Foreign Data Wrappers in PostgreSQL and a closer look at postgres_fdw

Foreign Data Wrappers in PostgreSQL and a closer look at postgres_fdw


Foreign data wrapper FDWs with PostgreSQL postgres_fdwThere are a few features in PostgreSQL that are very compelling, and that I rarely see in other RDBMSs. Some of these features are the driving force behind the growing popularity of PostgreSQL. This blog post is about one of my favourite features: FDW (Foreign Data Wrapper). As the name indicates, this feature allows a PostgreSQL database to treat tables in a remote PostgreSQL database as locally available tables.

The history of FDW began when SQL/MED came out as part of the ANSI SQL standard specification in 2003. MED stands for “Management of External Data”. By definition, “external data” is the data that the DBMS is able to access but does not manage. There are two parts for this specification:

  1. Foreign Table : this is about how to access external data sources and present them as relational tables.
  2. Datalink : this extends the functionality of database systems to include control over external files without the need to store their contents directly in the database, such as LOBs. A column of a table could directly refer a file.

PostgreSQL’s FDW capabilities addresses foreign tables only. It was introduced in PostgreSQL 9.1 and has been receiving improvements ever since.

Today there are a variety of FDWs which allow PostgreSQL to talk to most of the data sources we can think of. However, most FDWs are independent open source projects implemented as Postgres Extensions, and not officially supported by the PostgreSQL Global Development Group.


In this blog post we will take a closer look at the postgres_fdw which can be considered as the “reference implementation” for other FDW development efforts, and showcases its capabilities. This is the one FDW which comes with PostgreSQL source as a contrib extension module. The only other FDW which is part of PostgreSQL source tree is file_fdw.

Let’s look into postgres_fdw with a use case. In many organizations, there could be multiple systems catering to different functionalities/departments. For example, while an HR database may be holding the employee information the finance and payroll systems may need to access that same data. A common—but bad—solution for this is to duplicate the data in both systems. Data duplication often leads to problems, starting with data maintenance and accuracy. A smarter option, to avoid duplication while providing access to foreign databases to only the required data, is through FDWs.

Installation postgres_fdw

The Postgres Development Group (PGDG) offers PostgreSQL packages for all major Linux distributions. postgres_fdw itself is provided as a module that is usually included in the contrib package. In the example below we install such package for PostgreSQL 10 running on Red Hat/CentOS:

Steps to setup

Let’s consider two PostgreSQL Instances, source instance and a destination instance

  • source is the remote postgres server from where the tables are accessed by the destination database server as foreign tables.
  • destination is another postgres server where the foreign tables are created which is referring tables in source database server.

We are going to use these definitions of source and destination in the rest of the post. Let’s assume that current application connects to destination database using a user app_user.

Step 1 : Create a user on the source

Create a user in the source server using the following syntax. This user account will be used by the destination server to access the source tables

Step 2 : Create test tables (optional)

Let’s create a test table in the source server and insert a few records.

Step 3 : Grant privileges to user in the source

Give appropriate privileges to the fdw_user on the source table. Always try to limit the scope of privilege to minimum to improve security.
An example syntax is as following :

Step 4 : Modify ACL in pg_hba.conf

We need to ensure that the proper authentication is setup for accessing source server from destination server.
Add an entry into  pg_hba.conf as shown below, preferably at the beginning of the file.

Step 5 : Test connectivity and privileges on source

Before proceeding further, It is a good idea to make sure that we are able to connect to the source machine from this destination machine using the newly created database user (fdw_user).

In order to validate, on the destination server, use psql to connect to the source server:

You could even validate all privileges on the tables which are to be presented as foreign tables using this connection.

Step 6 : Create postgres_fdw extension on the destination

Connect to destination server, and create the postgres_fdw extension in the destination database from where you wish to access the tables of source server. You must be a superuser to create the extension.

No postgres_fdw extension is needed on the source server.

Validate if the extension is created using \dx. Following is an example validation log.

Step 7: Grant privileges to user in the destination

Always better to limit the scope of the server definition to an application user. If a regular user needs to define a server, that user needs to have USAGE permission on the foreign data wrapper. Superuser can grant the privilege

Alternatively, superuser (postgres) can create a server definition and then grant USAGE permission on that server definition to the application user like this:

Step 8: Create a server definition

Now we can create a server definition. This foreign server is created using the connection details of the source server running on host “hr”. Let’s name the foreign server as itself as “hr”

Step 9: Create user mapping from destination user to source user

Create a mapping on the destination side for destination user (app_user) to remote source user (fdw_user)

Step 10 : Create foreign table definition on the destination

Create a foreign table in the destination server with the same structure as the source table, but with OPTIONS specifying schema_name and table_name

Step 11 : Test foreign table

Validate whether we can query the foreign table we just created in the destination server.

As we can see from the above example, data is been accessed from the source database.

Now you might be thinking: “creating foreign tables one by one like this on the destination server is painful. Is it possible to do it automatically?“. The answer is yes – there is an option to import a full schema.

On the destination server, you can use the following syntax to import a schema.

If you wish to choose a certain list of tables for import, you can use the following syntax.

In the above example, it will import the definition of only one table (employee).

Advantages of foreign tables

The main use case of the foreign tables is to make the data available to systems without actually duplicating/replicating it. There are even simple implementations of sharding using FDW, because data in the other shards can be made available for queries though FDWs.

