As far as I understand, the fact that our query is waiting for a lock means it has always been waiting for a lock, and it has never changed anything.
Right -- if you see that pg_stat_activity.waiting is "true" for an ALTER TABLE, that almost certainly means that it's patiently waiting for the ACCESS EXCLUSIVE lock on its target table, and its real work (rewriting the table if necessary, changing catalogs, rebuilding indexes, etc.) hasn't started yet.
Is it safe for us to outright cancel our ALTER TABLE query? Or is it possible that the query has already modified something and cancelling it would leave our database in a halfway state of some kind?
Canceling queries (or, equivalently, rolling back a transaction) in PostgreSQL doesn't have any database corruption hazards which you might have been spooked by in certain other databases (e.g. the terrifying warning at the bottom of this page). That's why non-superusers are, in recent versions, free to use
pg_terminate_backend() to kill their own queries running in other backends -- they are safe to use without fretting about database corruption. After all, PostgreSQL has to be prepared to deal with any process getting killed off e.g. SIGKILL from the OOM killer, server shutdown, etc. That's what the WAL log is for.
You may have also seen that in PostgreSQL, it's possible to perform most DDL commands nested inside a (multi-statement) transaction, e.g.
ALTER TABLE foo ...;
ALTER TABLE bar ...;
-- more stuff
COMMIT; -- or ROLLBACK; if you've changed your mind
(awesome for making sure that schema migrations go in either all-together or not at all.) You said, though:
We did not wrap the
ALTER TABLE in a transaction.
That's fine for a single command -- from the docs,
PostgreSQL actually treats every SQL statement as being executed within a transaction. If you do not issue a BEGIN command, then each individual statement has an implicit BEGIN and (if successful) COMMIT wrapped around it. A group of statements surrounded by BEGIN and COMMIT is sometimes called a transaction block.
So canceling that
ALTER TABLE, either through
pg_cancel_backend() or a Ctrl-C issued from the controlling psql prompt, will have a similar effect as if you had done
ALTER TABLE ... ;
(though as you hopefully got to see, canceling that expensive
ALTER TABLE can save the database from a lot of unnecessary grinding if you're just going to