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Database Design: Using Documents

Emre Hasegeli

By Emre Hasegeli
March 9, 2022

Angle view of square paving stones in two colors, in a pattern

Using documents in relational databases is increasingly popular. This technique can be practical and efficient when used in fitting circumstances.


Let’s start with an example. Imagine we are scraping web sites for external URLs and store them in a table. We’ll have the web sites table to store the scrape timestamp and another table to store all of the references.

CREATE TABLE web_sites (
    web_site_domain text NOT NULL,
    last_scraped_at timestamptz,

    PRIMARY KEY (web_site_domain)

    web_site_domain text NOT NULL,
    ref_location text NOT NULL,
    link_url text NOT NULL,

    PRIMARY KEY (web_site_domain, ref_location, link_url),
    FOREIGN KEY (web_site_domain) REFERENCES web_sites

We do not need to bother adding an id to the web_sites table, because we assume there won’t be too many of them. The domain is small and more practical to use as an identifier. If you are curious about advantages of using natural keys, see my previous article.

Normalized Tables

There may be many thousands of unique URLs for a single web site and other web sites may refer to the same URLs. To try to minimize the storage, we can keep the locations and the URLs in separate tables, give them integer identifiers, and have another table for the many-to-many relations.

CREATE TABLE locations (
    web_site_domain text NOT NULL,
    ref_location text NOT NULL,

    PRIMARY KEY (location_id),
    UNIQUE (web_site_domain, ref_location),
    FOREIGN KEY (web_site_domain) REFERENCES web_sites

    link_url text NOT NULL,

    PRIMARY KEY (link_id),
    UNIQUE (link_url)

CREATE TABLE locations_links (
    location_id bigint NOT NULL,
    link_id bigint NOT NULL,

    PRIMARY KEY (location_id, link_id),
    FOREIGN KEY (location_id) REFERENCES locations,
    FOREIGN KEY (link_id) REFERENCES links

The idea in here is to keep our biggest table narrow. It’d pay off to refer to the locations and links just with integer identifiers when we’ll have very many of them.

Table Sizes

We’ll have many web sites and many URLs, so our lookup tables would be big and the relation table would be even bigger. That is going to be a major problem because of many reasons, one of them being space efficiency. Narrow tables with many rows are not very space efficient especially on Postgres where there’s 24 bytes per-row overhead. To demonstrate it being significant, let’s add one row to each of the tables to see the sizes compared with the overhead.

INSERT INTO web_sites (web_site_domain)
VALUES ('example.com');

INSERT INTO refs (web_site_domain, ref_location, link_url)
VALUES ('example.com', '/source', 'http://example.net/target.html');

INSERT INTO locations (web_site_domain, ref_location)
VALUES ('example.com', '/source');

INSERT INTO links (link_url)
VALUES ('http://example.net/example.html');

INSERT INTO locations_links
VALUES (1, 1);

SELECT table_name, tuple_len, (100.0 * 24 / tuple_len)::int AS overhead_perc
FROM information_schema.tables, LATERAL pgstattuple(table_name)
WHERE table_schema = 'public';

   table_name    | tuple_len | overhead_perc
 web_sites       |        36 |            67
 refs            |        75 |            32
 locations       |        52 |            46
 links           |        64 |            38
 locations_links |        40 |            60

With just one row and such short domains and URLs, we wouldn’t be gaining anything by having the links on a lookup table. In fact, it’s a lot less efficient. Although, the situation may change with many rows.

Composite Types

We can combine multiple fields in a column to avoid the overhead of many rows in narrow tables. Postgres has good support for composite types and arrays over them. They are useful if you need strict data type checking.

CREATE TYPE web_site_page AS (
    ref_location text,
    link_urls text[]

ALTER TABLE web_sites ADD COLUMN pages web_site_page[];

UPDATE web_sites
SET pages = ARRAY[ROW(ref_location, ARRAY[link_url])::web_site_page]
FROM refs;

SELECT pg_column_size(pages) FROM web_sites;


As you see, the new column is not exactly small because composite types and arrays come with their own overheads. Still it could be much better when a web site has many references.

JSON Document Column

The composite types are not very easy to work with. We can store the pages in another format. JSON is the most popular one nowadays. There are multiple options to store JSON in a column in Postgres. Let’s start with the text-based data type.

ALTER TABLE web_sites ADD COLUMN pages_json json;

UPDATE web_sites SET pages_json = to_json(pages);

SELECT pg_column_size(pages_json) FROM web_sites;


What is perhaps also surprising is the JSON being smaller than the array over composite type. This is because Postgres data types are a bit wasteful because of alignment and storing oids of the enclosed data types repeatedly.

Binary JSON

Another JSON data type, jsonb is available in Postgres. It is a binary structure that allows faster access to the values inside the document.

ALTER TABLE web_sites ADD COLUMN pages_jsonb jsonb;

UPDATE web_sites SET pages_jsonb = to_jsonb(pages);

SELECT pg_column_size(pages_jsonb) FROM web_sites;


As you see the text-based JSON is still smaller. This is due to the binary offsets stored in the binary structure for faster access to the fields. The text-based JSON also compresses better.

Size Comparison

Very simple single row data shows the text-based json as the smallest, binary jsonb a bit larger, and the composite type to be the largest. However, the differences would be a lot smaller with more realistic sample data with many items inside the documents. I generated some data and gathered these results (the sizes excluding the indexes).

    model         |   size
single table      |  436 MiB
normalized tables |  387 MiB
composite type    |  324 MiB
json              |  318 MiB
jsonb             |  320 MiB

You may expect the normalized tables to be the smallest as otherwise the metadata is stored repeatedly in the columns. Though, the results reveal it’s the other way around. This is because of the per-row overhead in Postgres. It becomes noticeable in narrow tables as in this example.

It’s also useful to notice that the most of the size is occupied by the TOAST tables when the data is stored in a single column. TOAST is a mechanism in Postgres that kicks in when a column is large enough which would often be the case when you design your tables this way. In this case, the table excluding the TOASTed part is pretty small which would help any query that doesn’t touch the large column.


What matters more than size is the usability of having it all in a single column. It is really practical to send and receive this column as a whole all the way from the database to the frontend. Compare this with dealing with lots of small objects used with the normalized tables.

It’s also possible in Postgres to index the document columns to allow efficient searches in them. There are many options to do so with advantages and disadvantages over each other. Though this post is getting long. I’ll leave indexing to another one.

database development performance postgres sql