A bad query plan ...
© Laurenz Albe 2018


We all know that you have to pay a price for a new index you create — data modifying operations will become slower, and indexes use disk space. That’s why you try to have no more indexes than you actually need.

But most people think that SELECT performance will never suffer from a new index. The worst that can happen is that the new index is not used.

However, this is not always true, as I have seen more than once in the field. I’ll show you such a case and tell you what you can do about it.

An example

We will experiment with this table:

   sort        integer NOT NULL,
   category    integer NOT NULL,
   interesting boolean NOT NULL

   SELECT i, i%1000, i>50000
   FROM generate_series(1, 1000000) i;

CREATE INDEX skewed_category_idx ON skewed (category);


We want to find the first twenty interesting rows in category 42:

SELECT * FROM skewed
WHERE interesting AND category = 42

This performs fine:

                             QUERY PLAN
 Limit  (cost=2528.75..2528.80 rows=20 width=9)
        (actual time=4.548..4.558 rows=20 loops=1)
   Buffers: shared hit=1000 read=6
   ->  Sort  (cost=2528.75..2531.05 rows=919 width=9)
             (actual time=4.545..4.549 rows=20 loops=1)
         Sort Key: sort
         Sort Method: top-N heapsort  Memory: 25kB
         Buffers: shared hit=1000 read=6
         ->  Bitmap Heap Scan on skewed
                        (cost=19.91..2504.30 rows=919 width=9)
                        (actual time=0.685..4.108 rows=950 loops=1)
               Recheck Cond: (category = 42)
               Filter: interesting
               Rows Removed by Filter: 50
               Heap Blocks: exact=1000
               Buffers: shared hit=1000 read=6
               ->  Bitmap Index Scan on skewed_category_idx
                        (cost=0.00..19.68 rows=967 width=0)
                        (actual time=0.368..0.368 rows=1000 loops=1)
                     Index Cond: (category = 42)
                     Buffers: shared read=6
 Planning time: 0.371 ms
 Execution time: 4.625 ms

PostgreSQL uses the index to find the 1000 rows with category 42, filters out the ones that are not interesting, sorts them and returns the top 20. 5 milliseconds is fine.

A new index makes things go sour

Now we add an index that can help us with sorting. That is definitely interesting if we often have to find the top 20 results:

CREATE INDEX skewed_sort_idx ON skewed (sort);

And suddenly, things are looking worse:

                          QUERY PLAN
 Limit  (cost=0.42..736.34 rows=20 width=9)
        (actual time=21.658..28.568 rows=20 loops=1)
   Buffers: shared hit=374 read=191
   ->  Index Scan using skewed_sort_idx on skewed
                (cost=0.42..33889.43 rows=921 width=9)
                (actual time=21.655..28.555 rows=20 loops=1)
         Filter: (interesting AND (category = 42))
         Rows Removed by Filter: 69022
         Buffers: shared hit=374 read=191
 Planning time: 0.507 ms
 Execution time: 28.632 ms

What happened?

PostgreSQL thinks that it will be faster if it examines the rows in sort order using the index until it has found 20 matches. But it doesn’t know how the matching rows are distributed with respect to the sort order, so it is not aware that it will have to scan 69042 rows until it has found its 20 matches (see Rows Removed by Filter: 69022 in the above execution plan).

What can we do to get the better plan?

PostgreSQL v10 has added extended statistics to track how the values in different columns are correlated, but that does no track the distributions of the values, so it will not help us here.

There are two workarounds:

  1. Drop the index that misleads PostgreSQL.If that is possible, it is a simple solution. But usually one cannot do that, because the index is either used to enforce a unique constraint, or it is needed by other queries that benefit from it.
  2. Rewrite the query so that PostgreSQL cannot use the offending index.Of the many possible solutions for this, I want to present two:
    • A subquery with OFFSET 0:
      SELECT *
      FROM (SELECT * FROM skewed
            WHERE interesting AND category = 42
            OFFSET 0) q
      ORDER BY sort
      LIMIT 20;

      This makes use of the fact that OFFSET and LIMIT prevent a subquery from being “flattened”, even if they have no effect on the query result.

    • Using an expression as sort key:
      SELECT * FROM skewed
      WHERE interesting AND category = 42
      ORDER BY sort + 0
      LIMIT 20;

      This makes use of the fact that PostgreSQL cannot deduce that sort + 0 is the same as sort. Remember that PostgreSQL is extensible, and you can define your own + operator!

