Drop your database for PostgreSQL
Sat, 09/24/2022 – 03:00
Databases are tools to store information in an organized but flexible way. A spreadsheet is essentially a database, but the constraints of a graphical application render most spreadsheet applications useless to programmers. With Edge and IoT devices becoming significant target platforms, developers need powerful but lightweight solutions for storing, processing, and querying large amounts of data. One of my favourite combinations is the PostgreSQL database and Lua bindings, but the possibilities are endless. Whatever language you use, Postgres is a great choice for a database, but you need to know some basics before adopting it.
To install PostgreSQL on Linux, use your software repository. On Fedora, CentOS, Mageia, and similar:
$ sudo dnf install postgresql postgresql-server
On Debian, Linux Mint, Elementary, and similar:
$ sudo apt install postgresql postgresql-contrib
On macOS and Windows, download an installer from postgresql.org.
Setting up Postgres
Most distributions install the Postgres database without starting it, but provide you with a script or systemd service to help it start reliably. However, before you start PostgreSQL, you must create a database cluster.
On Fedora, CentOS, or similar, there’s a Postgres setup script provided in the Postgres package. Run this script for easy configuration:
$ sudo /usr/bin/postgresql-setup --initdb
* Initializing database in '/var/lib/pgsql/data'
* Initialized, logs are in /var/lib/pgsql/initdb_postgresql.log
On Debian-based distributions, setup is performed automatically by
apt during installation.
Finally, if you’re running something else, then you can just use the toolchain provided by Postgres itself. The
initdb command creates a database cluster, but you must run it as the
postgres user, an identity you may temporarily assume using
$ sudo -u postgres
"initdb -D /var/lib/pgsql/data
--locale en_US.UTF-8 --auth md5 --pwprompt"
Now that a cluster exists, start the Postgres server using either the command provided to you in the output of
initdb or with systemd:
$ sudo systemctl start postgresql
Creating a database user
To create a Postgres user, use the
createuser command. The
postgres user is the superuser of the Postgres install,
$ sudo -u postgres createuser --interactive --password bogus
Shall the new role be a superuser? (y/n) n
Shall the new role be allowed to create databases? (y/n) y
Shall the new role be allowed to create more new roles? (y/n) n
Create a database
To create a new database, use the
createdb command. In this example, I create the database
exampledb and assign ownership of it to the user
$ createdb exampledb --owner bogus
Interacting with PostgreSQL
You can interact with a PostgreSQL database using the
psql command. This command provides an interactive shell so you can view and update your databases. To connect to a database, specify the user and database you want to use:
$ psql --user bogus exampledb
Type "help" for help.
Create a table
Databases contain tables, which can be visualized as a spreadsheet. There’s a series of rows (called records in a database) and columns. The intersection of a row and a column is called a field.
The Structured Query Language (SQL) is named after what it provides: A method to inquire about the contents of a database in a predictable and consistent syntax to receive useful results.
Currently, your database is empty, devoid of any tables. You can create a table with the
CREATE query. It’s useful to combine this with the
IF NOT EXISTS statement, which prevents PostgreSQL from clobbering an existing table.
Before you createa table, think about what kind of data (the “data type” in SQL terminology) you anticipate the table to contain. In this example, I create a table with one column for a unique identifier and one column for some arbitrary text up to nine characters.
exampledb=> CREATE TABLE IF NOT EXISTS my_sample_table(
exampledb(> id SERIAL,
exampledb(> wordlist VARCHAR(9) NOT NULL
SERIAL keyword isn’t actually a data type. It’s special notation in PostgreSQL that creates an auto-incrementing integer field. The
VARCHAR keyword is a data type indicating a variable number of characters within a limit. In this code, I’ve specified a maximum of 9 characters. There are lots of data types in PostgreSQL, so refer to the project documentation for a list of options.
