Written by Ming Ying on October 1, 2023

With the release of v0.6.0, which marks the first stable release of the ParadeDB full-text search extension, we have renamed pg_bm25 to pg_search.

We’re unveiling pg_search: a Rust-based Postgres extension that significantly improves Postgres’ full text search capabilities. pg_search is named after BM25, the algorithm used by modern search engines to calculate the relevance scores of search results.

Today, Postgres’ native full text search, which uses the tsvector type, has two main problems:

  1. Performance: Searching and ranking over large tables is sluggish. When tables grow to millions of rows, a single full text search can take several minutes.
  2. Functionality: Postgres has no support for operations like fuzzy search, relevance tuning, or BM25 relevance scoring, which are the bread and butter of modern search engines.

pg_search aims to bridge the gap between the native capabilities of Postgres’ full text search and those of a specialized search engine like Elasticsearch. The goal is to eliminate the need to bring a cumbersome service like Elasticsearch into the data stack.

Some features of pg_search include:

  • 100% Postgres native, with zero dependencies on an external search engine
  • Built on top of Tantivy, a Rust-based alternative to the Apache Lucene search library
  • Query times over 1M rows are 20x faster compared to tsquery and ts_rank, Postgres’ built-in full text search and sort functions
  • Support for fuzzy search, aggregations, highlighting, and relevance tuning
  • Relevance scoring uses BM25, the same algorithm used by Elasticsearch
  • Real-time search — new data is immediately searchable without manual reindexing

pg_search stands on the shoulders of several open-source giants. The goal of this blog post is to recognize these projects and to share how pg_search was built.

The Shoulders of Giants

Putting a search engine inside of Postgres is hard. A few projects have attempted it, but with one caveat: every single one has relied on an external Elasticsearch instance. This means introducing a complex and expensive piece of infrastructure into the data stack. Perhaps the best-known example of this kind of design is a Postgres extension called ZomboDB.

In 2016, an open source search library called Tantivy emerged. Tantivy was designed as a Rust-based alternative to Apache Lucene, the search library that powers Elasticsearch. Three years later, a library called pgrx — built by the same author of ZomboDB — made it possible to build Postgres extensions in Rust. Combined, these projects laid the groundwork for a Postgres extension that could create Elastic-quality search experiences within Postgres.

Creating the Inverted Index

Like Elasticsearch, the backbone of Tantivy’s search engine is a data structure called the inverted index, which stores a mapping from words to their locations in a set of documents. An inverted index is like the table of contents of a book — without it, you might have to examine every page to find a specific chapter.

Rather than creating this inverted index externally, pg_search stores the index inside Postgres as a new, Postgres-native index type, which we call the BM25 index. This is made possible through Postgres’ index access method API.

When a BM25 index is created, Postgres automatically updates it as new data arrives or is deleted in the underlying SQL table. In this way, pg_search enables real-time search without any additional reindexing logic.

Building the SQL Interface

Following index creation, the next step was to expose an intuitive SQL interface for users to write search queries. This was accomplished through the Postgres operator API, which enables the creation of custom Postgres operators. We chose the @@@ operator to signify the beginning of a query to the BM25 index in homage to the @@ operator used by Postgres’ native full text search.

The end result is the ability to search any table with a single SQL query.

FROM my_table
WHERE my_table @@@ ('idx_mock_items', '"my query string"')

Wherever possible, we designed the SQL interface, ParadeQL, to transparently mirror Tantivy’s API. For instance, the right-hand side of the @@@ operator accepts Tantivy’s mini query language and configuration options.

FROM my_table
WHERE my_table @@@ 'description:keyboard^2 OR electronics:::fuzzy_fields=description&distance=2'

Performance Benchmarks

On a table with one million rows, pg_search indexes 50 seconds faster than tsvector and ranks results 20x faster. Indexing and search times are nearly identical to those of a dedicated Elasticsearch instance. With further optimizations, we’re aiming to reduce the query times compared to Elasticsearch by an additional 2x.

More detailed benchmark results can be found in the README.

Wrapping Up

pg_search is ready for use today. There are two ways to try it: installing it inside an existing, self-hosted Postgres instance, or running the Postgres Docker image.

pg_search is open-source and licensed under AGPL. If you’d like to contribute, the best place to start is our Slack community. And please don’t hesitate to show your support by giving us a star!