Postgres is one of the most advanced and widely used open-source RDBMS (Relational Database Management Systems) in the world. It's particularly appreciated by the developer community because it supports both SQL and JSON querying, making it is both relational and non-relational compliant.
Yet, Postgres has some well-known issues, and one of the most annoying ones involves sequences. Specifically, Postgres sequences are prone to go out of sync, preventing you from inserting new rows. Postgres even returns a confusing error message when this happens.
In this article, we'll teach you about the out-of-sync issue and show you how to solve it. We will learn about sequences, see what circumstances lead to the out-of-sync issue, learn how to diagnose the problem, and finally solve it. Let's begin.
Delving into the out-of-sync sequence problem in Postgres
What is a Postgres sequence?
The official documentation explains that a sequence is nothing more than a number generator. In particular, Postgres uses a sequence to generate a progressive number, which usually represents an automatically incremented numeric primary key.
If you are familiar with MySQL, the result of having a sequence in Postgres is comparable to the
AUTO_INCREMENT behavior. The main difference is that Postgres sequences can also be decremental. In detail, you can define a sequence with an initial value and let PostgreSQL decrement it for you at each
You can define a sequence in Postgres with the
CREATE SEQUENCE statement. Similarly, the special type
SERIAL initializes an auto-incremental numeric primary key using a sequence behind the scene. Generally, you should use
SERIAL when creating a new table with
When do sequences go out of sync?
Based on my experience as a senior software developer, there are three reasons why a Postgres sequence can go out of sync. Specifically, this happens when:
- importing many rows with an
INSERTscript or restoring an extensive database;
- manually setting the wrong value of a sequence with the
- inserting a new record into a table by manually specifying the
idfield in the
The last one is the most common cause and usually occurs because Postgres uses a sequence and automatically updates its value only when you omit the id field or use the
DEFAULT keyword in the
How do I identify this issue?
Spotting this issue is straightforward. When you specify no value for the
id column and manually launch an
INSERT query or let your ORM (Object-Relational Mapping) do it for you, Postgres will always return a "duplicate key value violates unique constraint" error. Also, this will never happen when performing
As you can imagine, the problem lies in the sequence related to the id column that went out of sync. Specifically, the error happens when the sequence returns a value for the id column that is already in use. And this leads to the aforementioned error because an ID must be unique by definition.
How to solve the problem
It is now time to see how to address the out-of-sync problem and solve it once and for all. This problem can be addressed in a few ways. Here are two approaches.
Method 1: Single table solution
Suppose you want to fix the sequence associated with the
id column of your
Users table. You can achieve this by running the following query:
Such query will update the
Users_id_seq sequence by setting its current value to the result of
COALESCE(MAX(id), 1). Notice how the name of the sequences in Postgres follows this notation:
COALESCE function returns the first non-null value, and it is required because if
Users were empty,
MAX(id) would return
NULL. So, by using
COALESCE, you are sure that the value assigned to
Users_id_seq will be
Users is not null, and 1 when
Users is null. In both cases, that query sets the desired value.
Method 2: Fixing all your sequences with one script
If you wanted to fix all your sequences with one query, you could use the following script coming from the official Postgres Wiki:
This query returns the set of queries required to fix each of your sequences when executed. As stated in the Wiki, you should use this query as follows:
- Save the query in a
- Run the query contained in the
fix_sequences.sqlfile and store the result in a
tempfile. Then, run the queries contained in the
tempfile. Finally, delete the
tempfile. You can achieve this with the following three commands:
How to verify that the problem was fixed
Now, all you have to do to verify that your sequence is no longer out-of-sync is to insert a new record in the same table where you initially experienced the issue.
Remember to give the
id column the
DEFAULT value or omit it entirely in the
INSERT query. This way, Postgres will use the
Users_id_seq sequence behind the scene to retrieve the correct value to give to
For example, run the following query, and you should no longer receive the “duplicate key value violates unique constraint” error message:
Instead, this query will insert a new record in the
Users table as expected.
Postgres is undoubtedly a great RDBMS. At the same time, it has a few issues that can waste your time. This is especially true if you aren't aware of them, don't know how to identify them, and don't address them accordingly. In this article, we looked at the tricky out-of-sync issue. Out-of-sync sequence errors are tricky because it leads to a "duplicate key value violates unique constraint" message error, which is also associated with other problems. But that won't fool you anymore, because now you know why it occurs, how to detect it, and how to fix it!