Tuesday 11 October 2011

To upgrade or not to upgrade? That is the question.

On a fairly regular basis the Postgres community hear from users who are complaining of bugs in old versions of Postgres - they'll post a bug report or a request for help on one of the mailing lists saying something along the lines of having run into an issue with PostgreSQL 8.4.2 for example, and immediately be met with suggestions to upgrade to the latest version because there have been 37 bug fixes and 5 security issues resolved since 8.4.2 was released.

Generally this happens with one of two types of users. There are those that just don't bother to upgrade (who we can do little about), and those that don't upgrade because they are concerned that changes to PostgreSQL will break their application. This latter class of user is sometimes also restricted by what they can do by corporate policies in their workplace.

The Postgres developers are mindful of this issue and have practices in place to allow users to safely upgrade without significant risk of behavioural changes breaking their applications. The practice is really quite simple; minor upgrades of PostgreSQL never include new features.

What does this mean in practice? Well, PostgreSQL version numbers are in 3 parts, X.Y.Z (some packages such as the EnterpriseDB installers also add a build suffix):

X.Y: This is the major version number of the server, for example, 8.4, 9.0 or 9.1. New major versions may include new functionality, require upgrades to the database files on disk and generally require thorough testing of applications prior to deployment.

Z: This is the minor version number. This number is increased for bug fixes releases, also known as "point releases". These releases never include new features; only carefully applied bug fixes. Point releases are fully compatible with previous point releases of the same major version and should require minimal testing prior to deployment on existing installations.

Returning to our opening example, the user in this case is not being told to upgrade to 9.1.1 - the latest and greatest release at the time of writing, complete with a myriad of new features and changes from 8.4.2 - but to 8.4.9, the latest point release in the 8.4 series, which is functionally identical to 8.4.2. This numbering scheme and the processes behind it are specifically designed to allow users to safely and easily upgrade their database servers to minimise the number of known bugs in the software; in fact the PostgreSQL developers consider not upgrading to the latest point release to be riskier than upgrading.

So next time you're "certifying" your application with PostgreSQL, aim to certify it with a specific major version of the server, and avoid getting into a situation where you prevent yourself from updating to the latest point release as doing so can cause more problems than it can solve, and if you're a sysadmin or DBA rest assured that point releases won't introduce functionality changes and should be welcomed and installed as soon as possible!

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