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Indexes with Included Columns in PostgreSQL

With PostgreSQL, we can create covering indexes using the INCLUDE clause, which are types of indexes that specify a list of columns to be included in the index as non-key columns. If used correctly, indexes with included columns improve performance and reduce total costs.

Basic PostgreSQL syntax for using INCLUDE clause with an index:​

CREATE [UNIQUE] INDEX index_name
ON table_name(key_column_list)
INCLUDE(included_column_list);

How do they work?​

In PostgreSQL, a B-Tree index creates a multi-level tree structure where each level can be used as a doubly-linked list of pages. Leaf pages are those at the lowest level of a tree, that point to rows of tables.

With covering indexes, records of the columns mentioned in the INCLUDE clause are included in the leaf pages of the B-Tree as "payload" and are not part of the search key.

info

Each index is stored separately from the table's main data area, which in PostgreSQL this is known as the table's heap. To learn more about the PostgreSQL B-tree index structure and covering indexes, visit the documentation:

  1. B-Tree structure.
  2. Covering indexes.

When do we need them?​

Let's demonstrate an example where an index with an INCLUDE clause may be useful, by contrasting it with a unique index without an INCLUDE clause.

First, create a table with the following command:

DROP TABLE IF EXISTS "bankdb";

CREATE TABLE "bankdb" (
id SERIAL PRIMARY KEY,
savings varchar(100),
first_name varchar(255),
last_name varchar(255),
email varchar(255),
bank varchar(34)
);

Here is how a portion of the table might look like after inserting values:

Output
-[ RECORD 1 ]--------------------------------------
id | 1
savings | 28 497
first_name | Amena
last_name | Gardner
email | a_gardner@aol.edu
bank | GE77159307648978112812
-[ RECORD 2 ]--------------------------------------
id | 2
savings | 71 279
first_name | Joan
last_name | Kaufman
email | k-joan3559@google.couk
bank | DK8023212366607361

.
.
.
-[ RECORD 1499 ]------------------------------------
id | 1499
savings | 4 880
first_name | Ramona
last_name | Wilkins
email | r.wilkins@google.net
bank | BA928132235277210873
-[ RECORD 1500 ]------------------------------------
id | 1500
savings | 69 873
first_name | Imani
last_name | Noble
email | imaninoble@hotmail.net
bank | BG45LBAX41796917951361

Now, suppose we want to find the ID of a user by their email address. Let’s check the performance of the query with a WHERE clause without any index, with the following command:

EXPLAIN ANALYZE
SELECT
first_name,
last_name,
email
FROM
"bankdb"
WHERE
email = 'd-abbott3425@google.edu';
Output
QUERY PLAN                            
----------------
Seq Scan on bankdb (cost=0.00..38.75 rows=1 width=37) (actual time=0.180..0.181
rows=1 loops=1)
Filter: ((email)::text = 'd-abbott3425@google.edu'::text)
Rows Removed by Filter: 1499
Planning Time: 0.053 ms
Execution Time: 0.195 ms
(5 rows)

Time: 0.626 ms

Notice that the total cost is 38.75 units. If we want to use a unique index to accelerate the query, we can create it on the email column with the following command:

CREATE UNIQUE INDEX emails_idx 
ON bankdb(email);
Output
CREATE INDEX
Time: 10.316 ms

Now, let's check the performance of querying data of first and last names based on their email addresses, with the following command:

EXPLAIN ANALYZE
SELECT
first_name,
last_name,
email
FROM
"bankdb"
WHERE
email = 'd-abbott3425@google.edu';
Output
QUERY PLAN                   
----------------------------------
Index Scan using emails_idx on bankdb (cost=0.28..8.29 rows=1 width=37) (actual
time=0.200..0.203 rows=1 loops=1)
Index Cond: ((email)::text = 'd-abbott3425@google.edu'::text)
Planning Time: 0.081 ms
Execution Time: 0.259 ms
(4 rows)

Time: 1.470 ms

Notice that the total cost is now 8.29 units. The performance of the query has improved by creating a primary key index on email column, compared to 38.75 units without using any index. The engine still has to fetch the first_name and last_name columns from the table (also known as "heap fetches"). Let's drop the existing index to demonstrate the next section in the article:

DROP INDEX emails_idx;
Output
DROP INDEX
Time: 3.856 ms

Suppose we want to accelerate the same query using the INCLUDE clause. In the following command, we will create an index with an INCLUDE clause that precisely covers first_name and last_name columns which are part of the query for which we are trying to improve performance.

