PostgreSQL’s new MERGE command

PostgreSQL version 15 introduces a new SQL command: the MERGE command. This allows merging a table into another table. The MERGE command has existed for some time in other databases such as Oracle or SQL Server.

The principle of this command is that you have a target table in which you want to insert or remove data based on a source table under certain conditions, or you want to update existing entries with data from the source table. The source table doesn’t have to be a real table, it can just as easily be a SELECT query.

How to use it, step-by-step

The command begins with MERGE INTO, followed by the name of the target table. We call it dest here:

MERGE
  INTO dest ...

Then you specify the source table with USING, here we call it src:

MERGE
  INTO dest
  USING src
  ...

If you want to use a SELECT query as the source instead of a real table, you can do it like this:

MERGE
  INTO dest
  USING (SELECT ... FROM ...) AS src
  ...

Now you need a condition that is used to match entries from one table to entries from the other table. This is specified after ON. In this example we simply use the IDs of the two tables:

MERGE
  INTO dest
  USING src
  ON dest.id=src.id
  ...

This is followed by a case distinction that describes what should happen if the condition either applies or not. The possible actions can be: UPDATE, DELETE, INSERT, or DO NOTHING.

The two cases are specified with WHEN MATCHED THEN and WHEN NOT MATCHED THEN:

MERGE
  INTO dest
  USING src
  ON dest.id=src.id
  WHEN MATCHED THEN
    UPDATE SET ...
  WHEN NOT MATCHED THEN
    INSERT (...) VALUES (...);

If a match exists, then reasonable actions are UPDATE, DELETE, or DO NOTHING. If no match exists, then reasonable actions are INSERT or DO NOTHING.

In the WHEN cases, additional conditions can be specified with AND:

MERGE
  INTO dest
  USING src
  ON dest.id=src.id
  WHEN MATCHED AND dest.value > src.value THEN
    DELETE
  WHEN MATCHED THEN
    UPDATE SET ...
  WHEN NOT MATCHED THEN
    DO NOTHING;

A realistic example

Here’s an example demonstrating a use case that might occur in the real world:

MERGE
  INTO account a
  USING transaction t
  ON a.id=t.account_id
WHEN MATCHED THEN
  UPDATE SET balance = a.balance + t.amount
WHEN NOT MATCHED THEN
  INSERT (id, balance) VALUES (t.account_id, t.amount);

This statement processes a table of monetary transactions and applies them to their matching customer accounts by adding the amount of each transaction to the balance of the matching account. If no matching account exists it will be created and the initial balance is the amount of the first transaction.

PostgreSQL’s “DISTINCT ON” clause

Anyone who uses SQL databases knows the DISTINCT modifier for SELECT queries to get result sets without duplicates. However, PostgreSQL has another variant of it that not everyone knows, but which is very useful: the SELECT DISTINCT ON clause. It can be used to query only the first row of each set of rows according to a grouping.

To understand its usefulness, let’s look at an example and solve it in the classical way first.

The complicated way

Given the following table of items we want to query for each category the item with the highest value.

 name │ category │ value
-------------------------
 A    │ X        │ 52
 B    │ X        │ 35
 C    │ X        │ 52
 D    │ Y        │ 27
 E    │ Y        │ 31
 F    │ Y        │ 20

Usually we’d start out with a query like this:

SELECT
  category,
  MAX(value) AS highest_value
FROM items
GROUP BY category;
category │ highest_value
--------------------------
 X       │ 52
 Y       │ 31

And then use this query as a sub-select:

SELECT * FROM items
WHERE (category, value) IN (
  SELECT
    category,
    MAX(value) AS highest_value
  FROM items
  GROUP BY category
);
 name │ category │ value
-------------------------
 A    │ X        │ 52
 C    │ X        │ 52
 E    │ Y        │ 31

Unfortunately, there are multiple items in category X with the same highest value 52. But we really only want one row for each category. In this case we might use the ROW_NUMBER() function:

SELECT
  name, category, value
FROM (
  SELECT
    items.*,
    ROW_NUMBER() OVER (
      PARTITION BY category
      ORDER BY value DESC, name
    ) AS rownum
  FROM items
) WHERE rownum = 1;
 name │ category │ value
-------------------------
 A    │ X        │ 52
 E    │ Y        │ 31

This is finally our desired result.

