Scalable Real-time Product Search using PostgreSQL with Citus

(Copy of original publication)


This article mentions the Citus Cloud service. We are no longer onboarding new users to Citus Cloud on AWS. If you’re new to Citus, the good news is, Citus is still available to you: as open source, and in the cloud on Microsoft Azure, as a fully-integrated deployment option in Azure Database for PostgreSQL.

See Managed Service.

Product search is a common, yet sometimes challenging use-case for online retailers and marketplaces. It typically involves a combination of full-text search and filtering by attributes which differ for every product category. More complex use-cases may have many sellers that offer the same product, but with a different price and different properties.

PostgreSQL has the functionality required to build a product search application, but performs poorly when indexing and querying large catalogs. With Citus, PostgreSQL can distribute tables and parallelize queries across many servers, which lets you scale out memory and compute power to handle very large catalogs. While the search functionality is not as comprehensive as in dedicated search solutions, a huge benefit of keeping the data in PostgreSQL is that it can be updated in real-time and tables can be joined. This post will go through the steps of setting up an experimental products database with a parallel search function using PostgreSQL and Citus, with the goal of showcasing several powerful features.

We start by setting up a multi-node Citus cluster on EC2 using 4 m3.2xlarge instances as workers. An even easier way to get started is to use Citus Cloud, which gives you a managed Citus cluster with full auto-failover. The main table in our database schema is the “product” table, which contains the name and description of a product, its price, and attributes in JSON format such that different types of products can use different attributes:

CREATE TABLE product (
  product_id int primary key,
  name text not null,
  description text not null,
  price decimal(12,2),
  attributes jsonb

To distribute the table using Citus, we call the functions for Creating and Modifying Distributed Objects (DDL) the table into 16 shards (one per physical core). The shards are distributed and replicated across the 4 workers.

SELECT create_distributed_table('product', 'product_id');

We create a GIN index to allow fast filtering of attributes by the JSONB containment operator. For example, a search query for English books might have the following expression: attributes @> '{"category":"books", "language":"english"}', which can use the GIN index.

CREATE INDEX attributes_idx ON product USING GIN (attributes jsonb_path_ops);

To filter products by their name and description, we use the full text search functions in PostgreSQL to find a match with a user-specified query. A text search operation is performed on a text search vector (tsvector) using a text search query (tsquery). It can be useful to define an intermediate function that generates the tsvector for a product. The product_text_search function below combines the name and description of a product into a tsvector, in which the name is assigned the highest weight (from ‘A’ to ‘D’), such that matches with the name will show up higher when sorting by relevance.

CREATE FUNCTION product_text_search(name text, description text)
RETURNS tsvector LANGUAGE sql IMMUTABLE AS $function$
  SELECT setweight(to_tsvector(name),'A') ||

After setting up the function, we define a GIN index on it, which speeds up text searches on the product table.

CREATE INDEX text_idx ON product USING GIN (product_text_search(name, description));

We don’t have a large product dataset available, so instead we generate 10 million mock products (7GB) by appending random words to generate names, descriptions, and attributes, using a simple generator function. This is probably not be the fastest way to generate mock data, but we’re PostgreSQL geeks :). After adding some words to the words table, we can run:

\COPY (SELECT * FROM generate_products(10000000)) TO '/data/base/products.tsv'

The new COPY feature in Citus can be used to load the data into the product table. COPY for hash-partitioned tables is currently available in the latest version of Citus and in Citus Cloud. A benefit of using COPY on distributed tables is that workers can process multiple rows in parallel. Because each shard is indexed separately, the indexes are also kept small, which improves ingestion rate for GIN indexes.

\COPY product FROM '/data/base/products.tsv'

The data load takes just under 7 minutes; roughly 25,000 rows/sec on average. We also loaded data into a regular PostgreSQL table in 45 minutes (3,700 rows/sec) by creating the index after copying in the data.