CREATE UNIQUE INDEX emails_idx 
ON bankdb(email)
INCLUDE(first_name,last_name);
Output
CREATE INDEX
Time: 8.942 ms

Now, let's check the performance of querying data of first and last names based on their email addresses, with the following command:

EXPLAIN ANALYZE
SELECT
first_name,
last_name,
email
FROM
"bankdb"
WHERE
email = 'd-abbott3425@google.edu';
Output
QUERY PLAN                 
---------------------------------------
Index Only Scan using emails_idx on bankdb (cost=0.28..4.29 rows=1 width=37) (ac
tual time=0.228..0.231 rows=1 loops=1)
Index Cond: (email = 'd-abbott3425@google.edu'::text)
Heap Fetches: 0
Planning Time: 0.233 ms
Execution Time: 0.283 ms
(5 rows)

Notice that the total cost is now 4.29, which is significantly lower, compared to 8.29 which we got while using a unique index without the INCLUDE clause. We were able to reduce the total cost because the query only scanned the index in order to get the data. As a result, heap fetches is also zero, which means the query does not access any tables to retrieve the records.

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You might be wondering why we didn’t just use CREATE INDEX ON bankdb(email,first_name,last_name) instead of using the INCLUDE clause. One of the advantages of using the INCLUDE clause is having fewer levels in a B-tree. All INCLUDE columns are stored in the doubly linked list of the B-tree index.

Advantages of using Indexes with an INCLUDE clause:​

  1. The B-tree has fewer levels because they do not contain include columns
  2. Greatly improves performance
  3. Has the ability to return the contents of non-key columns without having to visit the index's table

Limitation of using Indexes with included columns​

  • Expressions are not supported as included columns since they cannot be used in index-only scans.

Managing indexes with included columns is easy with Atlas​

Managing indexes and database schemas in PostgreSQL can be confusing and error-prone. Atlas is an open-source project which allows us to manage our database using a simple and easy-to-understand declarative syntax (similar to Terraform). We will now learn how to manage indexes with included columns using Atlas.

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If you are just getting started, install the latest version of Atlas using the guide to setting up Atlas.

Managing Indexes with included columns in Atlas​

We will first use the atlas schema inspect command to get an HCL representation of the table which we created earlier by using the Atlas CLI:

atlas schema inspect -u "postgres://postgres:mysecretpassword@localhost:5432/bankdb?sslmode=disable" > schema.hcl
schema.hcl
table "bankdb" {
schema = schema.public
column "id" {
null = false
type = serial
}
column "savings" {
null = true
type = varchar(100)
}
column "first_name" {
null = true
type = varchar(255)
}
column "last_name" {
null = true
type = varchar(255)
}
column "email" {
null = true
type = varchar(255)
}
column "bank" {
null = true
type = varchar(34)
}
primary_key {
columns = [column.id]
}
}
schema "public" {
}

Now, lets add the following index definition to the file:

  index "emails_idx" {
unique = true
columns = [column.email]
include = [column.first_name, column.last_name]
}

Save and apply the schema changes on the database by using the apply command:

atlas schema apply -u "postgres://postgres:mysecretpassword@localhost:5432/bankdb?sslmode=disable" -f schema.hcl

Atlas generates the necessary SQL statements to add the new index to the database schema. Press Enter while the Apply option is highlighted to apply the changes:

Output
-- Planned Changes:
-- Create index "emails_idx" to table: "bankdb"
CREATE UNIQUE INDEX "emails_idx" ON "public"."bankdb" ("email") INCLUDE ("first_name", "last_name")
Use the arrow keys to navigate: ↓ ↑ β†’ ←
? Are you sure?:
β–Έ Apply
Abort

To verify that our new index was created, open the database command line tool from the previous step and run:

\d bankdb;
Output
                                    Table "public.bankdb"
Column | Type |Collation| Nullable | Default

------------+-----------------------+---------+----------+------------------------------------
id | integer | | not null | nextval('bankdb_id_seq'::regclass)
savings | character varying(100)| | | NULL::character varying
first_name | character varying(255)| | | NULL::character varying
last_name | character varying(255)| | | NULL::character varying
email | character varying(255)| | | NULL::character varying
bank | character varying(34) | | |
Indexes:
"bankdb_pkey" PRIMARY KEY, btree (id)
"emails_idx" UNIQUE, btree (email) INCLUDE (first_name, last_name)

Amazing! Our new index with included columns is now created!

Conclusion​

In this section, we learned about PostgreSQL indexes with included columns and how we can easily create them in our database by using Atlas.

Need More Help?​​

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