On Fences and Functions

I grew up on a farm.

We had fences on the farm.

Whilst the jobs associated with fences and fencing are less than fun, the fences themselves are extremely important. They keep the livestock in the correct location. When you have a damaged or incomplete fence, even if it is only damaged in a small way, it can cost significant amounts of money, even human lives. This can vary between keeping Rams from a flock of Ewes that you don’t want them to mate with (because you need to know which Ram mated with which Ewes in order to track progeny), to livestock escaping onto a public road and causing accidents.

Fences are a good thing.

My first career was as a Design and Technology Teacher.

We use fences in woodwork. They are attachments to fixed power tools, such as drill presses and circular saws. They allow us to work safely and to get accurate, easily repeatable results. For instance. we can use a fence to cut sheets of MDF to exactly the same width, ensuring the bookcase we are making is square. Without a fence, it can still be done, but it will certainly be much harder.

Fences are a good thing.

I’d heard people describe Postgres’s CTEs (Common Table Expressions) as an “optimisation fence”. Given my previous uses of the word “fence”, I assumed that this was widely regarded as a good thing.

However, after spending some time writing really complex queries (that are most easily described using a CTE), I happened to read PostgreSQL’s CTEs are optimisation fences. It had (throughout my work within Postgres) become plain to me that each term in a CTE is materialised (if it is referenced at all), before any filtering that might occur later would allow it to be filtered earlier. Postgres is pretty good about pushing these changes down into a sub-query, but it can mean that a CTE performs worse, as it might have to do more work. However, this article points this out in some detail, and it occurred to me that perhaps some people see fences (in general) as an obstacle. Perhaps fencing something in has negative connotations?

I’m not sure that that’s exactly what the author meant (I wonder if it was sarcasm, perhaps), but it did get me thinking about how different backgrounds could result in opposite interpretations of the same terms.

I do want to veer back a bit into a technical manner, and discuss how I have been overcoming the fact that it’s not possible to push the filtering back up the stack in a CTE.

Largely, the issue exists in my code because I have lots of complex queries (as I just mentioned) that are far easier to write, reason about and debug when written using a CTE. I would like to write them as a VIEW, and then stick Django models in front of them, and I’d be able to query them using the ORM, and just have the view as the db_table of the model. It would be really nice.

But this doesn’t work, because some of the queries require aggregating data across models of which there are millions of rows, and some of the database tables are less than optimal. For instance, I have several tables that store an effective_from field, and in the case of superseding, the same set of other fields (person, for instance) means we can know which one applies on a given date. However, to query this, we end up writing a more complex query (instead of being able to do a date <@ daterange query, if the valid period was stored in the table). I’ve learned from this in newer models, but some stuff is too deeply ingrained to be able to be changed just yet.

So, I have a VIEW that turns this into a data that actually contains dateranges, and I can query against that. But, if I use this in a CTE, then it can materialise the whole lot, which can be slow. So, I needed to come up with a way to filter the data earlier.


I’ve been writing SQL functions that take parameters, and then filter as early as possible. This then means that it’s a real possibility that we can get <100ms queries for stuff that is really, really complicated (and joins a couple of dozen or more tables in really funky ways). It does mean I can’t query using the Django ORM, but that’s okay: the data I’m getting back doesn’t necessarily map onto a model anyway, and we need to use it as a dict.

More recently, I’ve extended this so that the function (with the relevant parameters, extracted out of the queryset WHERE clauses) can be used as the db_table for a Model. It’s still somewhat hacky, but is very interesting, nonetheless.