Migration Style Guide

When writing migrations for GitLab, you have to take into account that these will be run by hundreds of thousands of organizations of all sizes, some with many years of data in their database.

In addition, having to take a server offline for an upgrade small or big is a big burden for most organizations. For this reason, it is important that your migrations are written carefully, can be applied online, and adhere to the style guide below.

Migrations are not allowed to require GitLab installations to be taken offline unless absolutely necessary.

When downtime is necessary the migration has to be approved by:

  1. The VP of Engineering
  2. A Backend Lead
  3. A Database Specialist

An up-to-date list of people holding these titles can be found at https://about.gitlab.com/company/team/.

When writing your migrations, also consider that databases might have stale data or inconsistencies and guard for that. Try to make as few assumptions as possible about the state of the database.

Please don’t depend on GitLab-specific code since it can change in future versions. If needed copy-paste GitLab code into the migration to make it forward compatible.

Schema Changes

Migrations that make changes to the database schema (e.g. adding a column) can only be added in the monthly release, patch releases may only contain data migrations unless schema changes are absolutely required to solve a problem.

What Requires Downtime?

The document “What Requires Downtime?” specifies various database operations, such as

and whether they require downtime and how to work around that whenever possible.

Downtime Tagging

Every migration must specify if it requires downtime or not, and if it should require downtime it must also specify a reason for this. This is required even if 99% of the migrations won’t require downtime as this makes it easier to find the migrations that do require downtime.

To tag a migration, add the following two constants to the migration class’ body:

  • DOWNTIME: a boolean that when set to true indicates the migration requires downtime.
  • DOWNTIME_REASON: a String containing the reason for the migration requiring downtime. This constant must be set when DOWNTIME is set to true.

For example:

class MyMigration < ActiveRecord::Migration[4.2]
  DOWNTIME = true
  DOWNTIME_REASON = 'This migration requires downtime because ...'

  def change

It is an error (that is, CI will fail) if the DOWNTIME constant is missing from a migration class.


Your migration must be reversible. This is very important, as it should be possible to downgrade in case of a vulnerability or bugs.

In your migration, add a comment describing how the reversibility of the migration was tested.


By default, migrations are single transaction. That is, a transaction is opened at the beginning of the migration, and committed after all steps are processed.

Running migrations in a single transaction makes sure that if one of the steps fails, none of the steps will be executed, leaving the database in valid state. Therefore, either:

  • Put all migrations in one single-transaction migration.
  • If necessary, put most actions in one migration and create a separate migration for the steps that cannot be done in a single transaction.

For example, if you create an empty table and need to build an index for it, it is recommended to use a regular single-transaction migration and the default rails schema statement: add_index. This is a blocking operation, but it won’t cause problems because the table is not yet used, and therefore it does not have any records yet.

Heavy operations in a single transaction

When using a single-transaction migration, a transaction will hold on a database connection for the duration of the migration, so you must make sure the actions in the migration do not take too much time: In general, queries executed in a migration need to fit comfortably within 15s on GitLab.com.

In case you need to insert, update, or delete a significant amount of data, you:

  • Must disable the single transaction with disable_ddl_transaction!.
  • Should consider doing it in a Background Migration.


Sometimes a migration might need to use multiple Ruby threads to speed up a migration. For this to work your migration needs to include the module Gitlab::Database::MultiThreadedMigration:

class MyMigration < ActiveRecord::Migration[4.2]
  include Gitlab::Database::MigrationHelpers
  include Gitlab::Database::MultiThreadedMigration

You can then use the method with_multiple_threads to perform work in separate threads. For example:

class MyMigration < ActiveRecord::Migration[4.2]
  include Gitlab::Database::MigrationHelpers
  include Gitlab::Database::MultiThreadedMigration

  def up
    with_multiple_threads(4) do

      # ...

Here the call to disable_statement_timeout will use the connection local to the with_multiple_threads block, instead of re-using the global connection pool. This ensures each thread has its own connection object, and won’t time out when trying to obtain one.

NOTE: PostgreSQL has a maximum amount of connections that it allows. This limit can vary from installation to installation. As a result, it’s recommended you do not use more than 32 threads in a single migration. Usually, 4-8 threads should be more than enough.

Removing indexes

If the table is not empty when removing an index, make sure to use the method remove_concurrent_index instead of the regular remove_index method. The remove_concurrent_index method drops indexes concurrently, so no locking is required, and there is no need for downtime. To use this method, you must disable single-transaction mode by calling the method disable_ddl_transaction! in the body of your migration class like so:

class MyMigration < ActiveRecord::Migration[4.2]
  include Gitlab::Database::MigrationHelpers

  def up
    remove_concurrent_index :table_name, :column_name

Note that it is not necessary to check if the index exists prior to removing it.

