Google Cloud PostgreSQL under pgwatch2 monitoring

02.2022 / Category: / Tags: | |

BY Kaarel Moppel Pretty often I’m asked: Does our PostgreSQL monitoring tool pgwatch2 work with managed cloud database service providers like Google Cloud? Well, the short answer would be, “Yes, we scan!”. But as always the devil is in the details. You should be aware of a couple of nuances/extra steps.

In order to shed some light on the topic and to document the process a bit, I’ve put together a small “how-to”. Here's how to use pgwatch2 with Google Cloud’s PostgreSQL offering, as an example of a managed database service.

A small disclaimer though - I haven’t personally tried out all the newest/more niche cloud providers. So I wouldn’t give a 100% guarantee on that promise, but rather a 99.9% one 🙂

And if the name pgwatch2 doesn’t sound too familiar, it’s one of the most popular Open Source Postgres-specific monitoring tools out there! It supports many flexible deployment options, metric fetching features, and data stores. More info about the project can be found in the official documentation. If you prefer looking at the code, then jump right to Github.

Managed cloud databases – pure magic?

But before we go hands-on: What does a managed database service, like Google Cloud SQL's offering, actually consist of? Why wouldn't it work?

For those who don't work with the ins and outs of database systems daily, it might not be so apparent. In most cases, the thing that you get after clicking “$mydb > Next > Next > Launch” or its equivalent is actually very close to a vanilla PostgreSQL instance! In other words, you're getting almost the same thing that you would get when typing apt install postgresql on your server or workstation, at least in standard SQL matters of schema and data management, i.e. for DDL and DML.

The biggest difference (apart from the good things like automatically taking care of high availability, backups, and updates) is actually the fact that you’re being stripped of security-sensitive features, like not being handed a real superuser account with the ability to execute arbitrary commands on the operating system level! Which is a scary thing I must agree 🙂 Read more about that here if you’re not quite sure what I mean. But there are also other aspects, like the removal of advanced configuration features. So basically the limitations could be summarized within a few groups:

No OS access

Obviously, it's well justified to disable arbitrary command execution with COPY PROGRAM or archive_command — but this also includes no file system access via pg_ls_dir(), etc. That would hint at implementation details or provide extra information for possible attack vectors to break out of the so called “sandbox”.

Limiting server configuration to specific parameters and value ranges

Here the reasoning mostly is that you should not shoot yourself in the foot and act in accordance with the booked hardware resources. But there are also some more sneaky considerations like for example nudging you towards vendor lock-in, by disabling PostgreSQL’s built-in Logical Replication that basically can enable relatively painless, near-zero downtime, migrating to another service provider or to a self-managed full-featured Postgres instance. Feel free to read more about it here, if the concept seems new to you.

Access security control

This covers limiting/controlling both the pg_hba.conf infrastructure so that for example SSL is always required or access is guaranteed to be possible only from within that cloud account, and also aspects like limiting the “pseudo-superuser” so that, by default, it does not even see other people’s running queries.

Limited extensions selection

All cloud providers, including Google Cloud, only allow a short whitelist of pre-approved extensions to be activated, mostly those extensions from the official “contrib” package, since it’s a lot of work to both review the code and guarantee that it’s stable and secure. This is of course understandable, but at the same time, also the most annoying thing about the managed services for me personally as there are dozens and dozens of great PostgreSQL extensions out there and this extensibility infrastructure is the key factor to PostgreSQL’s constantly rising popularity.

But then again it’s not all bad — there are the other aspects that, especially for more casual or novice database users, make them a good choice: hiding complexity like HA/failover; backups; server configuration; and providing some basic metrics.

Why use an external monitoring tool with your cloud database?

Since all managed service providers also provide some kind of performance metrics and dashboards out of the box, which in the case of Google’s offering actually looks pretty decent (it runs under the name of “Query insights”), the big question is - why should one use an extra tool at all?

Well, I can think of some good reasons:


There’s probably some truth to the old idiom - “You can't teach an old dog new tricks”. People usually don’t want to constantly work with new tools that are only marginally better than old ones. The usefulness is in the end somewhat limited by what the Postgres engine can offer on the instrumentation side.


