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Understanding PostgreSQL’s Memory Architecture

Optimizing the PostgreSQL database server’s performance heavily relies on adept memory management.

The server’s behavior is governed by settings in the postgres.conf file. While default parameter values are provided, customizing these to align with specific workloads and operational environments can significantly boost efficiency.

Understanding PostgreSQL’s Memory Architecture

PostgreSQL categorizes memory into two distinct types:

  • Local Memory: Individually allocated by each backend process.
  • Shared Memory: Commonly accessible by all PostgreSQL server processes.

Local Memory Breakdown

In PostgreSQL, the local memory allocated by each backend process supports query execution and is subdivided into:

  • Work_mem: Facilitates operations like sorting and table joins.
  • Maintenance_work_mem: Allocated for database maintenance tasks.
  • Temp_buffers: Stores temporary tables utilized during query processing.

Shared Memory Utilization

Allocated upon server startup, the shared memory area is segmented into fixed-size parts:

  • Shared Buffer Pool: Central to storing and manipulating database pages.
  • WAL Buffer: Essential for the Write-Ahead Logging system, ensuring data integrity.
  • Commit Log: Tracks the status of transactions, integral to concurrency management.

Key Parameters for Memory Optimization

Key PostgreSQL settings for memory management enhancement include:

  • Shared_buffers: Dictates memory allocation for data caching.
  • Work_mem: Governs memory usage for sorting and hashing during queries.
  • Maintenance_work_mem: Caps the memory for database maintenance activities.
  • Effective_cache_size: An estimate of the available memory for caching purposes.
  • Temp_buffers: Sets the upper limit for temporary buffers per database session.


Properly tuning these settings, considering your system’s memory capacity and the nature of your workload, can lead to marked improvements in database performance. For comprehensive guidance on performance tuning, consult the PostgreSQL performance cheat sheet.

understanding shared_buffers in Postgresql

In PostgreSQL, `shared_buffers` is a key configuration parameter, utilizing a ‘double buffering’ mechanism. This means PostgreSQL uses both its internal buffer and the operating system’s kernel buffered IO, essentially storing data in memory twice. The `shared_buffers` setting specifically dictates the amount of system memory allocated exclusively for PostgreSQL’s cache.

Given PostgreSQL’s aim for broad compatibility across various systems, the default value for `shared_buffers` is set conservatively low. However, fine-tuning this setting is often essential for optimal performance, especially on modern operating systems.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all value, a general guideline is to set `shared_buffers` to approximately 25% of total system RAM for a dedicated database server, ensuring not to allocate all system RAM to PostgreSQL alone.

More than 25% allocation can be beneficial in specific scenarios, particularly for read-intensive operations, but might hinder write-heavy workloads as it necessitates processing the entire content of shared_buffers during write operations.

understanding wal_buffers in Postgresql

wal_buffers is another important setting related to PostgreSQL’s Write-Ahead Logging (WAL), a mechanism for ensuring data integrity.

WAL records are initially written into these buffers and later flushed to disk. The default buffer size is 16MB, but systems with high concurrency might benefit from a larger `wal_buffers` setting.

understanding effective_cache_size in Postgresql

`effective_cache_size` is an often misunderstood setting in PostgreSQL, providing a rough estimate of memory available for disk caching by both the OS and the database after accounting for other applications’ memory usage.

It’s used by the PostgreSQL query planner to assess whether certain operations would fit in RAM. Setting it too low might lead to underutilization of available indexes. A conservative starting point is half the total system memory, adjusting up to 75% for dedicated database servers.

understanding work_mem in Postgresql

`work_mem` is crucial for managing memory in complex sort operations. It defines the maximum memory used for intermediate results like hash tables.

Properly tuning `work_mem` ensures most sorting is done in memory rather than on disk. However, setting it too high can constrain overall system memory, especially when multiple sorts occur concurrently. Therefore, a lower global `work_mem` value is recommended, customizing it for specific queries as needed:

understanding maintenance_work_mem in Postgresql

Lastly, `maintenance_work_mem` is used for maintenance tasks like VACUUM and CREATE INDEX. Unlike `work_mem`, these tasks are usually not concurrent, allowing for a larger allocation to potentially improve performance in maintenance operations. The default setting is 64MB.

Understanding and adjusting these parameters is key to optimizing PostgreSQL for specific workloads and system configurations.