How to Clone or Duplicate a PostgreSQL Database

Sometimes you may find yourself needing to duplicate a postgres database – complete with schema, data; exactly. Sometimes I need to do this because I want to try out some ideas on an existing database but without the hassle of having to backup and restore or write rollbacks for the changes I want to make.

Luckily, it’s super easy to do this.  First ensure that there are not active connections to the source database; and then open the SQL Terminal of your choice and execute:


This will create a new database, by using the source database as a template.

If you get the message: “ERROR: Database being accessed by other users.” don’t worry; it just means that there are still open database connections, and these will need to be closed before it will work.

Estabilishing ActiveRecord Database Connections in Ruby (But Without Rails)

Anyone who has even the smallest amount of experience developing with Ruby on Rails knows that Rails has some pretty sweet configuration conventions which make switching between environments very easy. Switching from development to production to testing is as easy as changing the RAILS_ENV variable. No doubt Rails does some dark magic behind the scenes to trivialise this. But what if you’re writing an app in Ruby, without the Rails to guide you?

ActiveRecord 101

Establishing a database connection in ActiveRecord without Rails is pretty basic:

require 'active_record'

  adapter:  'sqlite3',
  database: 'db/test.sqlite3'

It establishes a connection to the specified database with the specified connection  configuration. If you were using MySQL or PostgreSQL you would provide the relevant configuration such as username, password and host. With the connection established, we can now start consuming the connection however we like. For example, we may want to use funky Rails’ style models (so we can easily create and populate tables and reference them):

ActiveRecord::Schema.define do
  create_table :things do |t|
    t.integer :id, :null => false
    t.string  :name

class Thing < ActiveRecord::Base

  id:   0,
  name: 'Broomstick'

Care about the Environment

The other magic in Rails is the environment selection. The main benefit with this is that we can have isolated connection configurations and have our Ruby app automatically select the correct settings for us (using our environment variable ENV).

require 'active_record'

conf = case ENV['DB']
when 'conf1'
  adapter: 'sqlite3',
  database: 'db/mydb1.sqlite3'
when 'conf2'
  adapter: 'sqlite3',
  database: 'db/mydb2.sqlite3'
  raise 'export DB=conf[n]'

ActiveRecord::Base.establish_connection conf

Mind you, before this will work you first need to set the environment variable:

export DB=conf1 # or conf2

Now, depending on ENV[‘DB’], the code will open a connection to the corresponding database.

Best Practises

It’s never a good idea to store sensitive information (like database connection information and usernames and password of any kind) in your code base. Rails uses an external database configuration file called database.yml to solve this problem, so lets implement one ourselves.


  adapter: sqlite3
  database: db/mydb1.sqlite3

  adapter: sqlite3
  database: db/mydb2.sqlite3

Loading this YAML file is very simple:

require 'active_record'
conf = YAML.load_file('database.yml')
ActiveRecord::Base.establish_connection conf[ENV['DB']]

Now we can set our environment variable same as before, but our code will look in a YAML file for the proper database configuration automatically, without having to store database connection information directly inside our code.

Association Cardinality in Rails

From time to time I’ve noticed people who struggle with cardinality and associations in Ruby on Rails. So, I thought I would attempt to create a cheat sheet here to help developers understand relationship cardinality and how it maps to associations.

ActiveRecord can be used to describe relations with one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many cardinality; where each model defines its relation to another. Let’s cover each of the three types of associations.


Use `has_one` in the base and `belongs_to` in the association:

class Family < ActiveRecord::Base
  has_one :home
class Home < ActiveRecord::Base
  belongs_to :family

A common question about a one-to-one association is ‘how to know which direction the has_one and belongs_to go?’  The correct way to know, is that whichever model has the foreign key, gets the `belongs_to`.  In this case, Home has the foreign key `family_id`.

One-to-one relationships are a bit odd, and as a general rule, if you find yourself using a lot of them, there is probably a better solution.


Use `has_many` in the base and `belongs_to` in the association:

class Family < ActiveRecord::Base
  has_many :parents
class Parent < ActiveRecord::Base
  belongs_to :family

This will be your most common relationship. As with one-to-one’s, the table with the foreign key gets the `belongs_to` (although this is a lot more obvious with a one-to-many). In this case the foreign key is `family_id`.


These can be a lot more complicated and there is actually a couple of different ways to do it.

