Terms PostgreSQL
Managing the Instance

The daily work as a PostgreSQL DBA is based on the knowledge of PostgreSQL's architecture: strategy, processes, buffers, files, configuration, backup and recovery, replication, and a lot more. This page describes the most basic concepts.


PostgreSQL is a relational database management system with a client-server architecture. At the server side the PostgreSQL's processes and shared memory work together and build an instance, which handles the access to the data. Client programs connect to the instance and request read and write operations.

The InstanceEdit

The instance always consists of multiple processes. PostgreSQL does not use a multi-threaded model:

  • postmaster process
  • Multiple postgres processes, one for each connection
  • WAL writer process
  • background writer process
  • checkpointer process
  • autovacuum launcher process (optional)
  • logger process (optional)
  • archiver process (optional)
  • stats collector process (optional)
  • WAL sender process (if Streaming Replication is active)
  • WAL receiver process (if Streaming Replication is active)
  • background worker processes (if a query gets parallelized, which is available since 9.6)

How Data is processedEdit

Connecting to the InstanceEdit

Client applications, which run on a different server than the instance, use the IP protocol to connect to it. If client application and instance run on the same server, the same connection method is possible. But it is also possible to use a connection via a local socket.

In a first step the application connects to the postmaster process. The postmaster checks the application's rights and - if successful - starts a new postgres process and connects it with the client application.

Accessing DataEdit

Client processes send and request data to and from the instance. For performance reasons, the instance doesn't write or read the requested data directly to or from disk files. Instead, it buffers them in a shared memory area which is called the shared buffers. The flushing to disc is done at a later stage.

To perform a client request, the corresponding postgres process acts on the shared buffers and WAL buffers and manipulates their contents. When the client requests a COMMIT, the WAL writer process writes and flushes all WAL records resulting from this transaction to the WAL file. As the WAL file - in contrast to the data files - is written strictly sequentially, this operation is relatively fast. After that, the client gets its COMMIT confirmation. At this point, the database is inconsistent, which means that there are differences between shared buffers and the corresponding data files.

Periodically the background writer process checks the shared buffers for 'dirty' pages and writes them to the appropriate data files. 'Dirty' pages are those whose content was modified by one of the postgres processes after their transfer from disk to memory.

The checkpointer process also runs periodically, but less frequently than the background writer. When it starts, it prevents further buffer modifications, forces the background writer process to write and flush all 'dirty' pages, and forces the WAL writer to write and flush a CHECKPOINT record to the WAL file after which the database is consistent, which means: a) the content of the shared buffers is the same as the data in the files, b) all modifications of WAL buffers are written to WAL files, and c) table data correlates with index data. This consistency is the purpose of checkpoints.

In essence the instance contains at least the three processes WAL writer, background writer, and checkpointer - and one postgres process per connection. In most cases there are some more processes running.

Optional ProcessesEdit

The autovacuum launcher process starts a number of worker processes. They remove superfluous row versions according to the MVCC architecture of PostgreSQL. This work is done in shared memory and the 'dirty' pages are written to disc in the same way as any other 'dirty' pages, such as the ones resulting from data modification by clients. It also takes part in collecting statistics for the query optimizer (VACCUM ANALYZE).

The logger process writes log, warning, and error messages to a log file (not to the WAL file!).

The archiver process copies WAL files, which are completely filled by the WAL writer, to a configurable location for mid-term storing.

The stats collector process continuously collects information about the number of accesses to tables and indices, total number of rows in tables, and works in coordination with VACUUM/ANALYZE and ANALYZE.

The WAL sender and WAL receiver processes are part of the Streaming Replication feature. They exchange data about changes in the master server bypassing the WAL files on disc.

Since version 9.6 it is possible to execute queries in parallel on several CPUs. In this case those parts of the execution plan, which shall run in parallel, are executed by additional background worker processes. They have access to the shared buffers in the same way as the original postgres processes and handle different buffer pages at the same time.

The Directory StructureEdit

Within a cluster there is a fixed structure of sub-directories and files. All information is stored within these files. Some information is global to the cluster, and some belongs to single databases - especially tables and indexes.

  Terms PostgreSQL
Managing the Instance