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25.5. Hot Standby

Hot Standby is the term used to describe the ability to connect to the server and run read-only queries while the server is in archive recovery or standby mode. This is useful both for replication purposes and for restoring a backup to a desired state with great precision. The term Hot Standby also refers to the ability of the server to move from recovery through to normal operation while users continue running queries and/or keep their connections open.

Running queries in hot standby mode is similar to normal query operation, though there are several usage and administrative differences explained below.

25.5.1. User's Overview

When the hot_standby parameter is set to true on a standby server, it will begin accepting connections once the recovery has brought the system to a consistent state. All such connections are strictly read-only; not even temporary tables may be written.

The data on the standby takes some time to arrive from the primary server so there will be a measurable delay between primary and standby. Running the same query nearly simultaneously on both primary and standby might therefore return differing results. We say that data on the standby is eventually consistent with the primary. Once the commit record for a transaction is replayed on the standby, the changes made by that transaction will be visible to any new snapshots taken on the standby. Snapshots may be taken at the start of each query or at the start of each transaction, depending on the current transaction isolation level. For more details, see Section 13.2.

Transactions started during hot standby may issue the following commands:

  • Query access - SELECT, COPY TO

  • Cursor commands - DECLARE, FETCH, CLOSE

  • Parameters - SHOW, SET, RESET

  • Transaction management commands

    • BEGIN, END, ABORT, START TRANSACTION

    • SAVEPOINT, RELEASE, ROLLBACK TO SAVEPOINT

    • EXCEPTION blocks and other internal subtransactions

  • LOCK TABLE, though only when explicitly in one of these modes: ACCESS SHARE, ROW SHARE or ROW EXCLUSIVE.

  • Plans and resources - PREPARE, EXECUTE, DEALLOCATE, DISCARD

  • Plugins and extensions - LOAD

Transactions started during hot standby will never be assigned a transaction ID and cannot write to the system write-ahead log. Therefore, the following actions will produce error messages:

  • Data Manipulation Language (DML) - INSERT, UPDATE, DELETE, COPY FROM, TRUNCATE. Note that there are no allowed actions that result in a trigger being executed during recovery. This restriction applies even to temporary tables, because table rows cannot be read or written without assigning a transaction ID, which is currently not possible in a Hot Standby environment.

  • Data Definition Language (DDL) - CREATE, DROP, ALTER, COMMENT. This restriction applies even to temporary tables, because carrying out these operations would require updating the system catalog tables.

  • SELECT ... FOR SHARE | UPDATE, because row locks cannot be taken without updating the underlying data files.

  • Rules on SELECT statements that generate DML commands.

  • LOCK that explicitly requests a mode higher than ROW EXCLUSIVE MODE.

  • LOCK in short default form, since it requests ACCESS EXCLUSIVE MODE.

  • Transaction management commands that explicitly set non-read-only state:

    • BEGIN READ WRITE, START TRANSACTION READ WRITE

    • SET TRANSACTION READ WRITE, SET SESSION CHARACTERISTICS AS TRANSACTION READ WRITE

    • SET transaction_read_only = off

  • Two-phase commit commands - PREPARE TRANSACTION, COMMIT PREPARED, ROLLBACK PREPARED because even read-only transactions need to write WAL in the prepare phase (the first phase of two phase commit).

  • Sequence updates - nextval(), setval()

  • LISTEN, UNLISTEN, NOTIFY

In normal operation, "read-only" transactions are allowed to update sequences and to use LISTEN, UNLISTEN, and NOTIFY, so Hot Standby sessions operate under slightly tighter restrictions than ordinary read-only sessions. It is possible that some of these restrictions might be loosened in a future release.

During hot standby, the parameter transaction_read_only is always true and may not be changed. But as long as no attempt is made to modify the database, connections during hot standby will act much like any other database connection. If failover or switchover occurs, the database will switch to normal processing mode. Sessions will remain connected while the server changes mode. Once hot standby finishes, it will be possible to initiate read-write transactions (even from a session begun during hot standby).

Users will be able to tell whether their session is read-only by issuing SHOW transaction_read_only. In addition, a set of functions (Table 9-60) allow users to access information about the standby server. These allow you to write programs that are aware of the current state of the database. These can be used to monitor the progress of recovery, or to allow you to write complex programs that restore the database to particular states.

25.5.2. Handling Query Conflicts

The primary and standby servers are in many ways loosely connected. Actions on the primary will have an effect on the standby. As a result, there is potential for negative interactions or conflicts between them. The easiest conflict to understand is performance: if a huge data load is taking place on the primary then this will generate a similar stream of WAL records on the standby, so standby queries may contend for system resources, such as I/O.

