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Chapter 25. Write-Ahead Logging (WAL)

Table of Contents
25.1. Benefits of WAL
25.2. Future Benefits
25.3. WAL Configuration
25.4. Internals

Write-Ahead Logging (WAL) is a standard approach to transaction logging. Its detailed description may be found in most (if not all) books about transaction processing. Briefly, WAL's central concept is that changes to data files (where tables and indexes reside) must be written only after those changes have been logged, that is, when log records have been flushed to permanent storage. If we follow this procedure, we do not need to flush data pages to disk on every transaction commit, because we know that in the event of a crash we will be able to recover the database using the log: any changes that have not been applied to the data pages will first be redone from the log records (this is roll-forward recovery, also known as REDO) and then changes made by uncommitted transactions will be removed from the data pages (roll-backward recovery, UNDO).

25.1. Benefits of WAL

The first obvious benefit of using WAL is a significantly reduced number of disk writes, since only the log file needs to be flushed to disk at the time of transaction commit; in multiuser environments, commits of many transactions may be accomplished with a single fsync() of the log file. Furthermore, the log file is written sequentially, and so the cost of syncing the log is much less than the cost of flushing the data pages.

The next benefit is consistency of the data pages. The truth is that, before WAL, PostgreSQL was never able to guarantee consistency in the case of a crash. Before WAL, any crash during writing could result in:

  1. index rows pointing to nonexistent table rows

  2. index rows lost in split operations

  3. totally corrupted table or index page content, because of partially written data pages

Problems with indexes (problems 1 and 2) could possibly have been fixed by additional fsync() calls, but it is not obvious how to handle the last case without WAL; WAL saves the entire data page content in the log if that is required to ensure page consistency for after-crash recovery.