Loose foreign keys

Problem statement

In relational databases (including PostgreSQL), foreign keys provide a way to link two database tables together, and ensure data-consistency between them. In GitLab, foreign keys are vital part of the database design process. Most of our database tables have foreign keys.

With the ongoing database decomposition work, linked records might be present on two different database servers. Ensuring data consistency between two databases is not possible with standard PostgreSQL foreign keys. PostgreSQL does not support foreign keys operating within a single database server, defining a link between two database tables in two different database servers over the network.


  • Database “Main”: projects table
  • Database “CI”: ci_pipelines table

A project can have many pipelines. When a project is deleted, the associated ci_pipeline (via the project_id column) records must be also deleted.

With a multi-database setup, this cannot be achieved with foreign keys.

Asynchronous approach

Our preferred approach to this problem is eventual consistency. With the loose foreign keys feature, we can configure delayed association cleanup without negatively affecting the application performance.

How it works

In the previous example, a record in the projects table can have multiple ci_pipeline records. To keep the cleanup process separate from the actual parent record deletion, we can:

  1. Create a DELETE trigger on the projects table. Record the deletions in a separate table (deleted_records).
  2. A job checks the deleted_records table every 5 minutes.
  3. For each record in the table, delete the associated ci_pipelines records using the project_id column.
For this procedure to work, we must register which tables to clean up asynchronously.

Example migration and configuration

Configure the loose foreign key

Loose foreign keys are defined in a YAML file. The configuration requires the following information:

  • Parent table name (projects)
  • Child table name (ci_pipelines)
  • The data cleanup method (async_delete or async_nullify)

The YAML file is located at lib/gitlab/database/gitlab_loose_foreign_keys.yml. The file groups foreign key definitions by the name of the parent table. The parent table can have multiple loose foreign key definitions, therefore we store them as an array.

Example definition:

  - to_table: ci_pipelines
    column: project_id
    on_delete: async_delete

If the projects key is already present in the YAML file, then a new entry can be added to the array:

  - to_table: ci_pipelines
    column: project_id
    on_delete: async_delete
  - to_table: another_table
    column: project_id
    on_delete: :async_nullify

Track record changes

To know about deletions in the projects table, configure a DELETE trigger using a database migration (post-migration). The trigger needs to be configured only once. If the model already has at least one loose_foreign_key definition, then this step can be skipped:

class TrackProjectRecordChanges < Gitlab::Database::Migration[1.0]
  include Gitlab::Database::MigrationHelpers::LooseForeignKeyHelpers


  def up

  def down

Remove the foreign key

If there is an existing foreign key, then it can be removed from the database. As of GitLab 14.5, the following foreign key describes the link between the projects and ci_pipelines tables:

ALTER TABLE ONLY ci_pipelines
ADD CONSTRAINT fk_86635dbd80
FOREIGN KEY (project_id)
REFERENCES projects(id)

The migration should run after the DELETE trigger is installed. If the foreign key is deleted earlier, there is a good chance of introducing data inconsistency which needs manual cleanup:

class RemoveProjectsCiPipelineFk < Gitlab::Database::Migration[1.0]

  def up
    remove_foreign_key_if_exists(:ci_pipelines, :projects, name: "fk_86635dbd80")

  def down
    add_concurrent_foreign_key(:ci_pipelines, :projects, name: "fk_86635dbd80", column: :project_id, target_column: :id, on_delete: "cascade")

At this point, the setup phase is concluded. The deleted projects records should be automatically picked up by the scheduled cleanup worker job.


The “it has loose foreign keys” shared example can be used to test the presence of the ON DELETE trigger and the loose foreign key definitions.

Simply add to the model test file:

it_behaves_like 'it has loose foreign keys' do
  let(:factory_name) { :project }

Caveats of loose foreign keys

Record creation

The feature provides an efficient way of cleaning up associated records after the parent record is deleted. Without foreign keys, it’s the application’s responsibility to validate if the parent record exists when a new associated record is created.

A bad example: record creation with the given ID (project_id comes from user input). In this example, nothing prevents us from passing a random project ID:

Ci::Pipeline.create!(project_id: params[:project_id])

A good example: record creation with extra check:

project = Project.find(params[:project_id])
Ci::Pipeline.create!(project_id: project.id)

Association lookup

Consider the following HTTP request:

GET /projects/5/pipelines/100

The controller action ignores the project_id parameter and finds the pipeline using the ID:

  def show
  # bad, avoid it
  pipeline = Ci::Pipeline.find(params[:id]) # 100

This endpoint still works when the parent Project model is deleted. This can be considered a a data leak which should not happen under normal circumstances:

def show
  # good
  project = Project.find(params[:project_id])
  pipeline = project.pipelines.find(params[:pipeline_id]) # 100
This example is unlikely in GitLab, because we usually look up the parent models to perform permission checks.

A note on dependent: :destroy and dependent: :nullify

We considered using these Rails features as an alternative to foreign keys but there are several problems which include:

  1. These run on a different connection in the context of a transaction which we do not allow.
  2. These can lead to severe performance degredation as we load all records from PostgreSQL, loop over them in Ruby, and call individual DELETE queries.
  3. These can miss data as they only cover the case when the destroy method is called directly on the model. There are other cases including delete_all and cascading deletes from another parent table that could mean these are missed.