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What is PostgreSQL?

PostgreSQL is a database management system (DBMS) that’s designed to compete with applications such as MySQL and MS SQL, two popular Linux-based and Windows-based Structured Query Language (SQL) solutions. Used to store, sort, edit and serve data stored in databases to websites, applications, and more, this open-source, relational DBMS enjoys growing support among developers and hosting providers alike.

The term "database management system" (DBMS) may not be at the forefront of your mind as you choose a hosting provider for your website, but a DBMS is more integral to most websites than you might think. These applications are invaluable in the storage, editing and serving of data big and small to apps and websites around the Internet.

For anything other than the most basic static HTML website, using a DBMS is essential for storing data. You may have heard of other DBMS solutions like MS SQL or MySQL. Many popular CMS (content management system) applications, including WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal, all store their data using MySQL. The data that’s stored includes not only blog posts, but individual headlines, comments, users, numerous post revisions, and more.

The majority of hosting providers offer comprehensive support for industry favorites such as MS SQL and MySQL, the premier Structured Query Language (SQL) DBMS for Windows and Linux servers, respectively. However, alternative open-source solutions like database veteran PostgreSQL are growing in both popularity and availability.

What Makes PostgreSQL Different?

Billed as "The World's Most Advanced Open-source Database," PostgreSQL is a powerful, flexible, and absolutely free DBMS. Descended from a research project begun in the '70s at the University of California, Berkeley, PostgreSQL has offered SQL support since the mid-'90s.

PostgreSQL’s open-source nature has led to many crowd-sourced refinements and performance enhancements over the life of the application, as well as extensive documentation available online. The PostgreSQL License also gives all users the ability to adapt and modify the source code to their needs, making it ideal for complex, customized uses.

PostgreSQL has many features that other DBMS solutions lack:

  • The ability to define your own custom data types, as well as built-in JSON, XML, and others
  • Multi-index queries (queries multiple columns without having to create an index to combine them)
  • Ability to interface with PostgreSQl databases using the language of your choice: C/C++, Java, .Net, Perl, Python, Ruby, and others.
  • Save space automatically by zipping data with TOAST (The Oversized-Attribute Storage Technique)
  • Many extensions available for added features

While MySQL might be a popular solution for bloggers, PostgreSQL has come to be the most popular relational DBMS by far among database programmers. It’s won numerous awards over the years, including several Linux Journal Editors' Choice Awards for Best Database, and was praised by the Database Hacker's Handbook as "probably the most security-aware database available."

PostgreSQL is used primarily for commercial websites and applications because of its power, flexibility, scalability, and ease of use. Many well-known, large companies around the world with thousands of gigabytes of data and millions in revenue depend on PostgreSQL for the database management, including Etsy, Skype, CloudFlare, and oDesk. It’s used to manage all kinds of data in a variety of industries, ranging from aeronautical design, to medical records and billing, to managing ticket sales and promotional data for big sports organizations.

Implementing PostgreSQL in Your Website

If you're planning to develop applications or need to manage a large amount of data, PostgreSQL is free and available for public download. Adding it to your web server should be relatively straightforward, providing your hosting package meets the requirements. Most modern servers, whether Linux- or Windows-based, should be able to run PostgreSQL. Many hosts also offer native support for PostgreSQL as a part of their hosting packages.

Support for languages such as Perl and Python is optional, but packages are available to integrate them with the DBMS. Remember to check with your host before adding any application or service you think might not be supported by your hosting package or server.

PostgreSQL Hosting Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is PostgreSQL?

    PostgreSQL is an open source, object-relational database.

  • What is an object-relational database?

    A traditional relational database organizes data in tables with rows and columns. Tables can be connected via the unique IDs of each row, making it relatively simple to construct complex queries that pull data from multiple tables simultaneously. Object-relational databases build on this by adding support for the paradigms found in object-oriented programming, such as classes, objects, models and inheritance.

  • Who develops PostgreSQL?

    The database system is developed by the PostgreSQL Global Development Group, a non-profit group that oversees the project and consists of both companies and individual developers.

  • How much does it cost?