The first way involves a specific joining model. This results in 2 stages of has_many associations. It is referred to as `has_many :through` and is primarily used if you need to fully control the joining model/table:

class Family < ActiveRecord::Base
  belongs_to :parent
  belongs_to :kid
class Parent < ActiveRecord::Base
  has_many :kids, through: :families
class Kid < ActiveRecord::Base
  has_many :parents, through: :families

The second (and my preferred way) is to use the `has_and_belongs_to_many` method:

class Parent < ActiveRecord::Base
  has_and_belongs_to_many :kids 
class Kid < ActiveRecord::Base
  has_and_belongs_to_many :parents

The main difference (or disadvantage) with the `has_and_belongs_to_many`method is that the intermediary joining table and foreign keys need to be exactly named to match what Rails expects. Which many-to-many method you use ultimately depends on whether you need to work with the relationship model as its own entity directly.

MySQL utf8mb4 Encoding Breaks ActiveRecord’s Schema Setup

I recently wrote about the virtues of true UTF8 (utf8mb4) character sets in MySQL and how to change your database to use it. Today we will discuss a possible problem you may encounter when you do when programming on Ruby on Rails. The error looks something like this:

$ rake db:setup

Mysql::Error: Specified key was too long; max key length is 767 bytes:
CREATE UNIQUE INDEX unique_schema_migrations ON schema_migrations (version)

The problem exists because the utf8mb4 character set uses the full 4 bytes per character rather than the 1-3 of UTF8 (the character set most people mistakenly use thinking they’ll have full Unicode compliance). Because of this extra size, the schema_migration may no longer fit.

This small patch will set default mysql string column length to 191 instead of 255 which is the new index limit on utf8mb4 (aka real utf8).

# config/initializers/mysqlpls.rb
require 'active_record/connection_adapters/abstract_mysql_adapter'

module ActiveRecord
  module ConnectionAdapters
    class AbstractMysqlAdapter
      NATIVE_DATABASE_TYPES[:string] = { :name => "varchar", :limit => 191 }


MySQL’s UTF8 isn’t *really* UTF8 (and how to properly support Unicode)

I was forced to pull out my hair recently, after several SQL queries with UTF8 uni-coded text being fired from my project of the day, were failing to insert into my UTF8 MySQL database. Working on a project with a lot of middle eastern and asian content was simply crashing out my SQL insert queries and I was loosing a tremendous quantity of data.

Turns out MySQL’s UTF8 character set only partially implements proper UTF-8 encoding. It can only store UTF-8-encoded symbols that consist of one to three bytes; encoded symbols that take up four bytes aren’t supported. Luckily, MySQL 5.5.3 introduced a new encoding called utf8mb4 which maps to proper UTF-8 and thus fully supports Unicode, including astral symbols.

Switching from MySQL’s utf8 to utf8mb4

First, we need to change the character set and collation properties of the database, tables, and columns, to use utf8mb4, instead of utf8.

# For each database:
ALTER DATABASE database_name CHARACTER SET = utf8mb4 COLLATE utf8mb4_unicode_ci;
# For each table:
ALTER TABLE table_name CONVERT TO CHARACTER SET utf8mb4 COLLATE utf8mb4_unicode_ci;
# For each column:
ALTER TABLE table_name CHANGE column_name column_name VARCHAR(191) CHARACTER SET utf8mb4 COLLATE utf8mb4_unicode_ci;

Note: Don’t simply copy-paste this! You will need to tailor the queries to meet your specific requirements, the above lines are for illustrative purposes only.

Repair and optimize all tables:

Do this with some simple SQL Queries:

# For each table
REPAIR TABLE table_name;
OPTIMIZE TABLE table_name;

Or using the MySQL command-line:

$ mysqlcheck -u root -p --auto-repair --optimize --all-databases

Note: Don’t forget to change the character encoding for your PHP/Ruby code to use the correct character encoding – i.e. utf8mb4 instead of utf8.

Test the changes:

You can test that the changes have taken effect by running this command to see if the collation/charsets have been switched to utf8mb4:

SHOW VARIABLES WHERE Variable_name LIKE ’character\_set\_%’ OR Variable_name LIKE ’collation%’;

Alternatively, change the default character set in MySQL.

In the /etc/my.cnf config file, we set the following instructions:

default-character-set = utf8mb4

default-character-set = utf8mb4

collation-server = utf8mb4_unicode_ci
init-connect='SET NAMES utf8mb4'
character-set-server = utf8mb4

That’s it. Obviously you will need to restart my SQL first though, and it will only apply to databases made after the default change, but I highly recommend this change. Even if you think you don’t need the full range of UTF8 characters, it only takes one to mess things up!


Never use utf8 in MySQL — always use utf8mb4 instead. Arbitrarily limiting the set of symbols you can use is just silly and is bound to cause a problem if your user is a young Japanese girl putting lots of cats in your strings. Why would you risk loosing lose data every time an Arabian user writes a message in their native locale. There’s no logical reason for it, and a few minutes of pain now, might save you a lot of heartache later. Do the right thing, and use utf8mb4 instead.

