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Chapter 34. The Rule System

This chapter discusses the rule system in PostgreSQL. Production rule systems are conceptually simple, but there are many subtle points involved in actually using them.

Some other database systems define active database rules, which are usually stored procedures and triggers. In PostgreSQL, these can be implemented using functions and triggers as well.

The rule system (more precisely speaking, the query rewrite rule system) is totally different from stored procedures and triggers. It modifies queries to take rules into consideration, and then passes the modified query to the query planner for planning and execution. It is very powerful, and can be used for many things such as query language procedures, views, and versions. The theoretical foundations and the power of this rule system are also discussed in On Rules, Procedures, Caching and Views in Database Systems and A Unified Framework for Version Modeling Using Production Rules in a Database System.

34.1. The Query Tree

To understand how the rule system works it is necessary to know when it is invoked and what its input and results are.

The rule system is located between the parser and the planner. It takes the output of the parser, one query tree, and the user-defined rewrite rules, which are also query trees with some extra information, and creates zero or more query trees as result. So its input and output are always things the parser itself could have produced and thus, anything it sees is basically representable as an SQL statement.

Now what is a query tree? It is an internal representation of an SQL statement where the single parts that it is built from are stored separately. These query trees can be shown in the server log if you set the configuration parameters debug_print_parse, debug_print_rewritten, or debug_print_plan. The rule actions are also stored as query trees, in the system catalog pg_rewrite. They are not formatted like the log output, but they contain exactly the same information.

Reading a raw query tree requires some experience. But since SQL representations of query trees are sufficient to understand the rule system, this chapter will not teach how to read them.

When reading the SQL representations of the query trees in this chapter it is necessary to be able to identify the parts the statement is broken into when it is in the query tree structure. The parts of a query tree are

the command type

This is a simple value telling which command (SELECT, INSERT, UPDATE, DELETE) produced the query tree.

the range table

The range table is a list of relations that are used in the query. In a SELECT statement these are the relations given after the FROM key word.

Every range table entry identifies a table or view and tells by which name it is called in the other parts of the query. In the query tree, the range table entries are referenced by number rather than by name, so here it doesn't matter if there are duplicate names as it would in an SQL statement. This can happen after the range tables of rules have been merged in. The examples in this chapter will not have this situation.

the result relation

This is an index into the range table that identifies the relation where the results of the query go.

SELECT queries normally don't have a result relation. The special case of a SELECT INTO is mostly identical to a CREATE TABLE followed by a INSERT ... SELECT and is not discussed separately here.

For INSERT, UPDATE, and DELETE commands, the result relation is the table (or view!) where the changes take effect.

the target list

The target list is a list of expressions that define the result of the query. In the case of a SELECT, these expressions are the ones that build the final output of the query. They correspond to the expressions between the key words SELECT and FROM. (* is just an abbreviation for all the column names of a relation. It is expanded by the parser into the individual columns, so the rule system never sees it.)

DELETE commands don't need a target list because they don't produce any result. In fact, the planner will add a special CTID entry to the empty target list, but this is after the rule system and will be discussed later; for the rule system, the target list is empty.

For INSERT commands, the target list describes the new rows that should go into the result relation. It consists of the expressions in the VALUES clause or the ones from the SELECT clause in INSERT ... SELECT. The first step of the rewrite process adds target list entries for any columns that were not assigned to by the original command but have defaults. Any remaining columns (with neither a given value nor a default) will be filled in by the planner with a constant null expression.

For UPDATE commands, the target list describes the new rows that should replace the old ones. In the rule system, it contains just the expressions from the SET column = expression part of the command. The planner will handle missing columns by inserting expressions that copy the values from the old row into the new one. And it will add the special CTID entry just as for DELETE, too.

Every entry in the target list contains an expression that can be a constant value, a variable pointing to a column of one of the relations in the range table, a parameter, or an expression tree made of function calls, constants, variables, operators, etc.

the qualification

The query's qualification is an expression much like one of those contained in the target list entries. The result value of this expression is a Boolean that tells whether the operation (INSERT, UPDATE, DELETE, or SELECT) for the final result row should be executed or not. It corresponds to the WHERE clause of an SQL statement.

the join tree

The query's join tree shows the structure of the FROM clause. For a simple query like SELECT ... FROM a, b, c, the join tree is just a list of the FROM items, because we are allowed to join them in any order. But when JOIN expressions, particularly outer joins, are used, we have to join in the order shown by the joins. In that case, the join tree shows the structure of the JOIN expressions. The restrictions associated with particular JOIN clauses (from ON or USING expressions) are stored as qualification expressions attached to those join-tree nodes. It turns out to be convenient to store the top-level WHERE expression as a qualification attached to the top-level join-tree item, too. So really the join tree represents both the FROM and WHERE clauses of a SELECT.

the others

The other parts of the query tree like the ORDER BY clause aren't of interest here. The rule system substitutes some entries there while applying rules, but that doesn't have much to do with the fundamentals of the rule system.

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