  • Test before deploying: Execute schema migrations in a development environment mirroring your production setup. It's important that the development environment closely resembles the production setup. Before implementing any schema migration, it's essential to test the potential performance implications on critical queries. This can be done using tools like the EXPLAIN command in PostgreSQL to understand how queries will be executed post-migration, which can help identify potential bottlenecks or inefficiencies.
  • Use schema version control: When you make changes to your database schema, use tools that keep track of the versions and ensure that the changes are applied correctly. This allows you to easily manage and track the evolution of your schema over time. Additionally, pgroll provides features which further enhance the control and management of your data as well as schema migrations.
  • See no evil, just monitor: Real-time monitoring of replication ensures you're alerted to any disruptions or lags. PostgreSQL’s pg_stat_replication offers valuable insights and monitoring capabilities.

While "horror stories" about the VACUUM process in PostgreSQL can be dramatized for effect, there are some genuine concerns and potential mishaps that can arise if VACUUM isn't managed correctly.

In PostgreSQL, VACUUM is a maintenance operation that helps reclaim storage space and maintain the health of the database. Over time, as data gets updated or deleted, it leaves behind what are known as "dead tuples." These are essentially old versions of rows that are no longer needed. If left unchecked, these dead tuples can accumulate and lead to database bloat and degraded performance. VACUUM can reclaim storage and collect statistics on performance.

There are different types of VACUUM operations:

  • Regular VACUUM: This reclaims space but doesn't return it to the operating system. Instead, it makes the space available for reuse by the database.
  • VACUUM FULL: This not only reclaims space but also compacts tables and returns the freed space to the operating system. It's a more intensive operation and can take longer, locking the tables in the process.
  • Autovacuum: To avoid manual vacuuming, PostgreSQL has an autovacuum process that runs automatically in the background. It checks tables for dead tuples and vacuums them periodically.

VACUUM is a critical maintenance task, but it must be configured and executed correctly for optimal database performance and to prevent problems. Failing to run VACUUM regularly can result in excessive disk usage because the process reclaims space from deleted or outdated tuples. If this task is overlooked, the database can grow in size, consuming more disk space than necessary, and in severe cases, it might exhaust all available space.

In PostgreSQL, transaction IDs are finite. Without VACUUM cleaning up old IDs, the system can experience a "wraparound." This means older data entries could become inaccessible, posing a risk of data loss. By regularly running VACUUM, you can prevent the system from reaching the point where a wraparound would cause problems, and safeguard the accessibility and integrity of your data.

However, sometimes vacuuming can be too much! When a VACUUM FULL is executed during high database activity, it can cause significant slowdowns. A VACUUM FULL operation requires exclusive access to the table it's processing. This means other operations on that table are paused, which can create a bottleneck, especially if the table is frequently accessed. It's important to time these operations outside of peak periods to avoid disrupting the database's performance.

Last but not least, the autovacuum process, if not configured correctly, can either be too aggressive, affecting performance, or too lax, allowing dead tuples to accumulate. Turning off autovacuum on specific tables with the intention of manual oversight can be risky. If forgotten, it could lead to unchecked table growth.

If a VACUUM operation is interrupted, especially a manual one, it might leave behind temporary files that occupy disk space.

The VACUUM process in PostgreSQL is important for maintaining database health, but managing it effectively requires understanding its nuances. Here are some solutions and best practices to address common VACUUM-related challenges:

  • Tune autovacuum: You can adjust the autovacuum_naptime parameter to control how often the autovacuum process checks tables for cleanup. Modify or tweak the autovacuum_vacuum_scale_factor and autovacuum_analyze_scale_factor to determine when a table should be vacuumed or analyzed based on the proportion of changed tuples. Additionally, you can use autovacuum_vacuum_cost_limit and autovacuum_vacuum_cost_delay to influence how aggressive the autovacuum process is, preventing it from consuming too many resources.
  • Try manual VACUUM: Run a manual VACUUM if you know a table has accumulated a significant number of dead tuples. Use VACUUM (VERBOSE) to get detailed information about the vacuuming process, helping diagnose potential issues.
  • Use less invasive tools: Instead of frequently using VACUUM FULL, which is resource-intensive and locks tables, consider using the less invasive pg_repack extension to reclaim space without the extensive locks. Monitor disk space usage, table bloat, and autovacuum activity, and set up alerts for scenarios like nearing transaction ID wraparound or excessive table bloat.
  • Increase maintenance work memory: In PostgreSQL, the maintenance_work_mem configuration parameter determines how much memory can be allocated for maintenance operations. Boosting maintenance_work_mem can help speed up the VACUUM process by allowing it to sort and process more data in memory.

Want to share some of your own database horror stories? Reach out to us on Discord or follow us on X | Twitter. We'd love to hear your thoughts, answer your questions, and keep you updated on the latest at Xata.

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