How to Speed Up Importing or Recovering a Large MySQL Database

I recently had to import a 30GB MySQL database from a backup of a client’s production database. My development workstation really struggled with the hundred’s of thousands of INSERT queries, and the import either took an unacceptably long time or failed outright.

Fortunately, there is a sure-fire way to increase the import though (in my case a 100 fold increase in speed).

Simply open Terminal and type:

> mysql -uXXX -pXXX

…and replace the X’s with an appropriate username and password and then paste this at the MySQL prompt:

CREATE DATABASE my_database;
USE my_database;
set global net_buffer_length=1000000;
set global max_allowed_packet=1000000000;
SET autocommit=0;
SET unique_checks=0;
SET foreign_key_checks=0;
SOURCE /some/path/database_file.sql;
SET autocommit=1;
SET unique_checks=1;
SET foreign_key_checks=1;

A few notes: ‘set global net_buffer_length’ and ‘set global max_allowed_packet’ only apply if your source filename and path are over a network. Also simply omit the ‘CREATE DATABASE my_database;’ line if you already imported the blank schema, or the database already exists.

Monitoring the Progress of a Very Large MySQL Database Import

Previously I have mentioned an awesome little command-line tool called ‘pv’. Recently, I was trying to restore a clients of legacy database on my development machine, which was a staggering 30GB .sql file. I was having quite a few problems trying to wrestle this beast, the worst of which being that I had no idea how much longer the import would take, or if it had locked up. Luckily, PV comes to the rescue.

Normally, when importing a MySQL dump file, you can just type:

mysql -uxxx -pxxx dbname < /sqlfile.sql

…to import directly from the file. However, you can pv the file and pipe it into the mysql executable like:

pv sqlfile.sql | mysql -uxxx -pxxxx dbname

And you will get an awesome progress bar about how completed the task is. You can also use it in the reverse. You’d be surprised how useful it can be.

Hands-down, the BEST way to Install MySQL on Mac OSX Mavericks

I recently had some database woes. I needed to restore a MySQL database of a clients existing website that was dozens of gigabytes in size. I had a great deal of trouble trying to import that data, but that’s a story for another time. This was about getting MySQL installed in the first place (for a development environment).

At first, I tried using Homebrew – because its awesome and I like it. But sadly, for one reason or another the default configuration just wasn’t working for me. It was simple and blind, but too well hidden and I didn’t feel like there was enough “control” (like getting setting/getting the default root password for example). If you’re going to automate something, then automate it – but don’t ask me to run stuff to secure my install when your supposed to be automating it for me.  Bah humbug!

However, the wonderful folks at solved all my problems. It was simply perfection. Exactly the right balance of automation and control.

Just open up Terminal and paste this into it:

bash <(curl -Ls

It will tell you or prompt you for the rest. And don’t forget to get the text file containing the root password, before you mistakenly delete it.

Simplicity itself.

(comic property of

‘belongs_to’ and ‘has_one’ Differentiated

One of the more common confusions with ActiveRecord associations is the difference between the `has_one` and `belongs_to` relationships.

However, they are not interchangeable, and there are some serious differences. A `belongs_to` can only go in the class that holds the foreign key whereas `has_one` means that there is a foreign key in another table that references this class. So `has_one` can only go in a class that is referenced by a column in another table.

So this is wrong:

class Transaction < ActiveRecord::Base
  # The transactions table has a order_id  
  has_one :order                

class Order < ActiveRecord::Base
  # The orders table has a transaction_id
  has_one :transaction          

So is this:

class Transaction < ActiveRecord::Base
  # The transactions table has a order_id
  belongs_to :order             

class Order < ActiveRecord::Base
  # The orders table has a transaction_id
  belongs_to :transaction     

For a two-way association, you need one of each, and they have to go in the right class. Even for a one-way association, it matters which one you use, and which direction you use it:

class Transaction < ActiveRecord::Base
  # This table has no foreign keys
  has_one :order             

class Order < ActiveRecord::Base
  # The orders table has a transaction_id
  belongs_to :transaction     

Convert SQL Server Database to a SQLite Database

Recently, I wanted to resurrect an old project of mine I worked on in my spare time originally designed to work on .Net technologies. Naturally, I backed it against a SQL Server 2005 Database which turned out to be a bad idea because it made portability of that data a bit of a nightmare.

So it was with great happiness that I found this tool (mirrored here) by liron.levi who posted an article on CodeProject on how to accomplish this task. You still need a Windows machine and an install of SQL Server (Express Edition with Advanced Tools is alright) but it got the job done just fine for me.

If you want a no-fuss easy way to convert your databases into a format easier to deal with and a lot more portable to-boot.