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Sum Types in Postgres

At times, representing the variety of types a value can take through multiple tables can taxing, both in terms of development complexity as well as, potentially, performance. You must just need a value to be of any of the given variants. I've set out to build a generalized mechanism for defining these.

Can you give me an example?

Sure. Let's say we want to store geometric primitives1 and be able to find certain shapes with certain properties.

One can put different shapes into different tables or even use multiple columns per shape type. But this makes the schema fairly complicated.

Wouldn't it be cool to just store any shape in a single column?


I am working on making Postgres a full-featured application development platform, so this issue came up a few times. For example, I want to be able to return different kinds of responses to HTTP requests, like upgrading to WebSockets, delaying a response, terminating a connection, etc. The http_response type is limited to conventional responses.

So I thought, is it possible to support this type of thing in Postgres? I develop a number of extensions and have used its C API surface extensively. I was pretty sure this can be achieved! A few days later, the support has materialized.

The basic idea is simple:

  • Register a base type for every sum type and list all variant types OIDs in extension's configuration
  • If all variants are fixed size, sum type is also fixed size of the largest variant (plus discriminant)
  • Use underlying variant type's I/O functions
  • Dispatch I/O and conversion functions to generalized implementations provided by the extension2

It's been a pretty fun experience connecting all the dots and using C API to define types, functions, casts, etc.

The way it works is pretty simple:

omni_types=# select omni_types.sum_type('geom', 'point', 'circle');
(1 row)

Now we have a type we can do something with:

omni_types=# create table geoms as values 

Let's select all shapes that have an X coordinate set to 10:

omni_types=# select * from geoms where
                  (omni_types.variant(column1) = 'point'::regtype 
                   and (column1::point)[0] = 10) 
               or (omni_types.variant(column1) = 'circle'::regtype 
                   and (point(column1::circle))[0] = 10);
(2 rows)

There are still a few issues to work out (adding binary send/recv support, ensuring proper TOAST support, convenience API, etc.) but I think it's a worthy prototype to play with.

Try it out

You can try it out as part of latest Omnigres builds:

docker volume create omnigres
docker run --name omnigres -e POSTGRES_PASSWORD=omnigres -e POSTGRES_USER=omnigres \
                           -e POSTGRES_DB=omnigres --mount source=omnigres,target=/var/lib/postgresql/data \
           -p 5432:5432 -p 8080:8080 --rm
# Now you can connect to it:
psql -h localhost -p 5432 -U omnigres omnigres # password is `omnigres`

In psql:

omnigres=# create extension omni_types;

You can read more about using the sum types in the documentation.

  1. PostGIS has its own geometry type but I am using this is an example. 

  2. omni_types extension in Omnigres