Given a table like so:

CREATE TABLE attr (user_id uuid, key text, value text);

with indexes on key and value (but not a combined index) what are my options for getting a list of distinct values by key, without also destroying write performance? The obvious SELECT DISTINCT value WHERE key = :key is not cutting it performance-wise (currently the table is at ~20M rows, the actual table in production has more columns but is semantically similar).

I could maintain a separate table of the distinct values, which is easy enough to append to but is hard to determine when there are no longer any rows with the corresponding value in the attr table. I don't expect a lot of values to become "stale" given the nature of my data (user attributes) but it is possible, and I'd like to avoid having to manually clean it up!

  • An index on key?
    – user1822
    Jun 7, 2022 at 14:45
  • Already indexes on key and value, although no index (key, value) Jun 7, 2022 at 15:07
  • It seems like you know the answer already, a combined index on (key, value). So why not just try it? It might not be as good as the skip scan emulation, but will be much simpler and probably good enough.
    – jjanes
    Jun 7, 2022 at 20:54

1 Answer 1


Assuming many entries for the same (key, value), an emulated index skip scan should be your best option.

   (   -- parentheses required
   SELECT value
   FROM   attr
   WHERE  key = :key
   ORDER  BY 1
   LIMIT  1
   SELECT l.*
   FROM   cte c
      SELECT a.value
      FROM   attr a
      WHERE  a.key = :key
      AND    a.value > c.value  -- lateral reference
      ORDER  BY 1
      LIMIT  1
      ) l
TABLE  cte;


You need the multicolumn index on (key, value) for best performance. You might replace the one on just (key) with it. See:

If values are sparse (only few duplicates on (key, value)), your current query with DISTINCT is the optimum. (Ruling out an additional table or materialized view with distinct entries.) See:

Aside 1: UUID seems like overkill for a user_id, but you probably have your reasons.

Aside 2: If key names are not very short, storing them in a key table (once) and just using integer key_id in attr should be more efficient: smaller table and index - keyword "database normalization".

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.