Using WAL archiving & Compellent snapshots for PostgreSQL backups

I seem to have what may be an irrational dislike for differential backups in general. No matter what system I’m backing up, I feel far more confident in doing complete backups than differential ones. The significant exception to this is rsync, but even rsync does “full” backups of the files that have changed. Even so, I usually add the -W flag to rsync so it moves the entire file if it’s been modified. I guess I just like knowing there’s a single file that contains the entire database rather than having to restore a huge file and then replay a bunch of differential files in sequence.

This has worked for a long time, even with our PostgreSQL DB, which I’ve been backing up with good ol’ pg_dump, but it’s gotten to the point that the DB backup takes over 12 hours now, during which performance is seriously degraded. With the recent migration to the new server, overall performance seems significantly better overall, but performance during the nightly pg_dump is much worse. Rather than trying to troubleshoot it, I think it’s time I bit the bullet and move to WAL archiving to enable differential backups, and stop doing a full backup every night.

The PostgreSQL docs are pretty great at explaining how to do this. Basically:

  1. Configure WAL archiving to copy the WAL files to another server as soon as they’re complete.
  2. Issue the pg_start_backup() command.
  3. Perform a filesystem-level backup of the DB (usually /var/lib/pgsql on RedHat/CentOS distros).
  4. Issue the pg_stop_backup() command.

That’s basically it. The backup from step 2 plus the archived WAL files will allow you to recover to any point in time after issuing the pg_stop_backup() command. So if you complete your backup at 2 AM on Sunday and your DB crashes on Wednesday at 6 PM, you can restore to any point between 2 AM Sunday and whatever your most recently archived WAL file is (presumably within a few minutes of the crash at 6 PM Wednesday). If you decided you wanted to restore to 12:01 AM on Wednesday, you can do that using the recovery_target_time setting. My aversion to differential backups aside, this is pretty awesome.

As I said, the Postgres docs do a good job of covering this procedure completely. The only thing I have to add is how I did this using a SAN-level snapshot as my “filesystem backup.” I’d never done any scripting with Compellent before and it turned out to be pretty easy. From the Knowledge Center, under Software download the latest version of Command Utility (I downloaded 5.4.1). The utility itself is just a JAR, you’ll need Java installed to run it.

I considered doing a real filesystem backup of the DB (love that rsync) but the problem was that the DB is currently 1.2 TB and gobbling that much space on the NAS wasn’t very appealing. Compellent replays (snapshots) are just deltas, and I can easily store a week worth of backups for much less than (7 * 1.2 = ) 8.4 TB.

I wrote a crappy bash script to do everything, included below:

I retain the WAL files for 8 days and the snapshots for 7 days, but I may adjust this since the WAL files themselves consume a lot of space – about 30-40 GB per day. Though this is still less than the gzipped pg_dump I had been doing, which was about 85 GB per day.

I’ve cronned the script to run at 2 AM and so far it appears to work. Compellent replays are created almost instantly, so the backup script completed in about 10 seconds, which includes 6 seconds of sleep, which probably aren’t necessary. Considering that the pg_dump method took 12+ hours to complete, 10 seconds is immeasurably better. Well, I guess it is measurable, you just need to divide 12 hours by 10 seconds.

I’m pretty happy with this so far. The improved performance far outweighs any irrational philosophical objection I may have had to differential backups. Buuuut I’m still going to do pg_dumps on Saturdays.

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