PSQL Backup Database: Safeguard Your Data

Published: June 25, 2024 - 10 min read

Julian Alvarado

Maintaining a reliable and up-to-date backup of your PostgreSQL database is crucial for safeguarding your data and ensuring business continuity.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the fundamentals of PostgreSQL database backups, the different backup strategies available, and step-by-step instructions for using the powerful pg_dump tool to create full database backups.

PostgreSQL Database Backup Basics

Regularly backing up your PostgreSQL database is essential for protecting your data from accidental deletion, hardware failures, or other unforeseen events. Without a reliable backup, you risk losing critical information that could have severe consequences for your business or organization.

  • Data Loss: Accidental deletion, corruption, or other data loss events can be mitigated by restoring from a backup.
  • Hardware Failures: If your database server experiences a hardware failure, you can quickly restore your data to a new server.
  • Ransomware or Malware Attacks: Backups can help you recover from the impact of a successful ransomware or malware attack.
  • User Errors: Mistakes made by users, such as accidentally modifying or overwriting critical data, can be undone by restoring from a backup.

By implementing a robust backup strategy, you can ensure that your PostgreSQL database is protected and that you can quickly recover from any data-related incidents.

Types of PostgreSQL Backups

Full Backups

A full backup captures the entire database at a specific point in time. It includes all tables, indexes, stored procedures, and other database objects. While full backups provide complete data protection, they can be time-consuming and resource-intensive, especially for large databases.

Incremental Backups

Incremental backups only capture the changes made since the last backup (whether full or incremental). This approach significantly reduces backup time and storage requirements but may increase complexity during restoration.

Differential Backups

Differential backups capture all changes made since the last full backup. They strike a balance between full and incremental backups, offering faster backups than full backups and simpler restoration processes than incremental backups.

PostgreSQL Backup Methods

Logical Backups (using pg_dump)

Logical backups create a script file containing SQL commands to recreate the database. These backups are versatile, as they can be restored to different PostgreSQL versions or even different database systems. However, they can be slower for large databases.

pg_dump dbname > backup.sql

Physical Backups (using pg_basebackup)

Physical backups create an exact copy of the database files. They are typically faster than logical backups, especially for large databases, but are less flexible as they are version-specific.

pg_basebackup -D /backup/directory -Ft -z -P

PostgreSQL Backup Formats

Plain Text SQL

This format creates a human-readable SQL script. It’s versatile but can be slower to restore for large databases.

pg_dump dbname > backup.sql

Custom Format

A compressed binary format that allows for parallel restoration and selective restores of individual tables.

pg_dump -Fc dbname > backup.custom

Directory Format

Similar to the custom format but splits the backup into multiple files in a directory. This format supports parallel backups and restores.

pg_dump -Fd dbname -f /backup/directory

TAR Format

Creates a tar archive of the backup files, which can be useful for easy transfer and storage.

pg_dump -Ft dbname > backup.tar

Using psql for Database Backups

While psql itself is not a backup tool, it’s often used in conjunction with other PostgreSQL utilities to create and manage backups. Here’s how you can leverage psql in your backup strategy:

Creating Full Backups with psql

This method uses psql to initiate and finalize a consistent backup, while using tar to create the actual backup file. The pg_start_backup function ensures that the database is in a consistent state for backup, while pg_stop_backup completes the process and allows the database to resume normal operations.

psql -c “SELECT pg_start_backup(‘label’, true)”

tar -cvf backup.tar /path/to/data/directory

psql -c “SELECT pg_stop_backup()”

Restoring from a Full Backup

When restoring, it’s crucial to ensure that the PostgreSQL server is stopped before replacing the data directory. After restoration, update the postgresql.conf and pg_hba.conf files if necessary.

psql -c “SELECT pg_start_backup(‘restore’, true)”

tar -xvf backup.tar -C /path/to/data/directory

psql -c “SELECT pg_stop_backup()”

Using psql with pg_dump

This command dumps the contents of one database and pipes it directly into psql to restore it into a new database. This method is particularly useful for creating a copy of a database on the same server or transferring a database between servers.

pg_dump dbname | psql -d newdb

Backing Up Specific Tables

You can use psql to backup specific tables by combining it with pg_dump:

pg_dump -t table_name dbname | psql -d newdb

This command will only backup and restore the specified table.

Handling Large Objects

If your database contains large objects (BLOBs), you’ll need to use the -b option with pg_dump:

pg_dump -b dbname > backup.sql

Advanced psql Backup Database Strategies

Incremental Backups with WAL Archiving

Write-Ahead Logging (WAL) is a fundamental feature of PostgreSQL that ensures data integrity. By archiving WAL files, you can implement point-in-time recovery and create incremental backups.

Enable WAL archiving in your postgresql.conf:

wal_level = replica

archive_mode = on

archive_command = ‘cp %p /path/to/archive/%f’

Use psql to create a base backup:

psql -c “SELECT pg_start_backup(‘label’, true)”

tar -cvf base_backup.tar /path/to/data/directory

psql -c “SELECT pg_stop_backup()”

To perform an incremental backup, simply archive the WAL files generated since the last backup.

Point-in-Time Recovery (PITR)

PITR allows you to restore your database to any point in time, as long as you have the necessary WAL files. This is incredibly useful for recovering from data corruption or unwanted changes.