The easy way

But I promised it can be easier with the DISTINCT ON clause. How does it work?

SELECT DISTINCT ON (category) *
FROM items
ORDER BY
  category, value DESC, name;

After DISTINCT ON we specify one or more columns by which to group by in parentheses. The ORDER BY clause determines which row will be the first in each group. We get the same result:

 name │ category │ value
-------------------------
 A    │ X        │ 52
 E    │ Y        │ 31

Range Types in PostgreSQL

How do you store ranges in an SQL database? By ranges I mean things like price ranges, temperature ranges, date ranges for scheduling, etc. You’d probably represent them with two columns in a table, like min_price and max_price, min_temperature and max_temperature, start_date and end_date. If you want to represent an unbounded range, you’d probably make one or both columns nullable and then take NULL as +/- infinity.

If you want to test if a value is in a range you can use the BETWEEN operator:

SELECT * FROM products WHERE
  target_price BETWEEN min_price AND max_price;

This doesn’t work as nicely anymore if you work with unbounded ranges as described above. You’d have to add additional checks for NULL. What if you want to test if one of the ranges in the table overlaps with a given range?

SELECT * FROM products WHERE
  max_given >= min_price AND
  min_given <= max_price;

Did I make a mistake here? I’m not sure. What if they should overlap but not cover each other? And again, this becomes even more complicated with unbounded ranges.

Enter range types

PostgreSQL has a better solution for these problems — range types. It comes with these additional built-in data types:

  • int4range: Range of integer
  • int8range: Range of bigint
  • numrange: Range of numeric
  • tsrange: Range of timestamp without time zone
  • tstzrange: Range of timestamp with time zone
  • daterange: Range of date

You can use them as a column type in a table:

CREATE TABLE products (…, price_range numrange);

Construction

You can construct range values for these types like this:

'[20,35]'::int4range
'(5,12]'::int4range
'(6.2,12.5)'::numrange
'[2022-05-01, 2022-05-31]'::daterange
'[9:30, 12:00)'::timerange

As you can see, they use mathematical interval notation. A square bracket means inclusive bound, and a round parenthesis means exclusive bound. They can also be unbounded (infinite) or empty:

'[5,)'::int4range
'(,20]'::int4range
'empty'::int4range

You can get the bounds of a range individually with the lower() and upper() functions:

SELECT * FROM products ORDER BY lower(price_range);

Operators

The range types become really powerful through the range operators. There are a lot, so I will only show some basic examples:

  • The && operators tests if two ranges overlap: range_a && range_b
  • The @> and <@ operators test if the first range contains the second or vice versa: range_a <@ range_b. If used with an element on one side they test if the element is in a range: element <@ range or range @> element.
  • The -|- operator tests if two ranges are adjacent: range_a -|- range_b

Additionally to these boolean tests you can also calculate new ranges based on existing ranges:

The + operator computes the union of two overlapping or adjacent ranges: range_a + range_b. The * computes the intersection of ranges, and the - operator the difference.

Multiranges

There is one more thing I want to mention: For each one of the range types there is also a multirange type: int4multirange, int8multirange, nummultirange, tsmultirange, tstzmultirange, datemultirange. As their names suggest, they store multiple ranges in one value:

'{}'::int4multirange
'{[2,9)}'::int4multirange
'{[2,9), [12,20)}'::int4multirange

The mentioned range operators work with them as well.

Full-text Search with PostgreSQL

If you want to add simple text search functionality to an application backed by an SQL database one of the first things that may come to your mind is the SQL LIKE operator. The LIKE operator and its case-insensitive sibling ILIKE find substrings in text data via wildcards such as %, which matches any sequence of zero or more characters:

SELECT * FROM book WHERE title ILIKE '%dog%'.

However, this approach satisfies only very basic requirements for text search, because it only matches exact substrings. That’s why application developers often use an external search engine like Elasticsearch based on the Apache Lucene library.