For a small table (such as an empty one or one with less than 1,000 records), it is recommended to use remove_index in a single-transaction migration, combining it with other operations that don’t require disable_ddl_transaction!.

Adding indexes

If you need to add a unique index, please keep in mind there is the possibility of existing duplicates being present in the database. This means that should always first add a migration that removes any duplicates, before adding the unique index.

When adding an index to a non-empty table make sure to use the method add_concurrent_index instead of the regular add_index method. The add_concurrent_index method automatically creates concurrent indexes when using PostgreSQL, removing the need for downtime.

To use this method, you must disable single-transactions mode by calling the method disable_ddl_transaction! in the body of your migration class like so:

class MyMigration < ActiveRecord::Migration[4.2]
  include Gitlab::Database::MigrationHelpers


  def up
    add_concurrent_index :table, :column

  def down
    remove_concurrent_index :table, :column

For a small table (such as an empty one or one with less than 1,000 records), it is recommended to use add_index in a single-transaction migration, combining it with other operations that don’t require disable_ddl_transaction!.

Adding foreign-key constraints

When adding a foreign-key constraint to either an existing or a new column also remember to add an index on the column.

This is required for all foreign-keys, e.g., to support efficient cascading deleting: when a lot of rows in a table get deleted, the referenced records need to be deleted too. The database has to look for corresponding records in the referenced table. Without an index, this will result in a sequential scan on the table, which can take a long time.

Here’s an example where we add a new column with a foreign key constraint. Note it includes index: true to create an index for it.

class Migration < ActiveRecord::Migration[4.2]

  def change
    add_reference :model, :other_model, index: true, foreign_key: { on_delete: :cascade }

When adding a foreign-key constraint to an existing column in a non-empty table, we have to employ add_concurrent_foreign_key and add_concurrent_index instead of add_reference.

For an empty table (such as a fresh one), it is recommended to use add_reference in a single-transaction migration, combining it with other operations that don’t require disable_ddl_transaction!.

Adding Columns With Default Values

When adding columns with default values to non-empty tables, you must use add_column_with_default. This method ensures the table is updated without requiring downtime. This method is not reversible so you must manually define the up and down methods in your migration class.

For example, to add the column foo to the projects table with a default value of 10 you’d write the following:

class MyMigration < ActiveRecord::Migration[4.2]
  include Gitlab::Database::MigrationHelpers

  def up
    add_column_with_default(:projects, :foo, :integer, default: 10)

  def down
    remove_column(:projects, :foo)

Keep in mind that this operation can easily take 10-15 minutes to complete on larger installations (e.g. GitLab.com). As a result, you should only add default values if absolutely necessary. There is a RuboCop cop that will fail if this method is used on some tables that are very large on GitLab.com, which would cause other issues.

For a small table (such as an empty one or one with less than 1,000 records), use add_column and change_column_default in a single-transaction migration, combining it with other operations that don’t require disable_ddl_transaction!.

Changing the column default

One might think that changing a default column with change_column_default is an expensive and disruptive operation for larger tables, but in reality it’s not.

Take the following migration as an example:

class DefaultRequestAccessGroups < ActiveRecord::Migration[5.2]
  include Gitlab::Database::MigrationHelpers

  DOWNTIME = false

  def up
    change_column_default :namespaces, :request_access_enabled, true

  def down
    change_column_default :namespaces, :request_access_enabled, false

Migration above changes the default column value of one of our largest tables: namespaces. This can be translated to:

ALTER TABLE namespaces
ALTER COLUMN request_access_enabled

In this particular case, the default value exists and we’re just changing the metadata for request_access_enabled column, which does not imply a rewrite of all the existing records in the namespaces table. Only when creating a new column with a default, all the records are going be rewritten.

Note: A faster ALTER TABLE ADD COLUMN with a non-null default was introduced on PostgresSQL 11.0, removing the need of rewriting the table when a new column with a default value is added.

For the reasons mentioned above, it’s safe to use change_column_default in a single-transaction migration without requiring disable_ddl_transaction!.

Updating an existing column

To update an existing column to a particular value, you can use update_column_in_batches (add_column_with_default uses this internally to fill in the default value). This will split the updates into batches, so we don’t update too many rows at in a single statement.