You can populate your new table with some sample data by using the
INSERT SQL keyword:
exampledb=> INSERT INTO my_sample_table (wordlist) VALUES ('Alice');
INSERT 0 1
Your data entry fails, should you attempt to put more than 9 characters into the
exampledb=> INSERT INTO my_sample_table (WORDLIST) VALUES ('Alexandria');
ERROR: VALUE too long FOR TYPE CHARACTER VARYING(9)
Alter a table or column
When you need to change a field definition, you use the
ALTER SQL keyword. For instance, should you decide that a nine character limit for
wordlist, you can increase its allowance by setting its data type:
exampledb=> ALTER TABLE my_sample_table
ALTER COLUMN wordlist SET DATA TYPE VARCHAR(10);
exampledb=> INSERT INTO my_sample_table (WORDLIST) VALUES ('Alexandria');
INSERT 0 1
View data in a table
SQL is a query language, so you view the contents of a database through queries. Queries can be simple, or it can involve joining complex relationships between several different tables. To see everything in a table, use the
SELECT keyword on
* (an asterisk is a wildcard):
exampledb=> SELECT * FROM my_sample_table;
id | wordlist
1 | Alice
2 | Bob
3 | Alexandria
PostgreSQL can handle a lot of data, but as with any database the key to success is how you design your database for storage and what you do with the data once you’ve got it stored. A relatively large public data set can be found on OECD.org, and using this you can try some advanced database techniques.
First, download the data as comma-separated values (CSV) and save the file as
land-cover.csv in your
Browse the data in a text editor or spreadsheet application to get an idea of what columns there are, and what kind of data each column contains. Look at the data carefully and keep an eye out for exceptions to an apparent rule. For instance, the
COU column, containing a country code such as
AUS for Australia and
GRC for Greece, tends to be 3 characters until the oddity
Once you understand the data you’re working with, you can prepare a Postgres database:
$ createdb landcoverdb --owner bogus
$ psql --user bogus landcoverdb
landcoverdb=> create table land_cover(
Postgres can import CSV data directly using the special metacommand
landcoverdb=> copy land_cover from '~/land-cover.csv' with csv header delimiter ','
That’s 22,113 records imported. Seems like a good start!
SELECT statement to see all columns of all 22,113 records is possible, and Postgres very nicely pipes the output to a screen pager so you can scroll through the output at a leisurely pace. However, using advanced SQL you can get some useful views of what’s otherwise some pretty raw data.
FROM land_cover lcm
GROUP BY country_name,
) AS lcmyv
lcm.country_name = lcmyv.country_name AND
lcm.large_subnational_region_name = lcmyv.large_subnational_region_name AND
lcm.small_subnational_region_name = lcmyv.small_subnational_region_name AND
lcm.year_value = lcmyv.max_year_value
GROUP BY lcm.country_name,
ORDER BY country_name,
Here’s some sample output:
Afghanistan | 2019 | 743.48425
Albania | 2019 | 128.82532
Algeria | 2019 | 2417.3281
American Samoa | 2019 | 100.2007
Andorra | 2019 | 100.45613
Angola | 2019 | 1354.2192
Anguilla | 2019 | 100.078514
Antarctica | 2019 | 12561.907
SQL is a rich langauge, and so it’s beyond the scope of this article. Read through the SQL code and see if you can modify it to provide a different set of data.
PostgreSQL is one of the great open source databases. With it, you can design repositories for structured data, and then use SQL to view it in different ways so you can gain fresh perspectives on that data. Postgres integrates with many languages, including Python, Lua, Groovy, Java, and more, so regardless of your toolset, you can probably make use of this excellent database.
Postgres is one of the most flexible databases available, and it’s open source.
Seldom without a computer of some sort since graduating from the University of British Columbia in 1978, I have been a full-time Linux user since 2005, a full-time Solaris and SunOS user from 1986 through 2005, and UNIX System V user before that.
Aside from that, I spend a considerable amount of time writing proposals, technical reports and – of course – stuff on https://www.opensource.com.
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