With a PostgreSQL database there is another option: it comes with a built-in full-text search. A full-text search analyzes text according to the language of the text, parses it into tokens and converts them into so-called lexemes. These are strings, just like tokens, but they have been normalized so that different forms of the same word, for example “pony” and “ponies”, are made alike. Additionally, stop words are eliminated, which are words that are so common that they are useless for searching, like “a” or “the”. For this purpose the search engine uses a dictionary of the target language.

In PostgreSQL, there are two main functions to perform full-text search: they are to_tsvector and to_tsquery. The ts part in the function names stands for “text search”. The to_tsvector function breaks up the input string and creates a vector of lexemes out of it, which are then used to perform full-text search using the to_tsquery function. The two functions can be combined with the @@ (match) operator, which applies a search query to a search vector:

SELECT title
  FROM book
  WHERE to_tsvector(title) @@ to_tsquery('(cat | dog) & pony')

The query syntax of ts_query supports boolean operators like | (or), & (and), ! (not) and grouping using parentheses, but also other operators like and <-> (“followed by”) and * (prefix matching).

You can specify the target language as a parameter of to_tsvector:

# SELECT to_tsvector('english', 'Thousands of ponies were grazing on the prairie.');

'graze':5 'poni':3 'prairi':8 'thousand':1

Here’s another example in German:

# SELECT to_tsvector('german', 'Wer einen Fehler begeht, und ihn nicht korrigiert, begeht einen zweiten (Konfuzius)');

'begeht':4,9 'fehl':3 'konfuzius':12 'korrigiert':8 'wer':1 'zweit':11

PostgreSQL supports dictionaries for about 80+ languages out-of-the-box.

The examples in this article are just a small glimpse of what is possible with regards to full-text search in PostgreSQL. If you want to learn more you should consult the documentation. The key takeaway is that there is another option between simple LIKE clauses and an external search engine.

Commenting SQL database objects

Did you know that you can annotate database object like tables, views and columns with comments in many SQL database systems? By that I don’t mean comments in SQL scripts, indicated by double dashes (--), but comments attached to the objects themselves, stored in the database. These may be helpful to the database admin by providing context via a description text on what is stored in these objects.

For PostgreSQL and Oracle databases the syntax is as follows:

COMMENT ON TABLE [schema_name.]table_name IS '...';
COMMENT ON COLUMN [schema_name.]table_name.column_name IS '...';

For example:

COMMENT ON COLUMN books.author IS 'The main author''s last name';
COMMENT ON TABLE books IS 'Contains only the best books';

These comments can be viewed in database tools like SQL Developer:

Comments on columns
Comments on tables

You can also view the comments in psql:

db=# \d+ books
 Column |  Type   |          Description
--------+---------+------------------------------
id      | integer |
author  | text    | The main author''s last name
title   | text    |

And for a table:

db=# \dt+ books
                    List of relations
 Schema | Name  | Type  |     |        Description
--------+-------+-------+ ... +------------------------------
public  | books | table |     | Contains only the best books

In Oracle you can query the comments from the data dictionary views ALL_TAB_COMMENTS and ALL_COL_COMMENTS:

> SELECT * FROM all_col_comments WHERE table_name='BOOKS';
OWNER    TABLE_NAME  COLUMN_NAME  COMMENTS
--------------------------------------------------------------
LIBRARY	 BOOKS	     ID           (null)
LIBRARY	 BOOKS	     AUTHOR       The main author's last name
LIBRARY	 BOOKS	     TITLE        (null)

> SELECT * FROM all_tab_comments WHERE table_name='BOOKS';
OWNER    TABLE_NAME  TABLE_TYPE  COMMENTS
--------------------------------------------------------------
LIBRARY	 BOOKS	     TABLE       Contains only the best books

In Oracle comments are limited to tables, views, materialized views, columns, operators and indextypes, but in PostgreSQL you can attach comments to nearly everything. Another good use case for this are documentation comments on database functions:

COMMENT ON FUNCTION my_function IS $$
This function does something important.

Parameters:
...
Example usage:
...
$$;

Note: the $$ delimits multi-line strings (called dollar quoted string constants).

Migrating a Grails application from Oracle to PostgreSQL

In my previous post I explained how to migrate an Oracle schema with data to a PostgreSQL database management system (DBMS). Besides the general tasks and issues there are additional topics to migrate a complete application using the database to the other DBMS.