This updates the column foo in the projects table to 10, where some_column is 'hello':

update_column_in_batches(:projects, :foo, 10) do |table, query|

If a computed update is needed, the value can be wrapped in Arel.sql, so Arel treats it as an SQL literal. It’s also a required deprecation for Rails 6.

The below example is the same as the one above, but the value is set to the product of the bar and baz columns:

update_value = Arel.sql('bar * baz')

update_column_in_batches(:projects, :foo, update_value) do |table, query|

Like add_column_with_default, there is a RuboCop cop to detect usage of this on large tables. In the case of update_column_in_batches, it may be acceptable to run on a large table, as long as it is only updating a small subset of the rows in the table, but do not ignore that without validating on the GitLab.com staging environment - or asking someone else to do so for you - beforehand.

Integer column type

By default, an integer column can hold up to a 4-byte (32-bit) number. That is a max value of 2,147,483,647. Be aware of this when creating a column that will hold file sizes in byte units. If you are tracking file size in bytes, this restricts the maximum file size to just over 2GB.

To allow an integer column to hold up to an 8-byte (64-bit) number, explicitly set the limit to 8-bytes. This will allow the column to hold a value up to 9,223,372,036,854,775,807.

Rails migration example:

add_column_with_default(:projects, :foo, :integer, default: 10, limit: 8)

# or

add_column(:projects, :foo, :integer, default: 10, limit: 8)

Timestamp column type

By default, Rails uses the timestamp data type that stores timestamp data without timezone information. The timestamp data type is used by calling either the add_timestamps or the timestamps method.

Also, Rails converts the :datetime data type to the timestamp one.


# timestamps
create_table :users do |t|

# add_timestamps
def up
  add_timestamps :users

# :datetime
def up
  add_column :users, :last_sign_in, :datetime

Instead of using these methods, one should use the following methods to store timestamps with timezones:

  • add_timestamps_with_timezone
  • timestamps_with_timezone
  • datetime_with_timezone

This ensures all timestamps have a time zone specified. This, in turn, means existing timestamps won’t suddenly use a different timezone when the system’s timezone changes. It also makes it very clear which timezone was used in the first place.

Storing JSON in database

The Rails 5 natively supports JSONB (binary JSON) column type. Example migration adding this column:

class AddOptionsToBuildMetadata < ActiveRecord::Migration[5.0]
  DOWNTIME = false

  def change
    add_column :ci_builds_metadata, :config_options, :jsonb

You have to use a serializer to provide a translation layer:

class BuildMetadata
  serialize :config_options, Serializers::JSON # rubocop:disable Cop/ActiveRecordSerialize


See the Testing Rails migrations style guide.

Data migration

Please prefer Arel and plain SQL over usual ActiveRecord syntax. In case of using plain SQL, you need to quote all input manually with quote_string helper.

Example with Arel:

users = Arel::Table.new(:users)

#update other tables with these results

Example with plain SQL and quote_string helper:

select_all("SELECT name, COUNT(id) as cnt FROM tags GROUP BY name HAVING COUNT(id) > 1").each do |tag|
  tag_name = quote_string(tag["name"])
  duplicate_ids = select_all("SELECT id FROM tags WHERE name = '#{tag_name}'").map{|tag| tag["id"]}
  origin_tag_id = duplicate_ids.first
  duplicate_ids.delete origin_tag_id

  execute("UPDATE taggings SET tag_id = #{origin_tag_id} WHERE tag_id IN(#{duplicate_ids.join(",")})")
  execute("DELETE FROM tags WHERE id IN(#{duplicate_ids.join(",")})")

If you need more complex logic, you can define and use models local to a migration. For example:

class MyMigration < ActiveRecord::Migration[4.2]
  class Project < ActiveRecord::Base
    self.table_name = 'projects'

When doing so be sure to explicitly set the model’s table name, so it’s not derived from the class name or namespace.

Renaming reserved paths

When a new route for projects is introduced, it could conflict with any existing records. The path for these records should be renamed, and the related data should be moved on disk.

Since we had to do this a few times already, there are now some helpers to help with this.

To use this you can include Gitlab::Database::RenameReservedPathsMigration::V1 in your migration. This will provide 3 methods which you can pass one or more paths that need to be rejected.

rename_root_paths: This will rename the path of all namespaces with the given name that don’t have a parent_id.

rename_child_paths: This will rename the path of all namespaces with the given name that have a parent_id.

rename_wildcard_paths: This will rename the path of all projects, and all namespaces that have a project_id.

The path column for these rows will be renamed to their previous value followed by an integer. For example: users would turn into users0