Ordering Table Columns in PostgreSQL

Similar to C structures the space of a table is influenced by the order of columns. This is because the size of columns is aligned depending on the type of the following column. Let’s consider an example:

  • id (integer, 4 bytes)
  • name (text, variable)
  • user_id (integer, 4 bytes)

The first column is a 4-byte integer. The next is text of variable length. The text data type requires 1-word alignment, and on 64-bit platform, 1 word is 8 bytes. To meet the alignment requirements, four zeros are to be added right after the first column, so id occupies 4 bytes, then 4 bytes of alignment padding, and only next name is being stored. Therefore, in this case, 8 bytes will be spent for storing a 4-byte integer.

The space between rows is also subject to alignment padding. The user_id column takes only 4 bytes, and on 64-bit platform, 4 zeroes will be added for alignment padding, to allow storing the next row beginning with the “clear” word.

As a result, the actual size of each column would be (ommiting variable length data and 24-byte tuple header): 8 bytes, variable, 8 bytes. This means that each row will require at least 16 bytes for the two 4-byte integers. If a table has a few rows this is not an issue. However, once you start storing millions of rows you can save space by using a different order. For the above example, the ideal column order would be the following:

  • id (integer, 4 bytes)
  • user_id (integer, 4 bytes)
  • name (text, variable)

or

  • name (text, variable)
  • id (integer, 4 bytes)
  • user_id (integer, 4 bytes)

In these examples, the id and user_id columns are packed together, which means we only need 8 bytes to store both of them. This in turn means each row will require 8 bytes less space.

For GitLab we require that columns of new tables are ordered based to use the least amount of space. An easy way of doing this is to order them based on the type size in descending order with variable sizes (text, varchar, arrays, json, jsonb, and so on) at the end.

Type Sizes

While the PostgreSQL documentation (https://www.postgresql.org/docs/current/static/datatype.html) contains plenty of information we will list the sizes of common types here so it’s easier to look them up. Here “word” refers to the word size, which is 4 bytes for a 32 bits platform and 8 bytes for a 64 bits platform.

Type Size Alignment needed
smallint 2 bytes 1 word
integer 4 bytes 1 word
bigint 8 bytes 8 bytes
real 4 bytes 1 word
double precision 8 bytes 8 bytes
boolean 1 byte not needed
text / string variable, 1 byte plus the data 1 word
bytea variable, 1 or 4 bytes plus the data 1 word
timestamp 8 bytes 8 bytes
timestamptz 8 bytes 8 bytes
date 4 bytes 1 word

A “variable” size means the actual size depends on the value being stored. If PostgreSQL determines this can be embedded directly into a row it may do so, but for very large values it will store the data externally and store a pointer (of 1 word in size) in the column. Because of this variable sized columns should always be at the end of a table.

Real Example

Let’s use the events table as an example, which currently has the following layout:

Column Type Size
id integer 4 bytes
target_type character varying variable
target_id integer 4 bytes
title character varying variable
data text variable
project_id integer 4 bytes
created_at timestamp without time zone 8 bytes
updated_at timestamp without time zone 8 bytes
action integer 4 bytes
author_id integer 4 bytes

After adding padding to align the columns this would translate to columns being divided into fixed size chunks as follows:

Chunk Size Columns
8 bytes id
variable target_type
8 bytes target_id
variable title
variable data
8 bytes project_id
8 bytes created_at
8 bytes updated_at
8 bytes action, author_id

This means that excluding the variable sized data and tuple header, we need at least 8 * 6 = 48 bytes per row.

We can optimise this by using the following column order instead:

Column Type Size
created_at timestamp without time zone 8 bytes
updated_at timestamp without time zone 8 bytes
id integer 4 bytes
target_id integer 4 bytes
project_id integer 4 bytes
action integer 4 bytes
author_id integer 4 bytes
target_type character varying variable
title character varying variable
data text variable

This would produce the following chunks:

Chunk Size Columns
8 bytes created_at
8 bytes updated_at
8 bytes id, target_id
8 bytes project_id, action
8 bytes author_id
variable target_type
variable title
variable data

Here we only need 40 bytes per row excluding the variable sized data and 24-byte tuple header. 8 bytes being saved may not sound like much, but for tables as large as the events table it does begin to matter. For example, when storing 80 000 000 rows this translates to a space saving of at least 610 MB, all by just changing the order of a few columns.