In our specific case we have a grails application which we maintain since Grails 1.0 times for more than 12 years. During that time we did a ton of feature development with lots of refactoring and many database migrations. So the source database will most like not be perfectly consistent and clean.

General approach

Since Grails/GORM and the DatabaseMigration-Plugin (DBM-Plugin) do a great job at preparing an empty database with a matching schema for the application to run we let the framework tools generate the schema and only migrate the data using Ora2Pg.

Sounds simple, but how it is done in detail and what else to look for?

Generating the initial dabase schema

The DBM-Plugin provides a script to create a database changelog with a schema matching the domain model of your grails application. It is integrated in gradle, so you can grails dbm-generate-gorm-changelog initialdb.groovy to create the migration scripts providing a fitting schema. You then include this script in grails-app/migrations/changelog.groovy or replace all the migrations you had before included there with this initial database changelog.

To prepare an empty database to run with your application you call the gradle task dbmUpdate.

Checking all plain SQL code

If you are only using GORM’s dynamic finders, save()/update()/delete()-methods, HQL and the criteria API you are probably fine to run your application or perform the data mirgration step.

Our application has some specific parts where we use plain SQL. Because of syntactical differences you will want to check all the plain SQL if it works with PostgreSQL. The most obvious stuff is dealing with sequences or other queries where you need the dual table in Oracle.

Migrating the data

This is probably the part where the most things can go wrong. We had quite some work with data-inconsistencies and left-overs from manual corrections that happened over the course of running and upgrading the application for so many year. For younger and simpler applications this may not present any challenges but for us it was quite time-consuming.

Now you can use Ora2Pg to import the data. After the whole data import using Ora2Pg worked as intended you should check the value of the hibernate_sequence . This sequence is used to generate the ids of all grails domain objects.

Do not let the sequences from the autoincrement columns of the tables of your domain objects confuse you! They are not used by Grails/GORM. To avoid this confusion you can remove the default value of the id columns and the accompanying sequences.

Checking the result

You should always run acceptance or manual tests to make sufficiently sure that the migration worked as intended. There is always the possibility of a configuration or software error or some oversights in checking the application code.

If possible tests the result on a dedicated system with some snapshot of the real world data before making the switch on the production system. Good luck!

Linking separate PostgreSQL servers with a Foreign Data Wrapper

If you want to query a table in one database server from another you need a way to connect these two servers with each other. For PostgreSQL databases the feature that makes this possible is called Foreign Data Wrapper.

To use this feature you have to load its extension into the current database:

CREATE EXTENSION postgres_fdw;

The postgres_fdw extension ships with a default PostgreSQL installation. It allows you to connect a PosgreSQL database with another PostgreSQL database. You can connect a PostgreSQL database with databases by other vendors, too, but then you need external extensions like oracle_fdw for Oracle databases or mysql_fdw for MySQL databases. In this article we will only use postgres_fdw.

You can check if the extension was loaded successfully. The following query should return a row for the extension:

SELECT * FROM pg_extension WHERE extname='postgres_fdw';

The next step is to set up the remote server instance:

CREATE SERVER remotesrv
  FOREIGN DATA WRAPPER postgres_fdw
  OPTIONS (
    host '127.0.0.1',
    port '5432',
    dbname 'remotedb'
  );

This statement registers a remote server under the name remotesrv, a name you can choose freely. You have to specify which Foreign Data Wrapper to use (postgres_fdw in this case) as well the target host, port and database name.

The CREATE SERVER statement didn’t contain any user login information, you have to provide it via a user mapping:

CREATE USER MAPPING
  FOR CURRENT_USER
  SERVER remotesrv
  OPTIONS (
    user 'joe',
    password 'secret'
  );

In this case we map the remote user joe to the current user (CURRENT_USER) of the local server. It doesn’t have to be the current user, you could specify any user name.

