23.1. SQL Dump

The idea behind the SQL-dump method is to generate a text file with SQL commands that, when fed back to the server, will recreate the database in the same state as it was at the time of the dump. PostgreSQL provides the utility program pg_dump for this purpose. The basic usage of this command is:

pg_dump dbname > outfile

As you see, pg_dump writes its results to the standard output. We will see below how this can be useful.

pg_dump is a regular PostgreSQL client application (albeit a particularly clever one). This means that you can do this backup procedure from any remote host that has access to the database. But remember that pg_dump does not operate with special permissions. In particular, it must have read access to all tables that you want to back up, so in practice you almost always have to run it as a database superuser.

To specify which database server pg_dump should contact, use the command line options -h host and -p port. The default host is the local host or whatever your PGHOST environment variable specifies. Similarly, the default port is indicated by the PGPORT environment variable or, failing that, by the compiled-in default. (Conveniently, the server will normally have the same compiled-in default.)

As any other PostgreSQL client application, pg_dump will by default connect with the database user name that is equal to the current operating system user name. To override this, either specify the -U option or set the environment variable PGUSER. Remember that pg_dump connections are subject to the normal client authentication mechanisms (which are described in Chapter 20).

Dumps created by pg_dump are internally consistent, that is, updates to the database while pg_dump is running will not be in the dump. pg_dump does not block other operations on the database while it is working. (Exceptions are those operations that need to operate with an exclusive lock, such as VACUUM FULL.)

Important: When your database schema relies on OIDs (for instance as foreign keys) you must instruct pg_dump to dump the OIDs as well. To do this, use the -o command line option.

23.1.1. Restoring the dump

The text files created by pg_dump are intended to be read in by the psql program. The general command form to restore a dump is

psql dbname < infile

where infile is what you used as outfile for the pg_dump command. The database dbname will not be created by this command, you must create it yourself from template0 before executing psql (e.g., with createdb -T template0 dbname). psql supports options similar to pg_dump for controlling the database server location and the user name. See psql's reference page for more information.

Not only must the target database already exist before starting to run the restore, but so must all the users who own objects in the dumped database or were granted permissions on the objects. If they do not, then the restore will fail to recreate the objects with the original ownership and/or permissions. (Sometimes this is what you want, but usually it is not.)

Once restored, it is wise to run ANALYZE on each database so the optimizer has useful statistics. An easy way to do this is to run vacuumdb -a -z to VACUUM ANALYZE all databases; this is equivalent to running VACUUM ANALYZE manually.

The ability of pg_dump and psql to write to or read from pipes makes it possible to dump a database directly from one server to another; for example:

pg_dump -h host1 dbname | psql -h host2 dbname

Important: The dumps produced by pg_dump are relative to template0. This means that any languages, procedures, etc. added to template1 will also be dumped by pg_dump. As a result, when restoring, if you are using a customized template1, you must create the empty database from template0, as in the example above.

For advice on how to load large amounts of data into PostgreSQL efficiently, refer to Section 13.4.

23.1.2. Using pg_dumpall

The above mechanism is cumbersome and inappropriate when backing up an entire database cluster. For this reason the pg_dumpall program is provided. pg_dumpall backs up each database in a given cluster, and also preserves cluster-wide data such as users and groups. The basic usage of this command is:

pg_dumpall > outfile

The resulting dump can be restored with psql:

psql -f infile postgres

(Actually, you can specify any existing database name to start from, but if you are reloading in an empty cluster then postgres should generally be used.) It is always necessary to have database superuser access when restoring a pg_dumpall dump, as that is required to restore the user and group information.

23.1.3. Handling large databases

Since PostgreSQL allows tables larger than the maximum file size on your system, it can be problematic to dump such a table to a file, since the resulting file will likely be larger than the maximum size allowed by your system. Since pg_dump can write to the standard output, you can just use standard Unix tools to work around this possible problem.

Use compressed dumps. You can use your favorite compression program, for example gzip.

pg_dump dbname | gzip > filename.gz

Reload with

createdb dbname
gunzip -c filename.gz | psql dbname


cat filename.gz | gunzip | psql dbname

Use split. The split command allows you to split the output into pieces that are acceptable in size to the underlying file system. For example, to make chunks of 1 megabyte:

pg_dump dbname | split -b 1m - filename

Reload with

createdb dbname
cat filename* | psql dbname

Use the custom dump format. If PostgreSQL was built on a system with the zlib compression library installed, the custom dump format will compress data as it writes it to the output file. This will produce dump file sizes similar to using gzip, but it has the added advantage that tables can be restored selectively. The following command dumps a database using the custom dump format:

pg_dump -Fc dbname > filename

A custom-format dump is not a script for psql, but instead must be restored with pg_restore. See the pg_dump and pg_restore reference pages for details.