What if your company uses many different cloud database service providers in addition to running some self-managed ones? Do you really want to maintain the mental overhead of knowing all the details of the different providers and translating between different vocabularies? Cloud providers obviously have not managed to agree on a common glossary. I haven't yet mentioned constantly logging into different environments, or searching for the correct browser tab. Having a single tool with all the metrics from different systems is obviously a better choice.

Controlled access to metrics

What if your development team is highly segregated for security reasons? And doesn’t have common access to the graphs/API that the service provider offers? What if you have some freelance consultants on your team and you only want to expose a relevant subset of the metrics to them? In such cases, it might be better to collect, manage and expose metrics according to your own rules.

Advanced configuration options and extra features

Since managed services have a huge user base, they must generally be implemented in a pretty simplistic way. People that are not database experts need to be able to jump right in and get going in minutes. This again might not be optimal for database professionals who want to see more detailed information.

What if your cloud provider does not allow you to tune the interval of the metrics gathering happening in the background? What if you would like your graphs displayed according to your own wishes, or as a table instead? What if you need to collect all the metrics PG has to offer? You'll find you have much more flexibility with 3rd party tools.


One area where the cloud service providers for some reason have not yet done their best is in making it easy to set up basic alerts. Providing a flexible as well as an easy-to-use interface, similar to what Grafana offers, would definitely be a boon for “cloud migrants”.

All this positive stuff being said, nothing is perfect, sadly 🙂 External tools also have one huge downside when it comes to monitoring managed databases – we don’t have convenient access to the OS-level metrics! Luckily, this data is mostly available somewhere in the stomach of the behemoth. It can be extracted via some kind of API, but you generally need to write custom code for that. As an alternative, with some tools like Grafana (which supports mixed datasource graphs), it can be also integrated to be fetched on the fly. There may be some extra lag. But then again, retention policies could still become a problem, if you’d like to occasionally look at data that is many months old.

In short – having options is a good thing and I would generally not want to just rely on my cloud provider knowing what is best for me. At least for more important databases.

Launching a managed Google Cloud SQL database in a PostgreSQL variation

Initially, I thought about skipping this section... as the GUI is actually quite simple and neat, and things should be self-explanatory. However, there were a couple of configuration sections where I had to pause for a bit and think, so I’ll post screenshots about those.

The thing is that all the biggest cloud providers provide a multitude of managed database engines. In an attempt to unify the vocabulary, they might have opted for some wording that in PostgreSQL's case is not obvious. For example “Flags” mean PostgreSQL server configuration parameters!

Quick overview on getting your first Cloud SQL database up and running

Note that I’m not covering the prerequisite part about setting up an account and hooking up a credit card, etc.

  1. Navigate to the correct product/database engine (since Google also supports MySQL and SQL Server)
  2. Identify the instance with a name that means something to you.
  3. Pick a Postgres version, region for actual server location, high-availability class and hardware.
  4. Specify network ranges allowed to access the instance from the “Connections” section. By default there is no access even from machines within the same account/VPC! Note however, that you can still additionally employ some Google cloud-specific tricks, like the Cloud Proxy.

pgwatch2 setup for the cloud

  1. Optional step - under advanced options (“Customize your instance”) - enable the “Query insights” feature to activate automatic gathering of common Postgres metrics by the Google engine, in case you don’t plan to use any extra monitoring tools or just want to have it available as a fallback option.
  2. Press “Create instance” and wait until the DB is available for connections. From there on it’s recommended to create some normal “non-admin” user accounts for DDL and DML management, and it’s basically business as usual.

Creating a monitoring user

Due to the fact that we are only interested in monitoring here, we’ll also need to add an extra step. We need to create a monitoring role to be used by the pgwatch2 metrics collector. It’s never recommended to monitor with the default admin/superuser account over a remote connection! Luckily, starting from v10, the Postgres project caters for that common monitoring need. There’s a special system grant called pg_monitor for that purpose. pg_monitor elevates the privileges just a bit. The steps below are listed in the documentation and also on Github's mini-how-to.

