PostgreSQL Performance Tuning
You may think, “I will just give all my RAM to the PostgreSQL shared buffer cache.” However, if you do that, there will be no room for the kernel, or for any programs, to run. The proper size for the PostgreSQL shared buffer cache is the largest useful size that does not adversely affect other activity.
To understand adverse activity, you need to understand how UNIX operating systems manage memory. If there is enough memory to hold all programs and data, little memory management is required. However, if everything doesn't fit in RAM, the kernel starts forcing memory pages to a disk area called swap. It moves pages that have not been used recently. This operation is called a swap pageout. Pageouts are not a problem because they happen during periods of inactivity. What is bad is when these pages have to be brought back in from swap, meaning an old page that was moved out to swap has to be moved back into RAM. This is called a swap pagein. This is bad because while the page is moved from swap, the program is suspended until the pagein is complete.
Pagein activity is shown by system analysis tools like vmstat and sar and indicates there is not enough memory available to function efficiently. Do not confuse swap pageins with ordinary pageins, which may include pages read from the filesystem as part of normal system operation. If you can't find swap pageins, many pageouts is a good indicator you are also doing swap pageins.
You may wonder why cache size is so important. First, imagine the PostgreSQL shared buffer cache is large enough to hold an entire table. Repeated sequential scans of the table will require no disk access because all the data is already in the cache. Now imagine the cache is one block smaller than the table. A sequential scan of the table will load all table blocks into the cache until the last one. When that block is needed, the oldest block is removed, which in this case is the first block of the table. When another sequential scan happens, the first block is no longer in the cache, and to load it in, the oldest block is removed, which in this case is now the second block in the table. This pushing out of the next needed block continues to the end of the table. This is an extreme example, but you can see that a decrease of one block can change the efficiency of the cache from 100% to 0%. It shows that finding the right cache size can dramatically affect performance.
Ideally, the PostgreSQL shared buffer cache will be large enough to hold most commonly accessed tables and small enough to avoid swap pagein activity. Keep in mind that the postmaster allocates all shared memory when it starts. This area stays the same size even if no one is accessing the database. Some operating systems pageout unreferenced shared memory, while others lock shared memory into RAM. The PostgreSQL 7.2 Administrator's Guide has information about kernel configuration for various operating systems (www.postgresql.org/devel-corner/docs/admin/kernel-resources.html).
Another tuning parameter is the amount of memory used for sort batches. When sorting large tables or results, PostgreSQL will sort them in parts, placing intermediate results in temporary files. These files are then merged and resorted until all rows are sorted. Increasing the batch size creates fewer temporary files and often allows faster sorting. However, if the sort batches are too large, they cause pageins because parts of the sort batch get paged out to swap during sorting. In these cases, it is much faster to use smaller sort batches and more temporary files, so again, swap pageins determine when too much memory has been allocated. Keep in mind that this parameter is used for every backend performing a sort, either for ORDER BY, CREATE INDEX or for a merge join. Several simultaneous sorts will use several times this amount of memory.
Both cache size and sort size affect memory usage, so you cannot maximize one without affecting the other. Keep in mind that cache size is allocated on postmaster startup, while sort size varies depending on the number of sorts being performed. Generally, cache size is more significant than sort size. However, certain queries that use ORDER BY, CREATE INDEX or merge joins may see increases in speed with larger sort batch sizes.
Also, many operating systems limit how much shared memory can be allocated. Increasing this limit requires operating system-specific knowledge to either recompile or reconfigure the kernel. More information can be found in the PostgreSQL 7.1 Administrator's Guide (www.postgresql.org/docs/admin/kernel-resources.html).