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Daniel Westermann

Is it an index, a table or what?

A recent tweet from Kevin Closson outlined that in PostgreSQL it might be confusing if something is an index or table. Why is it like that? Lets have a look and start be re-building the example from Kevin:

For getting into the same situation Kevin described we need something like this:

postgres=# create table base4(custid int, custname varchar(50));
CREATE TABLE
postgres=# create index base4_idx on base4(custid);
CREATE INDEX

Assuming that we forgot that we created such an index and come back later and try to create it again we have exactly the same behavior:

postgres=# create index base4_idx on base4(custid);
ERROR:  relation "base4_idx" already exists
postgres=# drop table base4_idx;
ERROR:  "base4_idx" is not a table
HINT:  Use DROP INDEX to remove an index.
postgres=# 

They keyword here is “relation”. In PostgreSQL a “relation” does not necessarily mean a table. What you need to know is that PostgreSQL stores everything that looks like a table/relation (e.g. has columns) in the pg_class catalog table. When we check our relations there:

postgres=# select relname from pg_class where relname in ('base4','base4_idx');
  relname  
-----------
 base4
 base4_idx
(2 rows)

… we can see that both, the table and the index, are somehow treated as a relation. The difference is here:

postgres=# \! cat a.sql
select a.relname 
     , b.typname
  from pg_class a
     , pg_type b 
 where a.relname in ('base4','base4_idx')
   and a.reltype = b.oid;
postgres=# \i a.sql
 relname | typname 
---------+---------
 base4   | base4
(1 row)

Indexes do not have an entry in pg_type, tables have. What is even more interesting is, that the “base4″ table is a type itself. This means for every table you create a composite type is created as well that describes the structure of the table. You can even link back to pg_class:

postgres=# select typname,typrelid from pg_type where typname = 'base4';
 typname | typrelid 
---------+----------
 base4   |    32901
(1 row)

postgres=# select relname from pg_class where oid = 32901;
 relname 
---------
 base4
(1 row)

When you want to know what type a relation is of the easiest way is to ask like this:

postgres=# select relname,relkind from pg_class where relname in ('base4','base4_idx');
  relname  | relkind 
-----------+---------
 base4     | r
 base4_idx | i
(2 rows)

… where:

  • r = ordinary table
  • i = index
  • S = sequence
  • t = TOAST table
  • m = materialized view
  • c = composite type
  • f = foreign table
  • p = partitioned table

Of course there are also catalog tables for tables and indexes, so you can also double check there. Knowing all this the message is pretty clear:

postgres=# create index base4_idx on base4(custid);
ERROR:  relation "base4_idx" already exists
postgres=# drop relation base4_idx;
ERROR:  syntax error at or near "relation"
LINE 1: drop relation base4_idx;
             ^
postgres=# drop table base4_idx;
ERROR:  "base4_idx" is not a table
HINT:  Use DROP INDEX to remove an index.
postgres=# 

PostgreSQL finally is telling you that “base4_idx” is an index and not a table which is fine. Of course you could think that PostgreSQL should to that on its own but it is also true: When you want to drop something, you should be sure on what you really want to drop.

 

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Daniel Westermann
Daniel Westermann

Senior Consultant and Technology Leader Open Infrastructure