Now let’s search products! Assume the user is searching for “copper oven”. We can convert the phrase into a tsquery using the plainto_tsquery function and match it to the name and description using the @@ operator. As an additional filter, we require that the “food” attribute of the product is either “waste” or “air”. We’re using very random words :). To order the query by relevance, we can use the ts_rank function, which takes the tsvector and tsquery as input.

SELECT p.product_id,, p.price
FROM product p
WHERE product_text_search(name, description) @@ plainto_tsquery('copper oven')
  AND (attributes @> '{"food":"waste"}' OR attributes @> '{"food":"air"}')
ORDER BY ts_rank(product_text_search(name, description),
                 plainto_tsquery('copper oven')) DESC
 product_id |         name         | price
    2016884 | oven copper hot      | 32.33
    8264220 | rifle copper oven    | 92.11
    4021935 | argument chin rub    | 79.33
    5347636 | oven approval circle | 50.78
(4 rows)

Time: 68.832 ms (~78ms on non-distributed table)

The query above uses both GIN indexes to do a very fast look-up of a small number of rows. A much broader search can take longer because of the need to sort all the results by their rank. For example, the following query has 294,000 results that it needs to sort to get the first 10:

SELECT p.product_id,, p.price
FROM product p
WHERE product_text_search(name, description) @@ plainto_tsquery('oven')
  AND price < 50
ORDER BY ts_rank(product_text_search(name, description),
                 plainto_tsquery('oven')) DESC
 product_id |         name         | price
    6295883 | end oven oven        |  7.80
    3304889 | oven punishment oven | 28.27
    2291463 | town oven oven       |  7.47
(10 rows)

Time: 2262.502 ms (37 seconds on non-distributed table)

This query gets the top 10 results from each of the 16 shards, which is where the majority of time is spent, and the master sorts the final 160 rows. By using more machines and more shards, the number of rows that needs to be sorted in each shard is lowered significantly, but the amount of sorting work done by the master is still trivially small. This means that we can get significantly lower query times by using a bigger cluster with more shards.

In addition to products, imagine the retailer also has a marketplace where third-party sellers can offer products at different prices. Those offers should also show up in searches if their price is under the maximum. A product can have many such offers. We create an additional distributed table, which we distribute by product_id and assign the same number of shards, such that we can perform joins on the co-located product / offer tables on product_id.

  product_id int not null,
  offer_id int not null,
  seller_id int,
  price decimal(12,2),
  new bool,
  primary key(product_id, offer_id)
SELECT create_distributed_table('offer', 'product_id');

We load 5 million random offers generated using the generate_offers function and COPY. The following query searches for popcorn oven products priced under $70, including products with offers under $70. Offers are included in the results as an array of JSON objects.

SELECT p.product_id,, p.price, to_json(array_agg(to_json(o)))
FROM   product p LEFT JOIN offer o USING (product_id)
WHERE  product_text_search(, p.description) @@ plainto_tsquery('popcorn oven')
  AND (p.price < 70 OR o.price < 70)
GROUP BY p.product_id,, p.description, p.price
ORDER BY ts_rank(product_text_search(, p.description),
                 plainto_tsquery('popcorn oven')) DESC
 product_id |          name          | price |                                        to_json
    9354998 | oven popcorn bridge    | 41.18 | [null]
    1172380 | gate oven popcorn      | 24.12 | [{"product_id":1172380,"offer_id":4853987,"seller_id":2088,"price":55.00,"new":true}]
     985098 | popcorn oven scent     | 73.32 | [{"product_id":985098,"offer_id":5890813,"seller_id":5727,"price":67.00,"new":true}]
(10 rows)

Time: 337.441 ms (4 seconds on non-distributed tables)

Given the wide array of features available in PostgreSQL, we can keep making further enhancements. For example, we could convert the entire row to JSON, or add a filter to only return reasonably close matches, and we could make sure only lowest priced offers are included in the results. We can also start doing real-time inserts and updates in the product and offer tables.