Now you have to import tables from the remote database. You can either explicitly import individual tables or a whole schema. Here’s how to import the public schema of the remote (“foreign”) database into the public schema of the local database:

IMPORT FOREIGN SCHEMA public
  FROM SERVER remotesrv
  INTO public;

You can restrict which tables to import with the LIMIT TO or EXCEPT clauses. The following statement will only import the tables books and students:

IMPORT FOREIGN SCHEMA public
  LIMIT TO (students, books)
  FROM SERVER remotesrv
  INTO public;

Now you can access these tables as if they were in the local database.

Migrating from Oracle to PostgreSQL

We are maintaining several applications with a SQL-Database as our data storage. If we can decide freely, we usually opt for PostgreSQL as the database management system (DBMS). But sometimes our clients have specific requirements because they are running the services on-premises so we use our customers’ choice. SQL is SQL anyway, is it not?

No it isn’t. And this year one of our customers asked us to migrate our application from Oracle to PostgreSQL. The migration was challenging even though we are using an object-relational mapper (ORM) and the necessary changes to our application code were very limited.

In this post I want to explain the general, application-agnostic challenges of such a migration. A follow-up will cover the application- and framework-specific issues.

Why is it not easy?

Luckily, PostgreSQL supports most common SQL features of Oracle, especially sequences, PL/SQL like scripts, triggers, foreign keys etc. and all the important datatypes. So you are mostly migrating from an inferior to a more powerful solution, at least feature and capability-wise from a client perspective. Please note that I am not judging the performance, replication, clustering and other administrative features here!

Unfortunately there is no simple and powerful enough tool to simply dump the oracle database into some standard SQL text format that you could pipe into psql or use with pg_restore. In addition there is also a challenge to convert the different number-types of Oracle to sematically equivalent PostgreSQL types etc.

Another challenge is coping with the referential integrity. Especially data in complex schemas with a lot of foreign keys are harder to migrate without proper tool support as you have to figure out the correct order of tables to restore.

Nevertheless, such a migration is doable, especially if you do not have too much scripting logic in your database. And there is a free tool to help you with all this stuff called Ora2Pg.

What can Ora2Pg do for you?

It can export the full database schema including constraints, convert datatypes based on configuration provided by you and offers a basic automatic conversion of PL/SQL code to PLPGSQL. When running the migration you can interactively choose what to migrate and what to skip. That allows you to only migrate the data into a readily prepared schema, for example.

How to run Ora2Pg?

Ora2Pg is a collection of perl scripts and configuration files so you need a system capable of running these. If you do not want to mess with your whole system and install all of the dependencies I prepared a Dockerfile able to run Ora2Pg:

FROM centos:7

# Prepare the system for ora2pg 
RUN yum install -y wget
RUN wget https://yum.oracle.com/RPM-GPG-KEY-oracle-ol7 -O /etc/pki/rpm-gpg/RPM-GPG-KEY-oracle

COPY ol7-temp.repo /etc/yum.repos.d/
RUN yum install -y oraclelinux-release-el7
RUN mv /etc/yum.repos.d/ol7-temp.repo /etc/yum.repos.d/ol7-temp.repo.disabled
RUN yum install -y oracle-instantclient-release-el7
RUN yum install -y oracle-instantclient-basic
RUN yum install -y oracle-instantclient-devel
RUN yum install -y oracle-instantclient-sqlplus

RUN yum install -y perl perl-CPAN perl-DBI perl-Time-HiRes perl-YAML perl-local-lib make gcc
RUN yum install -y perl-App-cpanminus

RUN cpanm CPAN::Config
RUN cpanm CPAN::FirstTime

ENV LD_LIBRARY_PATH=/usr/lib/oracle/21/client64/lib
ENV ORACLE_HOME=/usr/lib/oracle/21/client64

RUN perl -MCPAN -e 'install DBD::Oracle'

COPY ora2pg-21.1.tar.gz /tmp

WORKDIR /tmp
RUN tar zxf ora2pg-21.1.tar.gz && cd ora2pg-21.1 && perl Makefile.PL && make && make install

RUN mkdir -p /migration
RUN ora2pg --project_base /migration --init_project my_project
WORKDIR /migration/my_project