There are also additional types of conflict that can occur with Hot Standby. These conflicts are hard conflicts in the sense that queries might need to be canceled and, in some cases, sessions disconnected to resolve them. The user is provided with several ways to handle these conflicts. Conflict cases include:

  • Access Exclusive locks taken on the primary server, including both explicit LOCK commands and various DDL actions, conflict with table accesses in standby queries.

  • Dropping a tablespace on the primary conflicts with standby queries using that tablespace for temporary work files.

  • Dropping a database on the primary conflicts with sessions connected to that database on the standby.

  • Application of a vacuum cleanup record from WAL conflicts with standby transactions whose snapshots can still "see" any of the rows to be removed.

  • Application of a vacuum cleanup record from WAL conflicts with queries accessing the target page on the standby, whether or not the data to be removed is visible.

On the primary server, these cases simply result in waiting; and the user might choose to cancel either of the conflicting actions. However, on the standby there is no choice: the WAL-logged action already occurred on the primary so the standby must not fail to apply it. Furthermore, allowing WAL application to wait indefinitely may be very undesirable, because the standby's state will become increasingly far behind the primary's. Therefore, a mechanism is provided to forcibly cancel standby queries that conflict with to-be-applied WAL records.

An example of the problem situation is an administrator on the primary server running DROP TABLE on a table that is currently being queried on the standby server. Clearly the standby query cannot continue if the DROP TABLE is applied on the standby. If this situation occurred on the primary, the DROP TABLE would wait until the other query had finished. But when DROP TABLE is run on the primary, the primary doesn't have information about what queries are running on the standby, so it will not wait for any such standby queries. The WAL change records come through to the standby while the standby query is still running, causing a conflict. The standby server must either delay application of the WAL records (and everything after them, too) or else cancel the conflicting query so that the DROP TABLE can be applied.

When a conflicting query is short, it's typically desirable to allow it to complete by delaying WAL application for a little bit; but a long delay in WAL application is usually not desirable. So the cancel mechanism has parameters, max_standby_archive_delay and max_standby_streaming_delay, that define the maximum allowed delay in WAL application. Conflicting queries will be canceled once it has taken longer than the relevant delay setting to apply any newly-received WAL data. There are two parameters so that different delay values can be specified for the case of reading WAL data from an archive (i.e., initial recovery from a base backup or "catching up" a standby server that has fallen far behind) versus reading WAL data via streaming replication.

In a standby server that exists primarily for high availability, it's best to set the delay parameters relatively short, so that the server cannot fall far behind the primary due to delays caused by standby queries. However, if the standby server is meant for executing long-running queries, then a high or even infinite delay value may be preferable. Keep in mind however that a long-running query could cause other sessions on the standby server to not see recent changes on the primary, if it delays application of WAL records.

Once the delay specified by max_standby_archive_delay or max_standby_streaming_delay has been exceeded, conflicting queries will be canceled. This usually results just in a cancellation error, although in the case of replaying a DROP DATABASE the entire conflicting session will be terminated. Also, if the conflict is over a lock held by an idle transaction, the conflicting session is terminated (this behavior might change in the future).

Canceled queries may be retried immediately (after beginning a new transaction, of course). Since query cancellation depends on the nature of the WAL records being replayed, a query that was canceled may well succeed if it is executed again.

Keep in mind that the delay parameters are compared to the elapsed time since the WAL data was received by the standby server. Thus, the grace period allowed to any one query on the standby is never more than the delay parameter, and could be considerably less if the standby has already fallen behind as a result of waiting for previous queries to complete, or as a result of being unable to keep up with a heavy update load.

The most common reason for conflict between standby queries and WAL replay is "early cleanup". Normally, PostgreSQL allows cleanup of old row versions when there are no transactions that need to see them to ensure correct visibility of data according to MVCC rules. However, this rule can only be applied for transactions executing on the master. So it is possible that cleanup on the master will remove row versions that are still visible to a transaction on the standby.

Experienced users should note that both row version cleanup and row version freezing will potentially conflict with standby queries. Running a manual VACUUM FREEZE is likely to cause conflicts even on tables with no updated or deleted rows.

Users should be clear that tables that are regularly and heavily updated on the primary server will quickly cause cancellation of longer running queries on the standby. In such cases the setting of a finite value for max_standby_archive_delay or max_standby_streaming_delay can be considered similar to setting statement_timeout.

Remedial possibilities exist if the number of standby-query cancellations is found to be unacceptable. The first option is to set the parameter hot_standby_feedback, which prevents VACUUM from removing recently-dead rows and so cleanup conflicts do not occur. If you do this, you should note that this will delay cleanup of dead rows on the primary, which may result in undesirable table bloat. However, the cleanup situation will be no worse than if the standby queries were running directly on the primary server, and you are still getting the benefit of off-loading execution onto the standby. max_standby_archive_delay must be kept large in this case, because delayed WAL files might already contain entries that conflict with the desired standby queries.