After setting up WAL archiving, you can perform PITR:

  1. Restore the base backup
  2. Create a recovery.conf file (or use recovery settings in for PostgreSQL 12+):

restore_command = ‘cp /path/to/archive/%f %p’

recovery_target_time = ‘2023-04-15 10:00:00’

  1. Start the PostgreSQL server

The server will replay the WAL files up to the specified time, effectively restoring the database to that exact point.

Parallel Backups for Large Databases

For large databases, parallel backups can significantly reduce backup time. Use the -j option with pg_dump to enable parallel dumping:

pg_dump -j 4 -Fd -f /path/to/backup/directory dbname

This command uses 4 parallel jobs to create a directory-format backup. Adjust the number of jobs based on your server’s resources.

Continuous Archiving and Streaming Replication

For mission-critical databases that require minimal downtime, consider implementing continuous archiving and streaming replication:

  1. Set up WAL archiving as described earlier.
  2. Configure a standby server to continuously receive and apply WAL files from the primary server.

primary_conninfo = ‘host=primary_server port=5432 user=replication password=secret’

restore_command = ‘cp /path/to/archive/%f %p’

This setup allows for near-real-time replication and quick failover in case of primary server failure.

Automating psql Backup Database Processes

Automation is key to ensuring consistent and reliable backups. Here’s an expanded shell script to automate your backups:



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DATE=$(date +”%Y%m%d_%H%M%S”)

# Full backup

pg_dump -Fc $DB_NAME > $BACKUP_DIR/full_backup_$DATE.dump

# WAL archiving

psql -c “SELECT pg_switch_wal();”

# Incremental backup (WAL files)

find $ARCHIVE_DIR -type f -mmin -1440 -exec cp {} $BACKUP_DIR/incremental_$DATE/ \;

# Vacuum and analyze to optimize database performance


# Backup global objects (roles, tablespaces)

pg_dumpall –globals-only > $BACKUP_DIR/globals_$DATE.sql

# Cleanup old backups (keep last 7 days)

find $BACKUP_DIR -name “full_backup_*” -mtime +7 -delete

find $BACKUP_DIR -name “incremental_*” -mtime +7 -delete

find $BACKUP_DIR -name “globals_*” -mtime +7 -delete

# Log backup completion

echo “Backup completed successfully on $DATE” >> $BACKUP_DIR/backup_log.txt

Schedule this script using cron for regular backups. For example, to run daily at 2 AM:

0 2 * * * /path/to/

Best Practices for psql Database Backups

Regular Testing

Frequently test your backups by restoring them to a separate server. This ensures that your backups are valid and that you’re familiar with the restoration process.


Use GPG or other encryption methods to secure your backup files, especially if they’re stored off-site:

pg_dump dbname | gpg -c > backup.sql.gpg

Off-site Storage

Store backups in multiple locations, including off-site or cloud storage. Consider using tools like rsync or cloud storage APIs to automate this process.


Implement monitoring and alerting for your backup processes. Tools like Nagios or Prometheus can be configured to alert you if backups fail or take longer than expected.


Maintain detailed documentation of your backup and recovery procedures. Include step-by-step instructions for various scenarios, such as full recovery, point-in-time recovery, and partial table recovery.

Version Control

Keep your backup scripts and configuration files under version control (e.g., Git). This allows you to track changes and rollback if needed.

Retention Policy

Implement a clear retention policy for your backups. Consider keeping:

  • Daily backups for the last month
  • Weekly backups for the last three months
  • Monthly backups for the last year

Performance Considerations

Schedule backups during off-peak hours to minimize impact on database performance. Use resource governors if available to limit the backup process’s resource usage.

Backup Metadata

Along with your data, backup important metadata such as database configurations, roles, and permissions. The pg_dumpall utility can be useful for this.

Continuous Improvement

Regularly review and update your backup strategy. As your data grows and changes, your backup needs may evolve.


Recovering from Accidental Data Deletion

Problem: A critical table was accidentally dropped. Solution:

  1. Stop write operations to the database.
  2. Identify the time of the accidental deletion.
  3. Perform a point-in-time recovery to just before the deletion occurred.
  4. Verify the recovered data and resume normal operations.

Handling Corrupt Indexes

Problem: Database performance has degraded due to corrupt indexes. Solution:

Use psql to identify corrupt indexes:

SELECT * FROM pg_class c, pg_index i 

WHERE c.oid = i.indexrelid 

AND i.indisvalid = false;

Drop and recreate the corrupt indexes:
DROP INDEX corrupt_index;

CREATE INDEX corrupt_index ON table_name (column_name);

Consider running a full REINDEX if multiple indexes are affected:

REINDEX DATABASE your_database;

Migrating to a New Server

Problem: Need to move the database to a new, more powerful server with minimal downtime. Solution:

  1. Set up streaming replication from the old server to the new server.
  2. Once replication is caught up, perform a controlled switchover:
    • Stop write operations on the old server.
    • Promote the new server to primary.
    • Update connection strings in applications.
    • Resume operations on the new server.

What’s Your PostSQL Backup Strategy?

By automating your backup process, leveraging advanced backup techniques, and following best practices for securing and managing your backups, you can create a reliable and efficient backup workflow that will give you peace of mind and help you quickly recover from any data loss or system failure.

To streamline your PostgreSQL backup and recovery process, explore Coefficient’s suite of database management tools, which include features for automated backups, disaster recovery, and more. Get started today at

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