# uncomment this if you have a customized ora2pg.conf
#COPY ora2pg.conf /migration/my_project/config/

CMD ora2pg -t SHOW_VERSION -c config/ora2pg.conf && ora2pg -t SHOW_TABLE -c config/ora2pg.conf\
 && ora2pg -t SHOW_REPORT --estimate_cost -c config/ora2pg.conf\
 && ./export_schema.sh && ora2pg -t INSERT -o data.sql -b ./data -c ./config/ora2pg.conf

Here are the commands and the workflow to export the oracle database using the above docker image:

docker build -t o2pg .
# this will fail initially but create the project structure and generate a default configuration file
docker run --name oracle-export o2pg
# copy the project structure to the host system
docker cp oracle-export:/migration/my_project ./my_project_migration/

Now you can edit the configuration in my_project_migration/config and copy it to the directory you have built and run the docker commands. Most importantly you have to change the connection parameters at the top of the ora2pg.conf file. When you are ready to make the first go you need to enable configuration copying in the Dockerfile and rebuild the image. Now you should get your first somehow usable export.

The most import config options we changed for our projects are:

  • Connection parameters
  • Excluded tables that you do not want to migrate
  • Deletion of the contents of the target tables
  • Conversion of some datatypes like NUMBER(*,0) to bigint and NUMBER:1 to boolean for some columns

Most of the defaults are sensible to begin with but you can tailor the export specifically to your needs. If you feel ready to try the import you can run the import using a second docker image based on the following Dockerfile-import:

FROM centos:7

# Prepare the system for ora2pg 
RUN yum install -y wget
RUN wget https://yum.oracle.com/RPM-GPG-KEY-oracle-ol7 -O /etc/pki/rpm-gpg/RPM-GPG-KEY-oracle

COPY ol7-temp.repo /etc/yum.repos.d/
RUN yum install -y oraclelinux-release-el7
RUN mv /etc/yum.repos.d/ol7-temp.repo /etc/yum.repos.d/ol7-temp.repo.disabled
RUN yum install -y oracle-instantclient-release-el7
RUN yum install -y oracle-instantclient-basic
RUN yum install -y oracle-instantclient-devel
RUN yum install -y oracle-instantclient-sqlplus
RUN yum install -y postgresql-server

RUN yum install -y perl perl-CPAN perl-DBI perl-Time-HiRes perl-YAML perl-local-lib make gcc
RUN yum install -y perl-App-cpanminus

RUN cpanm CPAN::Config
RUN cpanm CPAN::FirstTime

ENV LD_LIBRARY_PATH=/usr/lib/oracle/21/client64/lib
ENV ORACLE_HOME=/usr/lib/oracle/21/client64

RUN perl -MCPAN -e 'install DBD::Oracle'

COPY ora2pg-21.1.tar.gz /tmp

WORKDIR /tmp
RUN tar zxf ora2pg-21.1.tar.gz && cd ora2pg-21.1 && perl Makefile.PL && make && make install

# you need to mount the project volume to /my_project
WORKDIR /my_project

ENV pg_port=5432

CMD ./import_all.sh -d $pg_db -h $pg_host -p $pg_port -U $pg_user -o $pg_user

To run the import with your exported project run build and run the import container as follows:

docker build -t postgres-import -f Dockerfile-import .
docker run -it --rm -e pg_host=target-db.intranet -e pg_db=my_project_db -e pg_user=my_db_user -v ./my_project_migration:/my_project postgres-import

Then you can interactively provide the database password and decide which migration steps to perform.

Caveat

Depending on your schema, data and privileges in the target database it may be necessary to disable all triggers before importing and reenable them after a successful import. This can done by replacing all occurences of TRIGGER USER by TRIGGER ALL in the file data/data.sql. You may need appropriate privileges for this to work.

Final words

Such a migration is not an easy task but may be worth it in total cost of ownership and maybe developer satisfaction as Oracle has some oddities and limitations for backend developers.

I will tackle some application specific issues with such a migration in a follow-up article that we encountered when migrating our system from Oracle to PostgreSQL using the above approach and tools.