Configuring pgwatch2 to monitor a Google Cloud instance

I'm skipping the actual installation of pgwatch2 here. Please follow the documentation for that. Basically, once we have the metrics agent and the metrics storage DB in place (Postgres with TimescaleDB recommended!) we just need a simple YAML config file.

As I already mentioned in the introductory section, no problems are expected and it should just work! Given that you’re using the correct configuration, of course 🙂 And here, since managed cloud services are becoming increasingly popular, we’ve now made it pretty easy on the pgwatch2 side. pgwatch2 has some preset configurations tuned for various engines! In the case of Google Cloud, an example YAML configuration entry (assuming a file-based installation) should use an according preset config named “gce”.

So it should look something like this:

After that's in place, we can test start the pgwatch2 metrics collector and see if it looks good:

Hmm, some errors. Well, it doesn’t look good for a “preset config”, you might think. But in this case, it's actually expected for a totally fresh and pristine instance. Since Postgres is not actually 100% pre-configured for exhaustive out-of-the-box monitoring, a couple of small moves are required. These are covered by the next chapter.

🔔 If you’d like to see more details on these errors, or in general see what pgwatch2 is actually doing, then set the --verbosity parameter to info level. There’s also a debug level, but that’s meant rather for bug tracking/developing. It will overflow you with information.

Configuring the Google Cloud instance for maximum monitoring benefit

Basically, we need to do 2 things. The first one is a “must have” for all Postgres databases that could get into performance issues at some point, or where we need some visibility of what users are actually executing more often. The 2nd one is actually more of a “nice to have”. However, I always enable it on at least semi-modern hardware. Without it, you’re fine. It's just that some preset Grafana dashboards provided by the pgwatch2 project will look a bit more empty, no biggie.

Create the “pg_stat_statements” extension using an admin account.

For most managed services, the extension itself is already activated and present in shared_preload_libraries - if not, you most definitely are allowed to activate it, as it’s the single most useful extension for performance troubleshooting and comes bundled with Postgres by default. Note that you need to execute the code listed below for all databases that you plan to monitor!

Change/verify that the server configuration is set to also track IO timings and stored procedures

Basically, we need to enable the track_io_timing parameter and set track_functions to at least pl. Note that the all setting is normally not needed unless you plan to optimize some C functions coming in from extensions. For the Google service, this would look something like what you see below. Remember, server configuration parameters/settings are called “flags” on Google Cloud!

pgwatch2 google cloud flags

Pgwatch2 users and Grafana

Given that our metrics collection daemon has been running for a while, we can finally fire up Grafana to look at some nice graphs! The usability and features of Grafana together with a bunch of ready-made dashboards to cover all common monitoring needs are one of the main reasons why users like pgwatch2. It makes diving into the metrics quite effortless. Changing the visual side just takes a couple of clicks. That's something that's not possible with the tools provided by the cloud vendors!

Note that when starting from scratch, you need to import the pgwatch2 dashboards into Grafana. This can be done manually “per dashboard”, or also with an “import all” script, exemplified in the documentation here.

Basically, the majority of dashboards should work as when monitoring a local setup. Some dashboards like the “Systems Stats” will be unusable and empty because we cannot create PL/Python helpers on the managed server to extract CPU load, etc.

Also, instead of the standard “DB overview” dashboard that most often serves as a starting point when reports of weird database behavior come in, you might prefer using the “DB overview unprivileged” dashboard. It's compiled exactly for such cases where the metrics agent might not have full access. In this case, we only show metrics that are always there, even for plain users with only a CONNECT privilege. It looks like the following:

grafana database overview from pgwatch2


To wrap it all up! As we saw, pgwatch2 can be configured to work Google Cloud SQL with only a few modifications. It should actually be similarly easy with all other flavors of PostgreSQL. And compared to service provider instrumentation, it shines! Especially in that, it provides many more dashboards (around 30) to cover all possible problem areas. It also allows you to easily define new custom metrics via SQL. That means they can also come from the business domain. So you can have some nice sales counters right together with your critical database metrics.

The peculiarities of using popular managed cloud services with pgwatch2 are also documented in a separate section. Check that out here for additional hints and tips if you're planning to give pgwatch2 a go for your cloud instance.

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