    PostgreSQL is free, open source software, released under the PostgreSQL license. It is a permissive free software license. Similar to the GNU General Public License, a permissive free software license contains minimal restrictions on how the software can be used and distributed. It does not, however, require the individual or company using it to provide access to any code they have modified if they redistribute it. This allows closed source applications to use PostgreSQL.

  • What type of support does PostgreSQL offer?

    As an open source project, PostgreSQL has a vibrant community of developers and users who help provide support. There are mailing lists, IRC and extensive documentation. There are also a number of commercial companies that offer PostgreSQL services.

  • What advantages does PostgreSQL offer?

    PostgreSQL has a number of significant advantages, especially over proprietary databases. First and foremost, PostgreSQL has a well-earned reputation for reliability and stability. Many users report years of high-activity use without any crashes. Because it is open source, PostgreSQL is very extensible. You can modify it and customize it to fit the needs of your organization and, because of the permissive license, you don’t have to share those modifications. PostgreSQL is designed for high volume use. It incorporates a multiple row data storage strategy called MVCC that is also used by the leading proprietary database vendor. The use of MVCC allows concurrent access without the need for read locks. Thanks to its popularity, there are a number of high-quality graphical tools to help you interact and administer PostgreSQL databases. PostgreSQL is cross-platform, running on Mac OS X, Windows, Linux and over 30 flavors of UNIX.

  • What disadvantages does PostgreSQL have?

    In spite of its advantages, PostgreSQL does have a couple of disadvantages that should be considered. Compared to other databases, PostgreSQL is not the fastest option on the market. It has always emphasized reliability and features over speed. That’s not to say that it cannot be fast, but it may take more to achieve its maximum performance than other databases that were designed from the ground up to emphasize speed. Because PostgreSQL is not the most popular open source database, finding answers to some questions may require a little extra digging. Similarly, web hosting companies may not offer the same degree of help for PostgreSQL as other, more popular, options.

  • What alternatives are there?

    MySQL is the most direct, open source competitor. In virtually any discussion of PostgreSQL’s pros and cons, MySQL is sure to make an appearance. SQLite may also be an alternative in very specific situations. There are, of course, a number of commercial options as well, such as Oracle.

  • PostgreSQL vs MySQL: Which is better?

    As two of the most widely used open source databases in existence, there is no clear winner in this match. Rather, it is a question of which database performs better in specific circumstances.

    PostgreSQL, with its emphasis on reliability and scalability, is extremely well-suited to the enterprise market, while it also performs well for web-based applications. PostgreSQL also sets itself apart as the most advanced open source database on the market, incorporating features and abilities that MySQL does not have.

    MySQL, in contrast, was designed first and foremost as a fast performing database ideally suited to web-based applications, while also performing well for enterprise applications. As a result, while not necessarily as reliable as PostgreSQL, or having all of its features, it is the most popular open source database and enjoys the widest support among web hosting companies.

  • PostgreSQL vs SQLite: Which is better?

    Again, this is a question of which is better in specific circumstances. In many ways, PostgreSQL and SQLite are extremely different, with far less overlap than PostgreSQL and MySQL, making it much easier to appreciate their strengths.

    Whereas PostgreSQL is one of the most fully featured, enterprise level databases in existence, SQLite is a very light-weight database ideal for embedded applications. It is not a good choice for the multi-user, high volume scenarios where PostgreSQL excels.

  • How widely supported is PostgreSQL?

    Although not as popular as MySQL, PostgreSQL is still a very widely supported database. Many hosting companies support it, although some may do so on VPS or dedicated servers, rather than on basic hosting plans.

  • Is PostgreSQL right for me?

    The answer to that depends. If your primary concern is rock-solid reliability, combined with industry leading features, PostgreSQL may be right for you. This is especially the case if you will be developing enterprise-level applications where speed is not the number one priority, or where you are willing to spend the extra time to eke out PostgreSQL’s maximum performance.

    If, on the other hand, you will be primarily developing for the Web, want the most popular database possible and speed is the holy grail of features, then MySQL may be a better choice.

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