The protocol has separate phases for startup and normal operation. In the startup phase, the frontend opens a connection to the server and authenticates itself to the satisfaction of the server. (This might involve a single message, or multiple messages depending on the authentication method being used.) If all goes well, the server then sends status information to the frontend, and finally enters normal operation. Except for the initial startup-request message, this part of the protocol is driven by the server.
During normal operation, the frontend sends queries and other commands to the backend, and the backend sends back query results and other responses. There are a few cases (such as NOTIFY) wherein the backend will send unsolicited messages, but for the most part this portion of a session is driven by frontend requests.
Termination of the session is normally by frontend choice, but can be forced by the backend in certain cases. In any case, when the backend closes the connection, it will roll back any open (incomplete) transaction before exiting.
Within normal operation, SQL commands can be executed through either of two sub-protocols. In the "simple query" protocol, the frontend just sends a textual query string, which is parsed and immediately executed by the backend. In the "extended query" protocol, processing of queries is separated into multiple steps: parsing, binding of parameter values, and execution. This offers flexibility and performance benefits, at the cost of extra complexity.
Normal operation has additional sub-protocols for special operations such as COPY.
All communication is through a stream of messages. The first byte of a message identifies the message type, and the next four bytes specify the length of the rest of the message (this length count includes itself, but not the message-type byte). The remaining contents of the message are determined by the message type. For historical reasons, the very first message sent by the client (the startup message) has no initial message-type byte.
To avoid losing synchronization with the message stream, both servers and clients typically read an entire message into a buffer (using the byte count) before attempting to process its contents. This allows easy recovery if an error is detected while processing the contents. In extreme situations (such as not having enough memory to buffer the message), the receiver can use the byte count to determine how much input to skip before it resumes reading messages.
Conversely, both servers and clients must take care never to send an incomplete message. This is commonly done by marshaling the entire message in a buffer before beginning to send it. If a communications failure occurs partway through sending or receiving a message, the only sensible response is to abandon the connection, since there is little hope of recovering message-boundary synchronization.
In the extended-query protocol, execution of SQL commands is divided into multiple steps. The state retained between steps is represented by two types of objects: prepared statements and portals. A prepared statement represents the result of parsing, semantic analysis, and (optionally) planning of a textual query string. A prepared statement is not necessarily ready to execute, because it might lack specific values for parameters. A portal represents a ready-to-execute or already-partially-executed statement, with any missing parameter values filled in. (For SELECT statements, a portal is equivalent to an open cursor, but we choose to use a different term since cursors don't handle non-SELECT statements.)
The overall execution cycle consists of a parse step, which creates a prepared statement from a textual query string; a bind step, which creates a portal given a prepared statement and values for any needed parameters; and an execute step that runs a portal's query. In the case of a query that returns rows (SELECT, SHOW, etc), the execute step can be told to fetch only a limited number of rows, so that multiple execute steps might be needed to complete the operation.
The backend can keep track of multiple prepared statements and portals (but note that these exist only within a session, and are never shared across sessions). Existing prepared statements and portals are referenced by names assigned when they were created. In addition, an "unnamed" prepared statement and portal exist. Although these behave largely the same as named objects, operations on them are optimized for the case of executing a query only once and then discarding it, whereas operations on named objects are optimized on the expectation of multiple uses.
Data of a particular data type might be transmitted in any of several different formats. As of PostgreSQL 7.4 the only supported formats are "text" and "binary", but the protocol makes provision for future extensions. The desired format for any value is specified by a format code. Clients can specify a format code for each transmitted parameter value and for each column of a query result. Text has format code zero, binary has format code one, and all other format codes are reserved for future definition.
The text representation of values is whatever strings are produced and accepted by the input/output conversion functions for the particular data type. In the transmitted representation, there is no trailing null character; the frontend must add one to received values if it wants to process them as C strings. (The text format does not allow embedded nulls, by the way.)
Binary representations for integers use network byte order (most significant byte first). For other data types consult the documentation or source code to learn about the binary representation. Keep in mind that binary representations for complex data types might change across server versions; the text format is usually the more portable choice.