Another way to get rid of unused indexes...
© Laurenz Albe 2018

Why should I get rid of unused indexes?

Everybody knows that a database index is a good thing because it can speed up SQL queries. But this does not come for free.

The disadvantages of indexes are:

  • Indexes use up space. It is not unusual for database indexes to use as much storage space as the data themselves. And the kind of reliable, fast storage you want for a database is not necessarily cheap.
    The space used up by indexes also increases the size and duration of physical backups.
  • Indexes slow down data modification. Whenever you INSERT into or DELETE from a table, all indexes have to be modified, in addition to the table itself (the “heap”).
    And it is much more expensive to modify the complicated data structure of an index than the heap itself, which has its name precisely because it is basically an unordered “pile” of data (and as everybody knows, maintaining order is more work than having a mess). Modifying an indexed table can easily be an order of magnitude more expensive than modifying an unindexed table.
  • Indexes prevent HOT updates. Because of the architecture of PostgreSQL, every UPDATE causes a new row version (“tuple”) to be written, and that causes a new entry in every index on the table.
    This behavior has been dubbed “write amplification” and has drawn a lot of fire. This undesirable effect can be avoided if a) the new tuple fits into the same table block as the old one and b) no indexed row is modified. Then PostgreSQL creates the new tuple as a “Heap Only Tuple” (hence HOT), which is much more efficient and also reduces the work VACUUM has to do.

The many uses of indexes

Now we know that we don’t want unnecessary indexes. The problem is that indexes serve so many purposes that it is difficult to determine if a certain index is needed or not.

Here is a list of all benefits of indexes in PostgreSQL:

  1. Indexes can speed up queries that use indexed columns (or expressions) in the WHERE clause.
    Everybody knows that one!
    The traditional B-tree index supports the <, <=, =, >= and > operators, while the many other index types in PostgreSQL can support more exotic operators like “overlaps” (for ranges or geometries), “distance” (for words) or regular expression matches.
  2. B-tree indexes can speed up the max() and min() aggregates.
  3. B-tree indexes can speed up ORDER BY clauses.
  4. Indexes can speed up joins. This depends on the “join strategy” chosen by the optimizer: hash joins, for example, will never make use of an index.
  5. A B-tree index on the origin of a FOREIGN KEY constraint avoids a sequential scan when rows are deleted (or keys modified) in the target table. A scan on the origin of the constraint is necessary to make sure that the constraint will not be not violated by the modification.
  6. Indexes are used to enforce constraints. Unique B-tree indexes are used to enforce PRIMARY KEY and UNIQUE constraints, while exclusion constraints use GiST indexes.
  7. Indexes can provide the optimizer with better value distribution statistics.
    If you create an index on an expression, ANALYZE and the autoanalyze daemon will not only collect statistics for the data distribution in table columns, but also for each expression that occurs in an index. This helps the optimizer to get a good estimate for the “selectivity” of complicated conditions that contain the indexed expression, which causes better plans to be chosen.This is a widely ignored benefit of indexes!

Find the unused indexes!

The following query that we at Cybertec use will show you all indexes that serve none of the above mentioned purposes.

It makes use of the fact that all uses of indexes in the above list with the exception of the last two result in an index scan.

For completeness’ sake, I have to add that the parameter track_counts has to remain “on” for the query to work, otherwise index usage is not tracked in pg_stat_user_indexes. But you must not change that parameter anyway, otherwise autovacuum will stop working.

To find the indexes that have never been used since the last statistics reset with pg_stat_reset(), use

SELECT s.schemaname,
       s.relname AS tablename,
       s.indexrelname AS indexname,
       pg_relation_size(s.indexrelid) AS index_size
FROM pg_catalog.pg_stat_user_indexes s
   JOIN pg_catalog.pg_index i ON s.indexrelid = i.indexrelid
WHERE s.idx_scan = 0      -- has never been scanned
  AND 0 <>ALL (i.indkey)  -- no index column is an expression
  AND NOT EXISTS          -- does not enforce a constraint
         (SELECT 1 FROM pg_catalog.pg_constraint c
          WHERE c.conindid = s.indexrelid)
ORDER BY pg_relation_size(s.indexrelid) DESC;

Some remarks:

  • Don’t do that on your test database, but on the production database!
  • If your software it running at several customer sites, run the query on all of them.
    Different users have different ways to use a software, which can cause different indexes to be used.
  • You can replace s.idx_scan = 0 in the query with a different condition, e.g. s.idx_scan < 10. Indexes that are very rarely used are also good candidates for removal.