A person coming from an Oracle-like background might think: “I can get data from a remote database table using simple DBLinks so what is the difference?“. The main difference is that FDW will maintain the meta-data/table definition about the foreign table locally. This results in better decisions compared to sending a simple SELECT * FROM <TABLE> to pull all results. We are going to see some of these advantages.

Note : In the following section always pay special attention on those lines starting with “Remote SQL:”

Query optimization

Since the definition of the foreign table is held locally, all query optimizations are made for remote executions too. Let’s consider a slightly more complex example where we have EMP (employee) and DEPT (department) tables in the HR database and SALGRADE (salary grade) table in the finance database. Suppose we want to know how many employees there are with a particular salary grade:

Let’s see how PostgreSQL handles this:

Please pay special attention for the line reading :

It knows that only the sal column need to be fetched from the remote database.
If we change the count(*) to ename (Employee Name) column, the remote SQL changes like:

PostgreSQL tries to pull only the absolutely necessary data from the remote server.

Writable foreign tables

At the beginning, foreign tables were just readable. But, with time, the community introduced writable foreign tables functionality in PostgreSQL. Let us consider the following situation where management wants to give a salary increase of 10% to grade 3 employees:

In this case, we are updating data on a remote table using a join condition with a local table. As we can see in the explain plan, an UPDATE statement is more complex because it involves 2 steps. First it needs to fetch the data from the remote table to complete the join operation. Then, it updates the rows in the foreign table.

Operator and function pushdown

PostgreSQL 9.5 release included the capability to assess and decide on the safety of pushing a function execution to remote server. Built-in functions are good candidates for this:

This statement results in the following query plan

If the planner finds that the majority of records needs to be fetched from a remote server, it may not push the function execution to the remote server. For example:

In this case, the planner decides to do the function execution on the local server:

A great improvement in PostgreSQL 9.6 is that the function does’t need to be even a built-in function. If a user defined function or operator is immutable it becomes a good candidate for being executed in the remote server.

Join push down

In many cases, it is worth pushing down the entire join operations to the remote server in such a way only the results need to be fetched to the local server. PostgreSQL handles this switching intelligently. Here’s an example:

Predicate push down

There are two options when executing a query against a foreign table:

  1. Fetch the data locally and apply the predicates like filtering condition locally.
  2. Send the filtering condition to the remote server and have it applied there.

The latter will can be the best option in many cases.

If you consider the previous example, we can see that  the predicate specification like “DEPT.deptno=10;” is pushed down to the remote server through foreign tables and applied there separately like this:

Remote SQL: SELECT count(*) FROM (public.emp r1 INNER JOIN public.dept r2 ON (((r2.deptno = 10)) AND ((r1.deptno = 10))))

PostgreSQL not only pushed the predicate, it also rewrote the query we sent to avoid one extra AND condition.

Aggregate push down

Just like predicate push down, here PostgreSQL also considers 2 options:

  1.  Execute the aggregates on the remote server and pull the result back to the local server
  2. Do the aggregate calculations on the local database instance after collecting all required data from remote database

We’ve already seen an aggregate pushdown example as part of the function pushdown, since we’ve used an aggregate function for that example. Here’s another simple example:

In this case, all of the aggregate calculation happens on the remote server.

Triggers and Check constraints on Foreign tables

We have seen that foreign tables can be writable. PostgreSQL provides features to implement check constraints and triggers on the foreign table as well. This allows us to have powerful capabilities in the local database. For example, all validations and auditing can take place on the local server. The remote DMLs can be audited separately, or a different logic can be applied for local and remote triggers and constraint validations.


FDWs in PostgreSQL, postgres_fdw in particular, provides very powerful and useful features by which, in many cases, we can avoid the complex duplicating and replicating of data. It provides a mechanism for ACID compliant transactions between two database systems. postgres_fdw works as a reference implementation for the development of other fdw implementations. In the coming days we will be covering some of these.

More articles you might enjoy:

If you found this article useful, why not take a look at some of our other posts on PostgreSQL?



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Comments (7)

  • Vao Tsun Reply

    hi. shouldn’t you first create server and THEN grant usage on it?..

    August 22, 2018 at 11:01 am
    • Jobin Augustine Reply

      Yes, if superuser is creating server definition, super user should create it and grant privilege to app user.
      Alternatively, application user can create server definition. In that case, the superuser can grant privilege to use FDW (postgres_fdw) first, then app user can create server definition in app user account.

      August 23, 2018 at 5:00 am
  • Michael Vitale Reply

    What I would like to see is an example of aggregating data in parallel across multiple remote servers. Is that even possible now?

    August 28, 2018 at 6:02 pm
    • Jobin Augustine Reply

      Parallel execution on remote servers is announced for PostgreSQL 11. currently it is in beta.

      August 30, 2018 at 5:24 am
  • ladeburger Reply


    Interesting article, especially as there are not so many fdw-related articles around. Would you mind to take a look at ? Maybe i make somthing fundamentally wrong.

    Cheers, Jan

    August 29, 2018 at 1:59 pm
    • Jobin Augustine Reply

      We are happy to look into special cases and bug reports are appreciated and welcomed.
      May be a complete, but simple steps to reproduce problem can help development.

      August 30, 2018 at 5:32 am
  • Raja Kt Reply

    Any benchmark with fdw implementation with Mariadb ( Spider+innodb) or (Spider+MyRocks)?

    October 12, 2018 at 2:58 am

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