Another option is to increase vacuum_defer_cleanup_age on the primary server, so that dead rows will not be cleaned up as quickly as they normally would be. This will allow more time for queries to execute before they are canceled on the standby, without having to set a high max_standby_streaming_delay. However it is difficult to guarantee any specific execution-time window with this approach, since vacuum_defer_cleanup_age is measured in transactions executed on the primary server.

The number of query cancels and the reason for them can be viewed using the pg_stat_database_conflicts system view on the standby server. The pg_stat_database system view also contains summary information.

25.5.3. Administrator's Overview

If hot_standby is turned on in postgresql.conf and there is a recovery.conf file present, the server will run in Hot Standby mode. However, it may take some time for Hot Standby connections to be allowed, because the server will not accept connections until it has completed sufficient recovery to provide a consistent state against which queries can run. During this period, clients that attempt to connect will be refused with an error message. To confirm the server has come up, either loop trying to connect from the application, or look for these messages in the server logs:

LOG:  entering standby mode

... then some time later ...

LOG:  consistent recovery state reached
LOG:  database system is ready to accept read only connections

Consistency information is recorded once per checkpoint on the primary. It is not possible to enable hot standby when reading WAL written during a period when wal_level was not set to hot_standby on the primary. Reaching a consistent state can also be delayed in the presence of both of these conditions:

  • A write transaction has more than 64 subtransactions

  • Very long-lived write transactions

If you are running file-based log shipping ("warm standby"), you might need to wait until the next WAL file arrives, which could be as long as the archive_timeout setting on the primary.

The setting of some parameters on the standby will need reconfiguration if they have been changed on the primary. For these parameters, the value on the standby must be equal to or greater than the value on the primary. If these parameters are not set high enough then the standby will refuse to start. Higher values can then be supplied and the server restarted to begin recovery again. These parameters are:

  • max_connections

  • max_prepared_transactions

  • max_locks_per_transaction

It is important that the administrator select appropriate settings for max_standby_archive_delay and max_standby_streaming_delay. The best choices vary depending on business priorities. For example if the server is primarily tasked as a High Availability server, then you will want low delay settings, perhaps even zero, though that is a very aggressive setting. If the standby server is tasked as an additional server for decision support queries then it might be acceptable to set the maximum delay values to many hours, or even -1 which means wait forever for queries to complete.

Transaction status "hint bits" written on the primary are not WAL-logged, so data on the standby will likely re-write the hints again on the standby. Thus, the standby server will still perform disk writes even though all users are read-only; no changes occur to the data values themselves. Users will still write large sort temporary files and re-generate relcache info files, so no part of the database is truly read-only during hot standby mode. Note also that writes to remote databases using dblink module, and other operations outside the database using PL functions will still be possible, even though the transaction is read-only locally.

The following types of administration commands are not accepted during recovery mode:

  • Data Definition Language (DDL) - e.g. CREATE INDEX

  • Privilege and Ownership - GRANT, REVOKE, REASSIGN

  • Maintenance commands - ANALYZE, VACUUM, CLUSTER, REINDEX

Again, note that some of these commands are actually allowed during "read only" mode transactions on the primary.

As a result, you cannot create additional indexes that exist solely on the standby, nor statistics that exist solely on the standby. If these administration commands are needed, they should be executed on the primary, and eventually those changes will propagate to the standby.

pg_cancel_backend() and pg_terminate_backend() will work on user backends, but not the Startup process, which performs recovery. pg_stat_activity does not show an entry for the Startup process, nor do recovering transactions show as active. As a result, pg_prepared_xacts is always empty during recovery. If you wish to resolve in-doubt prepared transactions, view pg_prepared_xacts on the primary and issue commands to resolve transactions there.

pg_locks will show locks held by backends, as normal. pg_locks also shows a virtual transaction managed by the Startup process that owns all AccessExclusiveLocks held by transactions being replayed by recovery. Note that the Startup process does not acquire locks to make database changes, and thus locks other than AccessExclusiveLocks do not show in pg_locks for the Startup process; they are just presumed to exist.

The Nagios plugin check_pgsql will work, because the simple information it checks for exists. The check_postgres monitoring script will also work, though some reported values could give different or confusing results. For example, last vacuum time will not be maintained, since no vacuum occurs on the standby. Vacuums running on the primary do still send their changes to the standby.

WAL file control commands will not work during recovery, e.g. pg_start_backup, pg_switch_xlog etc.

Dynamically loadable modules work, including pg_stat_statements.

