Decoding Disk Access Patterns: The Impact of Random vs. Sequential I/O on PostgreSQL Performance

Troubleshooting PostgreSQL Performance


I/O operations play a significant role in determining the performance of any database system, including PostgreSQL. In terms of disk I/O, operations can be categorized as random or sequential. Understanding the distinction between these types of I/O and their impact on PostgreSQL’s performance is crucial for database optimization.

Random I/O vs. Sequential I/O

1. Random I/O: This refers to operations where data is read or written in a non-contiguous manner. It involves seeking different parts of the disk to fetch or store data. Examples include retrieving rows from various parts of a table without any specific order or updating scattered rows across a table.

Example: Imagine a book (representing a disk) with a table of contents. If you had to read topics from various pages in no particular order, each time you’d have to refer to the table of contents, locate the page, and then read it. This is akin to random I/O.

2. Sequential I/O: This involves reading or writing data in a contiguous, ordered manner. It is more efficient than random I/O because it reduces the overhead of seeking different parts of the disk. Examples include reading a table in the order it’s stored on disk or writing logs to a file.

Example: Continuing with the book analogy, sequential I/O is like reading the book from start to finish without skipping any pages. It’s more efficient because you’re following the natural order of the pages.

Influence on PostgreSQL Performance

1. Random I/O:

  • Performance Impact: Typically, random I/O is slower than sequential I/O, especially on spinning disks (HDDs) due to the physical movement of the disk head.
  • PostgreSQL Scenarios:
    • Querying large tables without an index results in a full table scan, which can cause random I/O if the table’s rows aren’t physically stored sequentially.
    • Frequent updates on a table can cause rows to be scattered, leading to random I/O during retrieval.
  • Mitigation:
    • Proper indexing can convert what would be random I/O operations into more sequential ones, as the index provides a logical order.
    • Table clustering based on an index (CLUSTER command) can reorder the table’s rows based on the index’s order, promoting more sequential access patterns.

2. Sequential I/O:

  • Performance Impact: Sequential I/O is generally faster, especially beneficial for operations like bulk data import/export, backups, and certain types of scans.
  • PostgreSQL Scenarios:
    • Using the COPY command to bulk import data.
    • WAL (Write Ahead Log) writes are mostly sequential, appending data to the log.
    • Sequential scans (Seq Scan in EXPLAIN output) read tables in their physical order on disk.
  • Enhancements:
    • On SSDs, the performance difference between random and sequential I/O is less pronounced, but sequential I/O still generally offers higher throughput.
    • For workloads with heavy sequential writes, tuning parameters like wal_buffers can help improve performance.


Understanding the distinction between random and sequential I/O and their implications is crucial when optimizing PostgreSQL’s performance. While modern SSDs have narrowed the performance gap between the two types of operations, the fundamental principles still apply. By designing schemas, queries, and storage strategies with these principles in mind, one can ensure that PostgreSQL runs efficiently and meets the demands of various workloads.

About Shiv Iyer 452 Articles
Open Source Database Systems Engineer with a deep understanding of Optimizer Internals, Performance Engineering, Scalability and Data SRE. Shiv currently is the Founder, Investor, Board Member and CEO of multiple Database Systems Infrastructure Operations companies in the Transaction Processing Computing and ColumnStores ecosystem. He is also a frequent speaker in open source software conferences globally.