Tables as types in PostgreSQL

In SQL each column of a database table has a data type. These are types like NUMBER, VARCHAR(size) / TEXT, TIMESTAMP. What you perhaps don’t know yet is that in PostgreSQL you can use tables as types. What does this mean? Let’s say we have a table:

CREATE TABLE person (
  firstname TEXT,
  lastname  TEXT,
  email     TEXT
);

Now you can use this table as a type for columns in other tables:

CREATE TABLE article (
  id       SERIAL,
  content  TEXT,
  author   person,
  reviewer person
);

Instead of repeating the three columns of a person twice, e.g. author_firstname, author_lastname, author_email, and reviewer_firstname, reviewer_lastname, reviewer_email, the person table defined before acts as a type. Of course, the usual way in SQL is to give each person an ID and reference persons via these IDs from other tables. But sometimes you do not want this reference semantics. In this example you might want to fix the values of author and reviewer for articles in time and not retroactively update them automatically if a person changes their last name or email address later.

How to access the columns of these types? For INSERT the syntax is as follows:

INSERT INTO article (content, author, reviewer)
  VALUES ('...',
    ('Jane', 'Doe', 'jane.doe@example.com'),
    ('John', 'Roe', 'jroe@example.com')
  ); 

Or with explicit names of the sub-columns:

INSERT INTO article (content,
    author.firstname,
    author.lastname,
    author.email,
    reviewer.firstname,
    reviewer.lastname,
    reviewer.email)
  VALUES ('...',
    'Jane', 'Doe', 'jane.doe@example.com',
    'John', 'Roe', 'jroe@example.com'
  ); 

In a SELECT query individual values can be accessed with the following syntax:

SELECT
  content,
  (author).lastname,
  (reviewer).lastname
FROM article;

Of course, tables that uses other tables as data types for their columns can be used as data types again.

One last thing worth mentioning is that these nested definitions can be mapped nicely to JSON:

SELECT jsonb_pretty(to_jsonb(article)) FROM article;
{
  "id": 1,
  "content": "...",
  "author": {
    "email": "jane.doe@example.com",
    "firstname": "Jane",
    "lastname": "Doe"
  },
  "reviewer": {
    "email": "jroe@example.com",
    "firstname": "John",
    "lastname": "Roe"
  }
}

Geometric shapes, functions and operators in PostgreSQL

On this blog I frequently write about features of relational database systems and their SQL dialects. One feature many developers do not know about is support for geometric shapes, although a lot of RDBMs support them in one form or the other, each with its own syntax, of course. In this article I’m going to demonstrate this feature with PostgreSQL.

PostgreSQL has data types for geometric shapes like point, box, line segment, line, path, polygon, and circle. These data types are only defined for two dimensions with Euclidean (x, y) coordinates. Here are some literals for these types:

point '(3.2,4)'
box '((1,2),(6,4))'
lseg '((-4,0),(3,2))'
path '((0,0),(2,1),(5,3))'
polygon '((0,0),(1,1),(2,0),(3,1))'
circle '((5,2),1.5)'

You can create tables with columns of these types and insert shapes:

CREATE TABLE shapes (p point, c circle);

INSERT INTO shapes (p, c) VALUES
  (point '(1,0)', circle '(0,0),3'),
  (point '(10,20)', circle '(2,3),4'),
  (point '(0.5,1.5)', circle '(1,2),1');

Now you can query shapes and filter them with special operators:

SELECT * FROM shapes WHERE c @> p;

This query uses the contains operator @> in the WHERE clause. It selects all rows where the circle c contains the point p.

Here’s another operator: <-> determines the Euclidean distance between two points.

SELECT point '(0,0)' <-> point '(1,1)';
=> 2.23606797749979

The ?|| operator tests if two lines are parallel:

SELECT line '((1,2),(1,3))' ?|| line '((2,3),(2,4))';
=> true

You can translate a shape with the + operator:

SELECT box '((0,0),(1,1))' + point '(1,2)';
=> box '(2,3),(1,2)'

Or you can test with && if two shapes overlap:

SELECT box '((1,2),(4,3))' && box '(2,3),(1,2)';
=> true

This is only a small selection of geometric operators. See the full list in the official documentation. There you can also find a list of geometric functions like area , center, isclosed, npoints, etc.

SELECT area(box '((4,6),(10,12))');
=> 36

As mentioned in the beginning, other database systems support similar functionality. Check out MySQL’s spatial data types, Oracle Spatial, and MS SQL’s spatial data types.