Advisory locks work normally in recovery, including deadlock detection. Note that advisory locks are never WAL logged, so it is impossible for an advisory lock on either the primary or the standby to conflict with WAL replay. Nor is it possible to acquire an advisory lock on the primary and have it initiate a similar advisory lock on the standby. Advisory locks relate only to the server on which they are acquired.

Trigger-based replication systems such as Slony, Londiste and Bucardo won't run on the standby at all, though they will run happily on the primary server as long as the changes are not sent to standby servers to be applied. WAL replay is not trigger-based so you cannot relay from the standby to any system that requires additional database writes or relies on the use of triggers.

New OIDs cannot be assigned, though some UUID generators may still work as long as they do not rely on writing new status to the database.

Currently, temporary table creation is not allowed during read only transactions, so in some cases existing scripts will not run correctly. This restriction might be relaxed in a later release. This is both a SQL Standard compliance issue and a technical issue.

DROP TABLESPACE can only succeed if the tablespace is empty. Some standby users may be actively using the tablespace via their temp_tablespaces parameter. If there are temporary files in the tablespace, all active queries are canceled to ensure that temporary files are removed, so the tablespace can be removed and WAL replay can continue.

Running DROP DATABASE or ALTER DATABASE ... SET TABLESPACE on the primary will generate a WAL entry that will cause all users connected to that database on the standby to be forcibly disconnected. This action occurs immediately, whatever the setting of max_standby_streaming_delay. Note that ALTER DATABASE ... RENAME does not disconnect users, which in most cases will go unnoticed, though might in some cases cause a program confusion if it depends in some way upon database name.

In normal (non-recovery) mode, if you issue DROP USER or DROP ROLE for a role with login capability while that user is still connected then nothing happens to the connected user - they remain connected. The user cannot reconnect however. This behavior applies in recovery also, so a DROP USER on the primary does not disconnect that user on the standby.

The statistics collector is active during recovery. All scans, reads, blocks, index usage, etc., will be recorded normally on the standby. Replayed actions will not duplicate their effects on primary, so replaying an insert will not increment the Inserts column of pg_stat_user_tables. The stats file is deleted at the start of recovery, so stats from primary and standby will differ; this is considered a feature, not a bug.

Autovacuum is not active during recovery. It will start normally at the end of recovery.

The background writer is active during recovery and will perform restartpoints (similar to checkpoints on the primary) and normal block cleaning activities. This can include updates of the hint bit information stored on the standby server. The CHECKPOINT command is accepted during recovery, though it performs a restartpoint rather than a new checkpoint.

25.5.4. Hot Standby Parameter Reference

Various parameters have been mentioned above in Section 25.5.2 and Section 25.5.3.

On the primary, parameters wal_level and vacuum_defer_cleanup_age can be used. max_standby_archive_delay and max_standby_streaming_delay have no effect if set on the primary.

On the standby, parameters hot_standby, max_standby_archive_delay and max_standby_streaming_delay can be used. vacuum_defer_cleanup_age has no effect as long as the server remains in standby mode, though it will become relevant if the standby becomes primary.

25.5.5. Caveats

There are several limitations of Hot Standby. These can and probably will be fixed in future releases:

  • Operations on hash indexes are not presently WAL-logged, so replay will not update these indexes.

  • Full knowledge of running transactions is required before snapshots can be taken. Transactions that use large numbers of subtransactions (currently greater than 64) will delay the start of read only connections until the completion of the longest running write transaction. If this situation occurs, explanatory messages will be sent to the server log.

  • Valid starting points for standby queries are generated at each checkpoint on the master. If the standby is shut down while the master is in a shutdown state, it might not be possible to re-enter Hot Standby until the primary is started up, so that it generates further starting points in the WAL logs. This situation isn't a problem in the most common situations where it might happen. Generally, if the primary is shut down and not available anymore, that's likely due to a serious failure that requires the standby being converted to operate as the new primary anyway. And in situations where the primary is being intentionally taken down, coordinating to make sure the standby becomes the new primary smoothly is also standard procedure.

  • At the end of recovery, AccessExclusiveLocks held by prepared transactions will require twice the normal number of lock table entries. If you plan on running either a large number of concurrent prepared transactions that normally take AccessExclusiveLocks, or you plan on having one large transaction that takes many AccessExclusiveLocks, you are advised to select a larger value of max_locks_per_transaction, perhaps as much as twice the value of the parameter on the primary server. You need not consider this at all if your setting of max_prepared_transactions is 0.

  • The Serializable transaction isolation level is not yet available in hot standby. (See Section 13.2.3 and Section 13.4.1 for details.) An attempt to set a transaction to the serializable isolation level in hot standby mode will generate an error.

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