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Postgres SQL Backup Gzip Shrinkage, aka DON'T PANIC!!!

By David Christensen · January 9, 2010

Tags: database, postgres, tips

I was investigating a recent Postgres server issue, where we had discovered that one of the RAM modules on the server in question had gone bad. Unsurprisingly, one of the things we looked at was the possibility of having to do a restore from a SQL dump, as if there had been any potential corruption to the data directory, a base backup would potentially have been subject to the same possible errors that we were trying to restore to avoid.

As it was already the middle of the night (anyone have a server emergency during the normal business hours?), my investigations were hampered by my lack of sleep.

If there had been some data directory corruption, the pg_dump process would likely fail earlier than in the backup process, and we'd expect the dumps to be truncated; ideally this wasn't the case, as memory testing had not shown the DIMM to be bad, but the sensor had alerted us as well.

I logged into the backup server and looked at the backup dumps; from the alerts that we'd gotten, the memory was flagged bad on January 3. I listed the files, and noticed the following oddity:

 -rw-r--r-- 1 postgres postgres  2379274138 Jan  1 04:33 backup-Jan-01.sql.gz
 -rw-r--r-- 1 postgres postgres  1957858685 Jan  2 09:33 backup-Jan-02.sql.gz

Well, this was disconcerting. The memory event had taken place on the 3rd, but there was a large drop in size of the dumps between January 1st and January 2nd (more than 400MB of compressed output, for those of you playing along at home). This indicated that either the memory event took place earlier than recorded, or something somewhat catastrophic had happened to the database; perhaps some large deletion or truncation of some key tables.

Racking my brains, I tried to come up with an explanation: we'd had a recent maintenance window that took place between January 1 and January 2; we'd scheduled a CLUSTER/REINDEX to reclaim some of the bloat which was in the database itself. But this would only reduce the size of the data directory; the amount of live data would have stayed the same or with a modest increase.

Obviously we needed to compare the two files in order to determine what had changed between the two days. I tried:

 diff <(zcat backup-Jan-01.sql.gz | head -2300) <(zcat backup-Jan-02.sql.gz | head -2300)

Based on my earlier testing, this was the offset in the SQL dumps which defined the actual schema for the database excluding the data; in particular I was interested to see if there had been (say) any temporarily created tables which had been dropped during the maintenance window. However, this showed only minor changes (updates to default sequence values). It was time to do a full diff of the data to try and see if some of the aforementioned temporary tables had been truncated or if some catastrophic deletion had occurred or...you get the idea. I tried:

 diff <(zcat backup-Jan-01.sql.gz) <(zcat backup-Jan-02.sql.gz)

However, this approach fell down when diff ran out of memory. We decided to unzip the files and manually diff the two files in case it had something to do with the parallel unzips, and here was a mystery; after unzipping the dumps in question, we saw the following:

 -rw-r--r-- 1 root root 10200609877 Jan  8 02:19 backup-Jan-01.sql
 -rw-r--r-- 1 root root 10202928838 Jan  8 02:24 backup-Jan-02.sql

The uncompressed versions of these files showed sizes consistent with slow growth; the Jan 02 backup was slightly larger than the Jan 01 backup. This was really weird! Was there some threshold in gzip where given a particular size file it switched to a different compression algorithm? Had someone tweaked the backup script to gzip with a different compression level? Had I just gone delusional from lack of sleep? Since gzip can operate on streams, the first option seemed unlikely, and something I would have heard about before. I verified that the arguments to gzip in the backup job had not changed, so that took that choice off the table. Which left the last option, but I had the terminal scrollback history to back me up.

We finished the rest of our work that night, but the gzip oddity stuck with me through the next day. I was relating the oddity of it all to a co-worker, when insight struck: since we'd CLUSTERed the table, that meant that similar data (in the form of the tables' multi-part primary keys) had been reorganized to be on the same database pages, so when pg_dump read/wrote out the data in page order, gzip had that much more similarity in the same neighborhood to work with, which resulted in the dramatic decrease in the compressed gzip dumps.

So the good news was that CLUSTER will save you space in your SQL dumps as well (if you're compressing), the bad news was that it took an emergency situation and an almost heart-attack for this engineer to figure it all out. Hope I've saved you the trouble... :-)